Aretha Franklin always had a soft spot for The Associated Press; over the years, she would seek out global Entertainment Editor Nekesa Mumbi Moody to chat – “We spoke when she was working on new music, or about an upcoming performance (like when she sang for the pope in 2015) or even her fitness plan and weight loss,” Moody recalled. Music editor Mesfin Fekadu, too, had interviewed Franklin, and witnessed her last public performance last November.
So when the Queen of Soul was in her last days, her people knew who to call. The result: Fekadu was so far ahead with Franklin’s death that that the news was widely attributed to the AP, even by at least one competitor. His news break is the Beat of the Week.
The death of the first woman selected for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – the one-of-a-kind star who made “Respect” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” cultural touchstones – would be enormous news. From the moment earlier in the week when reports circulated that Franklin was seriously ill, Fekadu made it a top priority to keep in touch with Franklin’s people. First, he got the first official confirmation from the family of her illness, and then he checked in at least daily for any updates.
The first night he barely slept, waiting for a promised call that would inform the AP when Franklin died. Other nights, he slept wearing his earphones in to make sure he wouldn't miss a call. He and Moody coordinated when he would be on the subway, so one of them would be reachable.
The morning of Franklin’s death, family representative Gwendolyn Quinn called Fekadu and told him to stay close to the phone.
Fekadu and Moody coordinated when Mesfin would be on the subway, so one of them would always be reachable by phone.
Finally, the call came. Quinn read a statement: “We have lost the matriarch and rock of our family.” For the first time, she revealed that Franklin had had pancreatic cancer.
The bulletin moved less than 10 minutes after the official time of death; even Reuters credited the AP.
In the aftermath of the breaking news announcement, the AP rolled out full coverage: obituaries by Hillel Italie; two pieces by Moody, including a remembrance of interviews she had had with the singer and an interview with a television producer who helped create some of her most magical performances; stories on her hometown of Detroit, her role in the civil rights movement and her position as a feminist heroine.
But it all started with Fekadu’s efforts. For persistence which put the AP ahead of the pack on the death of a diva, Fekadu wins this week’s Beat of the Week.