The sound of music: Live performances return to the Aretha Franklin Amphitheatre

As people filed into the legendary Aretha Franklin Amphitheater, formerly Chene Park on Wednesday night to see Sheila E, the excitement was etched on their faces. The legendary percussionist would be the first headliner at the venue since September 2019. 

Acclaimed photographer Monica Morgan calls her camera her “superpower.” She was thrilled to back taking pictures of live performances again. Photo by Monica Morgan.

When Governor Whitmer shut down the state of Michigan to slow the spread of the deadly coronavirus, live performances were the first to go. Even before a statewide mandate, private businesses like The Fox Theater and Michigan Opera Theatre were canceling shows. 

As the months dragged on, it became obvious that shows at the Aretha wouldn’t return even though the venue is outdoors. The risk was just too much. That meant returning tickets sold, canceling sponsor arrangements, and canceling contracts with artists and performers. 

On Wednesday, July 7, 2021, the music returned.

The first act to grace the stage named after the Queen of Soul was Monica Blaire. A beloved soulful singer, Blaire engaged the crowd with her artful vocal range and stage presence. Before the show, she told Model D how much of an honor it was to be performing. “In some ways,” she said, “this show feels sacred.”

“It’s an opportunity to turn our faces to joy after all that has happened over the last year or so.” She added that for her, “it feels like a return to self, in the most loving and authentic way I can think of. I’m thankful to see the international talent and foundational, Black-owned venues be able to weather the storm and strike up the band again. This is the party I’ve been waiting more than a year for.” 

And she wasn’t the only one. Shahida Mausi—the President and CEO of The Right Productions which manages Chene Park took to the stage to thank the people who supported her company through the pandemic. 

The incomparable Sheila E wore a shirt belonging to Prince. The Purple Rain tour in 1984 kicked off in Detroit on November 4, 1984. The percussionist called her return to The Aretha post-COVID “a full-circle moment.” Photo by Monica Morgan.

Mausi first thanked the audiences, the ones there that night and those people who had tickets last season and waited patiently for refunds. She thanked her vendors, the artists who had events canceled. She thanked the presenting sponsor, Huntington Bank which, she said, stood by her through the challenging canceled season. 

She also thanked Monica Blaire for being the first artist to grace the stage after more than a year, and she had a gift for the first couple to arrive that night. 

In a brief statement to Model D, Mausi said that “The Aretha is excited to be back to offer a full season of the best entertainment anywhere.” She encouraged fans to visit their social media pages for links to buy tickets. 

The spirit of gratitude continued. Kelly Holmes, who co-hosted alongside Chris Campbell, urged the audience to stand up and applaud the return of the music. “We are blessed,” he said. “We made it y’all… I lost… you know what I’m not even gonna talk about it.” 

Detroit’s own Monica Blaire said that her return to performing felt like “a sacred moment.” Photo by Monica Morgan.

Illustrious photographer Monica Morgan shared her images with us. She said in a statement, “COVID-19 and the quarantine has changed our lives forever… it felt great to be at the Aretha Franklin Amphitheatre again, surrounded by people and doing what I love. The camera is my superpower!” 

Legendary performer Sheila E was the first major act for the Wednesday night jazz series at The Aretha. The Queen of Percussion gave a show that was energizing, engaging and soulful.

Toward the end of her set, she played “When the Saints Go Marching In,” followed by “What the World Needs Now is Love.” The energy felt optimistic and uplifting. All around the venue, people were hugging and smiling at one another. 

It truly was a night to remember. 

And the best part is, hopefully, there will be a lot more of them. 

The official website of the Aretha Franklin Amphitheatre can be found here, and follow them on Instagram @thearethalive

Read more articles by Biba Adams.

Biba Adams is Model D's Editor at Large. She is a longtime journalist whose work is fueled by her passion for people and her native Detroit. Her work has appeared in VIBE, Ebony Magazine, TheGrio, and more. Find her on all social channels @BibatheDiva.
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