JAMES BROWN / “Like It Is, Like It Was (part 2)”
The ass end of an elephant.
A lot of the paeans to James Brown, a lot of the posthumous assessments, damn near all of the effusive praise from the mainstream press is all—each an every word—a case of judging an elephant by looking only at its ass, i.e. they are looking backwards and making all kinds of statements, much of which may be factual as far as they go, but all of it is generally misleading because they decontextualize James Brown from the times. If you only look at an elephant’s ass, you will never understand two of the elephants more distinctive characteristics: its nose and its tusks.
Everybody knows “Say It Loud” and champions it as a song which changed America. Well, that’s not entirely true. Also, everybody knows that James Brown is the progenitor of funk music, but there’s more there than usually noted.
Poltiics and Blues. This is what I’m talking about. First, on a political tip, JB was pushed into “Say It Loud.” The black nation was on the move, burning up—and not just metaphorically. Rap Brown was paying James Brown visits. Brown’s core audience was more militant than it had ever been, so militant that they “encouraged” JB to cut his conk. JB even co-wrote and produced a Hank Ballard song with the lyric: “how you gonna get respect / if you haven’t cut your process yet?” You better believe wearing an afro was a major statement for/from James Brown, a statement he felt compelled to make by the mood of black folk in the late sixties.
“Say It Loud” (by the way, this is a live version from a Dallas, Texas concert) is a contradiction and a paradox. It was cut in Seattle (if I remember correctly—my books are in storage so I can’t check it definitely). In any case, band members were urging JB to do something that spoke directly to the movement, and when JB decided to do it, the band was on the road and typically he wanted to do it when he was moved to do it. They went into the studio and had the idea to use a chorus of children except they couldn’t find enough black kids, so it was actually an integrated children’s chorus shouting “I’m black and I’m proud.”
Isn’t that a gas?
Brown believed in black capitalism. Brown embraced Nixon. In later years he would recognize that “money won’t save you” and cozying up to Tricky Dick was not the best idea in the world.
Rather than try to help JB in his later years and offer him administrative support in exchange for his many years of advocating capitalism, the system tried their damnest to bury him. Which is why I don’t care how conservative he often was politically, I will always embrace James Brown because this was one negro the system could never digest. Money issues not withstanding; his white wives and domestic violence woes not withstanding; etc., etc. Whatever one’s particular disinclination to bow down fully on all fours to Mr. Brown, nothing disagreeable he has done outweighs how the system has demonized and attempted to trivialize James Brown.
Let’s be clear. While JB’s contributions to American music in general and to rap in particular are incomparable, the fact is, it is the adulation and admiration of the rap audience which has made James Brown immortal and made it impossible for the system to ignore him. Young people in general, and Black youth in particular are the secret ingredient in the worldwide success of James Brown—and you can take that to the bank.
I do not mean to downgrade JB’s musical genius or entertainment expertise, I just mean to acknowledge that our people’s love for James has kept James in the forefront and by “our people” I mean essentially blues people (especially if you understand that rap is just 21st century blues).
Yes, yes y’all. Blues. So we have those four political cuts: “Say It Loud,” “Funky President” (with its funky flutes), "How You Gonna Get Respect" and “I Don’t Want Nobody To Give Me Nothing.” Do y’all realize that Black people in America do not own (not even) one major national media company? No television network, no radio network, no national newspaper. Were it not for the Johnson publishing empire…. Let me stop, I don’t want to go down this road. I’m just saying listen again, and again, to “I Don’t Want Nobody To Give Me Nothing.” Listen and listen hard.
But the other foot, the good foot, was and is the blues. On these three cuts, JB is singing & talking, and playing a mean blues piano. JB like you probably have not heard him before. The blues. The bedrock foundation of African-American music. How foundational? Well, everybody always be pointing to gospel music, but gospel music as we know it is the blues’ outside child.
Kalamu, what are you talking about? I’m saying that gospel music as we know it did not exist until Thomas Dorsey, Mahalia Jackson, and later on some other folk, brought blues elements into the church. Anybody that doesn’t believe this, you need to do some hard study and get beyond mainstream Christian claims. Facts is facts. Check it out.
But again, that is not the subject. Right now we are talking politics and blues. That’s my homage to James Brown.
Politics and blues: How the people moved JB and he in turn moved the people. How he was based in the blues because the blues gave him a way to express his life experiences. How he developed a respect for kujichagulia, i.e. “self-determination,” mainly because didn’t nobody give him nothing. He had to work and work hard.
I guess that’s enough.
(For a more "learned" posting on JB, go to our previous write-ups here and here.)
In the cosmic sense, the sense in which we say for example that “Bird Lives,” in that sense, James Brown is not dead, he is just taking a well-deserved rest. R.I.P. JB, R.I.P.
—Kalamu ya Salaam
Believe the hype
Because of scheduling conflicts, I'm having to write this response before I've read Kalamu's post. But I still I have to say a word or two about J.B.
I'm no fan of hyperbole, but when it comes to James Brown, it's actually difficult to overstate his contribution to black American music. He enjoyed one of the longest and most significant careers in the history of R&B. If that wasn't enough, his rhythms are also the cornerstone of a entirely separate genre of music, that being hip-hop. I don't think it overstates the case to say that James Brown is the only musician from outside of hip-hop culture without whom hip-hop could not exist. In other words: no J.B., no rap.
RIP, J.B. You're the man.
—Mtume ya Salaam
This entry was posted on Sunday, December 31st, 2006 at 12:52 am and is filed under Classic. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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