James Brown died early on the morning of Monday December 25 at the age of 73. He was admitted to Atlanta’s Emory Crawford Long Hospital for pneumonia and died of a heart failure. Brown will be best remembered for laying down the foundations of soul and funk which provided the roots for modern day hip hop music.
James Brown was born in Barnwell, South Carolina. In his early years he was abandoned by his immediate family and taken in by friends and distant relatives. During his childhood, Brown picked cotton and shined shoes.
At the age of sixteen, he was convicted of armed robbery and was sent to a juvenile detention centre. After brief stints as a boxer and baseball pitcher Brown turned towards a career in music. Brown began to gain popularity in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Known as “the Godfather of Soul” he will be best remembered for his tight and dynamic live shows.
Browns musical influence was undeniable and it will leave a long lasting legacy but he was also a presence in American political affairs. Brown’s politics were highly contradictory, to say the least, but given the influence he had over black Americans they have also left somewhat of a legacy.
Whilst Brown publicly championed the civil rights struggle, he was in general opposed to building a mass movement against the establishment. Instead he preferred to preach a message of ‘self-reliance and education’. In 1968 Brown released “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)” this was a defiant statement for the time. Selling 750,000 copies in two weeks, the track became a theme song for the civil rights movement defining the mood of this explosive era.
This track in particular gave confidence and raised the consciousness of thousands of black Americans who were struggling for equal rights. Brown often spoke about the importance of job opportunities for blacks and toured schools lecturing children on the benefits of education. He was also often involved in charity work in many poor black areas.
Brown however championed black capitalism; he was a businessman, once owning James Brown Productions, several recording companies, real estate agencies, radio stations, fast food restaurants and publishing companies. Brown argued that blacks needed to beat whites at their own game and that getting an education and getting rich was the way out of poverty.
Despite raising the hopes of thousands of blacks, Brown was seen as a safe option by the white establishment. He was involved in the civil rights movement from the mid 60s, during this time however he kept one foot in each camp by also building a relationship with the establishment.
In 1966 he flew to Tupelo, Mississippi to visit the wounded civil rights activist James Meredith, shot by racists during the “March Against Fear.” In 1968 however Brown disappointed many fans by publicly backing President Richard Nixon for re-election. During this period his shows were picketed and the slogan “James Brown – Nixon’s Clown” was shown on signs outside his gigs.
In May 1968 Brown received an invitation to the White House by President Lyndon Johnson. In the middle of an anti war movement Brown decided to accept the invitation of Johnson to travel to Vietnam and perform for U.S. troops.
In April 1968 riots broke out in 110 cities across the US following the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King. Brown had been scheduled to perform in Boston, Massachusetts. Brown was approached by Mayor Kevin White to assist in quelling the riots. Brown and White decided to proceed with the show and televise it live. The idea was to keep people off the streets. Poor blacks could not resist watching a free James Brown concert on TV and the riots that gripped other cities were therefore averted in Boston.
Brown often spoke publicly about the ‘pointlessness’ of mass action. In February 1968 he said “I’m not going to tell anybody to pick up a gun.” These comments were obviously aimed at cutting across the ideas of the black power movement and the rise of organizations like the Black Panthers. The Black Panthers were staunchly opposed to black capitalism and their rapid growth and militant approach during the late 60s was a major concern to the US administration.
James Brown’s life was more than just another rags to riches story. He lived through turbulent times and his comments were sometimes politically influential. Brown has shown the sometimes important role that music and culture can play in the development of consciousness and the fact that the establishment will always try and highjack our culture and music icons to ensure mass movements are channeled along safe lines. Today they use Bono and Bob Geldolf, in the 1960s they used James Brown.