By Maureen Lee Lenker
March 17, 2021 at 08:30 AM EDT

You better think… about the first time you heard the incomparable music of Aretha Franklin.

For the cast members and creator of National Geographic's Genius: Aretha, the moments are etched on their brains. Even if it's hard for them to imagine a time in their lives without her music.

Star Cynthia Erivo, who plays Franklin in the limited series, first discovered the Queen of Soul when she was 9 or 10, on the way to school. "I was in the back of my mum's Ford car, we were driving to school, I remember the car was blue, and we listened to this radio station called Magic FM," she tells EW. "One day we're driving on the way to school, and I want to say it was 'Think,' by Aretha, that came on the radio, and I was like, 'What is this music and who is this person's voice?'"

Within the same car trip, "Sisters Are Doing It for Themselves" came on, and the range in Franklin's voice and storytelling hooked Erivo from that moment on. "I just fell in love and started finding all the songs I possibly could find," she recalls. "I just fell deeply in love with her voice."

Genius: Aretha
Credit: National Geographic/Richard DuCree

Shaian Jordan, who portrays a younger version of Franklin in the series, also grew up listening to her music, and remembers her grandma playing it frequently.

Courtney B. Vance, who plays Franklin's father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, considers Franklin an essential part of his roots. "I'm from Detroit, so we grew up with all that music, and I don't remember a time ever not hearing it," he says. "I lived about a mile away from the church, come to find out, but I never went over there 'cause I was 7."

Creator Suzan-Lori Parks says Franklin's music is a part of the fabric of her life, the type of songs that take you back to the exact moment of a memory you've associated with hearing it. "My aunts, after church, they would have their pocketbooks and they'd bring over their 45s and they'd put them on the turntable, and they'd teach us how to dance to Aretha Franklin's music," she remembers.

Though Franklin's music was warmly familiar to the entire team, the production process came with some unexpected bumps along the way. Namely that the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted their shooting process, causing them to hit pause for several months.

Erivo found the extra time a boon to her performance. "The relationship with myself and Aretha in this space became a little bit more concrete," she says. "I was able to make decisions faster. I knew the way I wanted to say something, what rhythm I wanted to say it with, or the intention behind something. It felt like it had settled in far more than it had previously. It actually was really helpful to have that time."

Parks echoes the sentiment. "The COVID shutdown did allow us to strengthen the story," she admits. "I did a lot of rewriting, a lot more research."

Both Jordan and Vance say the biggest challenge was just adjusting to the new safety protocols on set and how that affected things like big crowd scenes. "We had to cut parts of the script," Parks says. "I had to go through and cut scenes. The story is strong enough that it does hold together beautifully, but there were a lot of party scenes where there were going to be a lot of people and it wasn't going to be safe, so we had to reconceptualize those scenes."

Perhaps the greatest impact of the nearly five-month break was what happened concurrently with the COVID-19 pandemic, which was an eruption of activism, protest, and calls for social justice in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. The movement picked up the mantle of the civil rights efforts of the 1960s, which forms a core part of the series' storytelling.

"It felt right and perfect for the moment we were in, to be able to tell the story about where she was in the music and the reason why she was making some of the music she was making and the decisions she was making," Erivo reflects. "We were sort of mirroring the experience that was happening at that time in the very moment that we were living through. It felt like this was an even more important story to tell today because of the way in which she was determined to be a part of that moment."

Genius: Aretha premieres Sunday, March 21, at 9 p.m. ET on National Geographic. Watch the video above for more.

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