THE NEW YORKER magazine had a seasonally themed cover planned for its latest issue. But that was before the Queen of Soul died.

On Thursday, when editor David Remnick “heard the news, he asked whether we still had time to yank the summer cover,” Françoise Mouly, the magazine’s art editor, tells The Washington Post’s Comic Riffs.

The deadline was tight, but Mouly knew she could turn to acclaimed illustrator Kadir Nelson, a two-time Caldecott Honor Award recipient who has beautifully rendered some of the most iconic black leaders and performers in American history.

But how to pay visual tribute to Aretha Franklin, who died Thursday at age 76, with no time to spare?

“Nelson rose to the challenge and started sketching,” Mouly recounts. “The simplicity of Nelson’s expressive pencil lines perfectly captures the magic of this great American icon.”

Nelson gravitated toward the fact that Franklin was a preacher’s daughter and that her legendary voice had its roots in the church.

Nelson is no stranger to drawing great musical stars. Years ago, he painted a soulful contemporary of Franklin’s: the Motown legend Marvin Gaye. That work directly led to Nelson receiving a personal request: Shortly before he died, Michael Jackson asked the artist to paint him. The posthumous painting became the regal album cover montage art for 2010’s “Michael.”

Having rendered the King of Pop — as well as Drake for the 2013 album “Nothing Was the Same” — where might Nelson find the artistic spark to represent the Queen of Soul?


“The Queen of Soul,” by Kadir Nelson (The New Yorker, 2018)

“I drew inspiration from a beautiful [1957] ink drawing titled ‘Folksinger,’ by master artist Charles White,” Nelson, who was born in Silver Spring, Md., and raised in the Washington area, tells The Post.

“Although Franklin and White practiced different disciplines, I felt it was appropriate to bring them together here,” Nelson continues, “as they were contemporaries, and both of their bodies of work are very soulful.”

Nelson’s cover, titled “The Queen of Soul,” hits newsstands next week.

“Folksinger” will go on view in October as part of MoMA’s “Charles White: A Retrospective.”


Kadir Nelson’s new Aretha Franklin tribute visually quotes the 1957 Charles White work “Folksinger (Voice of Jericho: Portrait of Harry Belafonte),” above. (Ink and colored ink with white additions on board; Collection of Pamela and Harry Belafonte, photo by Christopher Burke Studio, the Charles White Archives)

The roster of icons that Nelson has painted includes Harriet Tubman, Nelson Mandela, Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson, and President Barack Obama. And his book “We Are the Ship: The Story Of Negro League Baseball” was sparked by a U.S. Postal Service commission.

In Nelson’s own hometown, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery and National Museum of African American History and Culture recently acquired his 2017 portrait of Henrietta Lacks, which is on display on the National Portrait Gallery until Nov. 4.

Nelson has also created a host of memorable New Yorker covers, notably depicting American scenes of spring and summer with emotional and pictorial warmth.

Read more:

Aretha Franklin, music’s ‘Queen of Soul,’ dies at 76

How Aretha Franklin’s ‘Respect’ became an anthem for civil rights and feminism