As the granddaughter of gospel icon Aretha Franklin, music runs in Grace Franklin's family.
And in Sunday's season premiere of "American Idol," Grace, then 15, auditioned for the singing competition not only to continue her grandmother's legacy, but also to show the world her own distinct style.
“I feel like people expect me to sing, like, exactly like her,” she said. “But I am my own artist, and I have my own voice.”
Grace performed a rendition of the Fugees' version of "Killing Me Softly with His Song," showing off her rich voice and gentle riffs, a contrast to her grandmother's powerful belts that solidified her status as the Queen of Soul. And the judges saw potential stardom in Grace's future.
Just not yet.
During the audition, the teen sang with her eyes closed, feeling the soulful track. Judge Lionel Richie commented she must have been a “nervous wreck."
Luke Bryan called the performance “sleepy and subdued.” Katy Perry added that her singing was “soft,” before asking if she had any additional songs prepared.
For her second audition performance, Grace sang “Ain’t No Way,” a slow jazzy song originally sung by none other than Aretha Franklin herself.
“It feels appropriate,” Perry remarked.
In that rendition, she belted the words for a strong opening before slipping into a softer, higher tone, finishing the song to Perry’s encouragement of “you can do it.”
After her second song, Bryan complimented her “controlled” runs but maintained that she needed to add command to her performance.
Richie then delivered his feedback from the perspective of “Uncle Richie,” as a former friend of Aretha Franklin’s.
“Her line was, ‘If you’re not ready for me, baby, don’t come near me,’” Richie said. “Now, you’re 15, you’ve got the family lineage, OK? What we need to put now is time and some work in to get it up to par.”
When it came down to voting on whether or not Grace would advance to the Hollywood round, Bryan started with a “no.”
But Perry said that Grace has “stardust and sparkle” all over and believed that under the guidance of the judges, Grace could reach the “next level,” giving her a “yes.”
Richie, however, maintained that Grace should take more time to develop her voice, sparking a heated debate with Perry, who pleaded for him to “give her a chance.”
“I’m sure Aretha wasn’t Aretha when she walked into the room but somebody said ‘yes,’” Perry said in an impassioned appeal to Richie.
But Richie maintained his stance, clarifying that while it’s a “no” this time, it’s also an optimistic “come back and see us,” before giving Grace a hug.
“Trust me, if you go and come back and put the shyness behind you and the voice in front of you, you are going to be something amazing,” he said. “And I don’t want to be the one to make you tip over and fall at this infant stage.”
Perry walked out of the audition room as Grace learned she would not advance to the next round of competition.
“There’s something wrong with your ears,” Perry said to her fellow judges as she left.
Grace's father is Kecalf Cunningham, Aretha Franklin's youngest son. Grace explained in a prerecorded interview that aired before her audition that she grew up traveling often with her grandmother. It took time for her to realize just how famous and influential Aretha Franklin was because to Grace, she was always just "grandma," the teen said.
Aretha Franklin died in 2018 at age 76 due to advanced pancreatic cancer. Grace's audition comes amid renewed interest in the life of the Queen of Soul due to the release of the biopic "Respect" last August. It starred Jennifer Hudson, who was snubbed when the 2022 Oscar nominations were announced earlier this month.
"Respect" follows Aretha Franklin's rise from a 10-year-old singing in the church choir to her reign as the Queen of Soul. She personally chose Hudson for the role.
"It’s a lot of layers, especially with someone such as Aretha Franklin,” Hudson told the 3rd hour of TODAY in February 2021. “Where do you even begin? And with the lifespan of a career like that, it’s a lot to take in and detail as much as you can as an actress."