Revolution #76, January 14, 2007


The Ironic Legacy of James Brown

I was a young teenager when I first saw James Brown and The Famous Flames live and in living color at the Oakland Auditorium. In those days his audience was almost if not exclusively Black youth.

I could not get any of my friends to go with me because they feared we would get into a rumble with cats from Oakland because we were from Berkeley and they would consider it a provocation and challenge if we showed up on “their turf.”

This was early James Brown. Before he created all those funky rhythms and grooves. This was a chance in a lifetime as I saw it, and way too important to let some petty squabble stand in the way of missing this.

I was not disappointed. The band—horn section, guitars, drums. The Famous Flames with their harmonizing backup singing and dancing. The singing, dancing, the blinding footwork of James Brown himself, skating, gliding across the stage on one leg. Moon walking before there was the moon walk, doing the splits, and all the while the band is jamming and the Flames are crooning. It was raw, full of life, full of energy and emotion—you did not want it to end.

The high point for me was the end. When James Brown did “Please, Please Please.” He grabbed the mike, fell to his knees and belted this out. This went on for 15 to 20 minutes. At different times during this, a “cape-man” would come to the front of the stage where James Brown was kneeling—he would put the cape over James Brown’s shoulders and lead James Brown off the stage, all the while the Flames are still singing and dancing, the band is still playing, and James Brown is singing, moaning, and groaning as he kinda limped off in pain over his lost love—suddenly he would throw off the cape, run back to the front of the stage, go down on his knees again and continue the song. This is how he closed his show in those days and this routine he would do repeatedly in the course of this song—he would be drenched in sweat and emotionally drained—as so was the audience.

James Brown and Motown

Berry Gordy, who was the owner of Motown, wanted James Brown to join his label. James was playing for a smaller label and could have gotten more exposure and probably made more money by signing with Motown. But he refused because, as he said, Gordy’s “…acts were a little too soft for me: too much pop, not enough soul. I was way too raw for the kind of polished music they were willing to do. For instance, they had their choreography, which was great, but it was too rehearsed, down to the last toe-step. Mine was different, spontaneous, and no two nights the same. Mine didn’t come from a rehearsal hall—it came from my heart and soul, and there was no way I was ever going to change that, for Motown or anywhere else.” Another thing that did not sit well with James was that Gordy took the bass out of all of his singles. “…To me, the bass was like the heartbeat, the essence of the rhythm, the place where the flow of any song comes from… I could never be part of what they were in to. Under Mr. Gordy’s strict, hands on direction, the Motown show and catalogue were shaped around pop, and their acts were made like minstrels. They were like the caviar of Black music, while I, on the other hand, was strictly soul food.” (Quotes from James Brown in this article are from I Feel Good: A Memoir of a Life of Soul, by James Brown with an introduction by Marc Eliot.)

This is what he was aiming for. To make everybody to take it as it really is…funky.

The Civil Rights Movement and Soul Music

The Civil Rights movement developed—with Black people rising up against all that racist Jim Crow terror, segregation and humiliation, and instead demanding to be treated with equality—and it was moving north, into the ghetto. The music of James Brown became like a sound track of the time.

In his words: “…soul became the perfect marching music for the civil rights era, a way to choreograph the burgeoning pride that could be found everywhere. It was, to me, like the jump beat that we always saw in the films from Africa, when the Blacks were organizing against apartheid. We’d always see them jumping in place, with the sound of the drum beneath them, giving them weight, lending them focus, providing them unity.

“What had always bothered me most about the early days of the civil rights movement was that there was still no organized, external way for Black people to get together and express their anger and frustration as a unit after four centuries of being the white man’s punching bag. Saying, ‘Stop hitting me’ was the most difficult thing to get Black people to do, especially in the South, where I came from. That was one of the things I most wanted to do through my music—to teach Black people how to very nicely say, ‘I’m sorry but you’re not going to do that to me anymore, I’m too strong, I’m too young, I’m too tough, and most of all I’m too proud.’ “

Say It Loud. I’m Black and I’m Proud!

In his search to say: “funk it!” he began to dabble with and develop the “One.” It’s the downbeat. ONE two THREE four, not the upbeat—one TWO three FOUR—that most blues is written in. It was not just a beat as he saw it, but a statement of a culture, of force, of stature and stride.

He first put this out there when he released “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag in ’65. He developed it further with “I Feel Good.” Like anything that is new it had to fight to be born. People in the band could not understand it. Some of them and his manager at the time were against making this change. He ended up changing managers and brought in some new band members. The One, the funk was fully developed by the time he did “Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud!”

