Wednesday, January 03, 2007
Thank You, James Brown - For Your Genius, For Your Music and For Being Black and Proud
Wednesday, December 27, 2006
By: Tonyaa Weathersbee, BlackAmericaWeb.com
James Brown lived his life -- and departed it -- in a way that could have come straight out of a Toni Morrison novel.
The Godfather of Soul was born in a one-room shack in 1933 in Barnwell, S.C., during a time when if a black man was lucky enough to escape the racist terrorism that ruled those days, he invariably was victimized by its Jim Crow fallout. He was abandoned by his parents when he was four. Barred from school for having raggedy clothes. Sent to reform school as a teenager for breaking into cars.
But Brown was able to put all that angst and drama through one of the ultimate processors for positivism -- music. He transformed it into acrobatic moves, splits that any gymnast would envy, feet and hips genetically powered for non-stop swiveling, and hit songs punctuated with squealing horns, electrifying beats and phrases pulled out of a lyrical grab bag.
And there were the screams. Screams that he might have been belting out in a New Year's Eve performance, but which came out as three breaths before he died on Christmas Day.
Like I said, straight out of a Toni Morrison novel.
But the thing that I think I’ll remember most about James Brown, as his life and his influence is criticized and debated, is how his music mirrored the survivability of black folks like himself without, for the most part, glorifying the pathologies that seem to rule too much of our culture nowadays.
Not long after finding his musical soul after meeting Bobby Byrd while in reform school -- who took Brown into his home and into his group, the Gospel Starlighters -- Brown began putting the mournfulness inspired by his past life into music. “Please, Please, Please,” his first song with Byrd’s group, the Flames, became a million-selling single in 1956. It was followed by “Try Me,” which went to No. 1 on the rhythm and blues chart.
Later, though, Brown’s hits veered from ballads into songs that were more uninhibited and beat-driven. Songs like “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” “Cold Sweat,” and “Mother Popcorn,” showed that sometimes, music is best for provoking dancing and physical release rather than reflection and reminiscence.
But in spite of his rough beginnings, Brown didn’t gain his fame by elevating his reform school experience as some sort of rite of passage, but through songs that encouraged black people to be their best. His 1966 song, “Don’t Be A Dropout,” encouraged black youths to not abandon an essential tool for their liberation -- education.
And his 1968 anthem, “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud,” told the establishment that we “we won’t quit movin’ until we get what we deserve,’ and how “we’d rather die on our feet than be livin’ on our knees.”
That song proved to be a mantra for me, as it was released the year that I went to a predominantly-white elementary school here in Jacksonville, one in which the parents of many of my classmates sported bumper stickers supporting George Wallace, Alabama’s segregationist governor, for president.
It helps to have that kind of a song playing in your head when you’re in an environment in which people think they’re doing you some great favor by allowing you to be there.
Of course, Brown’s life wasn’t flawless. Like many other performers, he had his demons. In 1987, Brown, the man who made the 1970s anti-drug song, “King Heroin,” got hyped up on PCP and led police on a car chase across the South Carolina border. Charges stemming from that misadventure netted him more than two years in prison. He also struggled with legal problems with the Internal Revenue Service and domestic violence charges.
But even though people like me made light of his car chase episode in the late 1980s via the party chant, “Free James Brown,” he didn’t use his music to capitalize on his incarceration, as far too many popular black rap artists do these days. Instead, he continued to live up to his title as the hardest working man in show business by doing what he always did -- pouring his life into the perfection of his art.
Maybe that was a reflection of Brown’s genius and his talent; that in spite of all his troubles with the law and bouts with self-destructiveness, he could perform without having to glorify the most negative things about the black existence. His ingenuity is reflected in the fact that he was able to take the entrails of a life that was destined to be a throwaway one and transform it into something positive and priceless.
For that, as well as for so many other things, may he rest in peace.