This change in music came during a time when the youth in the Civil Rights movement were beginning to openly refer to themselves as Black people—taking pride in their “nappy hair” with the wearing of Afros, in their African features and their dark skin complexion. In their culture and music. Things that before were looked at, enforced and institutionalized by the system as proof of the inferiority, sub-human status of Black people. Blacks could not drink from same water faucet as whites. Could not be served in same restaurants and stay in same hotels as whites. Could not go to the same schools. Death was the penalty for violating these laws. And now all that was being resisted. Hard.

The whole society was being shaken up and made to shimmy and the struggle of Black people was at the center of it. Now when you went to a James Brown concert or some other soul or funk performer you would see every race of people in attendance.

All this was influencing James Brown. In 1966 he did a benefit at the March Against Fear in Mississippi in support of James Meredith who was the first Black to integrate the University of Mississippi—and who was leading other marches for integration when he was shot down by those trying to hold onto the old order of things.

He gave money to the civil rights organizations and even gave money to the H. Rap Brown Defense Committee. Even though he sharply disagreed with the militancy and radicalism of Rap—he thought Rap should have the right to express his views.

It was after the assassination of Martin Luther King in ’68 that James Brown came out with “Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud.” Black people had risen up in rebellion in over 100 cities—shaking U.S. society of white supremacy, capitalism and imperialism to its very foundations. There were fires of rebellion only blocks from the White House. People took a lot of pride in this! Pride in having risen up in a mighty storm that was not going to take it anymore, pride in being identified with others in this society who were standing up and fighting against oppression, pride in being identified with people in places like Vietnam who were fighting a revolutionary people’s war against being dominated and oppressed by U.S. society. Pride in being identified with people throughout the “Third World” who were rising up singing but doing some swinging to back that up.

He intended for the song to be a rallying cry for some kind of “peaceful” self-pride. But just the opposite was happening. The masses gave it a different meaning, one of resistance—people were taking the stronger part of his message and running with it. And he thought the fact that the song had been turned into the anthem of militancy and revolutionary sentiment negated the “peaceful and positive” message he intended to deliver with it. And he ended up working with “the man” against the people. The night Martin Luther King was assassinated, Brown was scheduled to do a live performance in Boston. The mayor there was worried that people would take to the streets and called on Brown to be a “fireman” to help “save the city” from erupting. Brown did a televised performance in which he basically cooled out people’s anger, calling on people to stay home and remain calm. And then the next day he went to DC and got on the radio to urge restraint and went into the streets and told people to stop rebelling.

James Brown and Wanting “In”

Even during this earlier period, James Brown divided into two, as Maoists say. That means that he had a strong negative side going on as well as the positive. For one thing, there was his “It’s a Man’s World” stuff, pushing sexism and male supremacy. And even then, in his better day, he criticized the more militant and revolutionary trend among Black people. In his book, he recalled that “I was more for winning a slice of that very sweet American pie called success for my people. I wanted us to be brought in, not shut out. And I figured I could do that as I always did: with my music…”

Shortly after “I’m Black and I’m Proud,” this other side began to dominate. This led him into all kinds of stuff that was backward and frankly reactionary and damaging to the people: going to Vietnam to “entertain the troops,” at a time when those troops were carrying out a genocidal war and, especially among Black troops, were themselves often rebelling. Pushing patriotism when people were getting more and more alienated from the country, learning its true nature and history. Campaigning for the Democrat Hubert Humphrey in 1968 (after Humphrey’s boss Johnson had not only sent troops to Vietnam but into the ghettos). Getting behind Richard Nixon. Promoting Black capitalism as the way out. And so on.

Singers like Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder and Curtis Mayfield, War, the O’Jays, and Sly and the Family Stone were getting into some deeper stuff about America in their music. But James Brown was going in the opposite direction, not just in his music but in the way he was representing in society. He even crowed: “Our country is the best. No one has been able to successfully challenge our society or bring down our system of law and order…” He became known for his song, “Living in America” which he and his entourage performed on stage or in parades dressed in red, white and blue costumes. This was not about “pride” but shameless groveling.

Bitter Irony

There was an irony here. The reforms coming off the ’60s meant that a section of Black people were allowed to “move on up,” while the rest were driven into deeper poverty and despair. But even those Blacks who accumulate a little capital under this system are not secure and they become less secure as time goes on.

Like James Brown in 1988, when the police stopped him late at night on a isolated road. Shot over 20 rounds into his truck. And then reloaded—the only thing that saved James Brown was him speeding away before they could reload. They did not care how successful he was, or how much he loved this country. They gave him 2 to 5 years in the state pen. This was “our system of law and order” that he had found himself praising.

At one time James Brown and his music, the soul, and then the funk, reflected Black people’s hopes and dreams to be free. That’s the main reason so many came out in Harlem and Augusta to commemorate him.

Those hopes and dreams still wait to be fulfilled.

Think! It’s gonna take a brand new bag.

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