Music » Music Lead

Thank You, Godfather

It's time to assess James Brown's profound impact on American culture.

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Like a sex machine: Brown was a 20th-century original.
  • Like a sex machine: Brown was a 20th-century original.

In his 1989 masterpiece Do the Right Thing, Spike Lee managed to examine the whole of black thought regarding the race question. You had the stuttering savant Smiley, Sweet Dick Willie and his street-corner sages, the drunken but wise Mayor, and Buggin' Out, the hotheaded intellectual with the ultimately fatal propensity for fighting symbolic battles of dubious significance -- in this case, the lack of brothers on the wall of fame inside Sal's Pizzeria.

You also had Radio Raheem, the embodiment of stoic black power. The hulking Raheem wore two four-fingered rings: one bearing the word "love," the other "hate." The very center of his existence was his giant boombox, on which he blasted Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" at top volume throughout that scorching summer day. And the song itself is a character; it appears in several scenes and acts differently in each of them. Indeed, the song's death is the very climax of the movie: Sal seizes his Louisville Slugger and smashes Raheem's radio, precipitating the death of Raheem and the riot that erupted on that fictional Brooklyn street corner.

"Fight the Power," the finest song of 1989, was only about half a Public Enemy song. Though the Bomb Squad's apocalyptic funk track contains countless samples, the music -- if not the rage in the lyrics -- sounded like the distillation of James Brown's very essence.

Brown's words seldom reached the poetic heights of black musicians like Curtis Mayfield, Gil Scott-Heron, and Marvin Gaye. But he could express 400 years of slavery and apartheid (and the intent to do something about it) with one wailed "Hyyyyeeeeaaaaah-oooo." Or he could simply command people to "Say It Loud -- I'm Black and I'm Proud."

Then again, he wasn't as militant as some in the Black Power movement wanted him to be -- far from it. James Brown was never one to follow anybody's movement -- he only founded them. In the late '60s, he was a big supporter of centrist Democrat Hubert Humphrey, and later, like Sammy Davis Jr. and Jim Brown, he actually endorsed Richard Nixon. He also caught plenty of flak from more militant blacks for his explicitly patriotic 1968 spoken-word song "America Is My Home," which came out a few weeks after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. At almost the exact same time, he had released the landmark funk jam "Licking Stick -- Licking Stick."

This was the year America burned, and riots raged across the country. In Vietnam, black soldiers were dying in numbers that were out of whack with their representation in the American population. And James Brown went and released a song about how much he loved America.

As Brown wrote in the autobiography The Godfather of Soul, key individuals in the Black Power movement had asked him how he could do a song like that after what happened to Dr King. Brown would try to explain that he "didn't mean the government was my home, I meant that land and the people. They didn't want to hear that." But Brown's personality was too complicated for the lyrics of any one song to capture. Most of the time, you could hear what he was trying to say in the actual music. He unleashed all of what he was feeling on "Licking Stick." "I released it at the same time as 'America Is My Home,'" he wrote. "If the people who were on me about 'America Is My Home' wanted to know who James Brown was, all they had to do was listen to 'Licking Stick.' My music said where I stood."

Brown helped prod old-school R&B into soul, essentially invented funk, and played a major role in the developments of hip-hop, electronic dance music, and reggae. And for the record, funk didn't begin with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." Brown himself said in his book that his 1964 single "Out of Sight" was the Rosetta Stone of funk -- the first recording where he initiated his Picasso-like approach to something akin to cubist rhythm: "You can hear the band and me start to move in a whole other direction rhythmically . . . I was trying to get every aspect of the production to contribute to the rhythmic patterns."

Go back and listen to the 1963 recording of Live at the Apollo, perhaps the longest stretch of pure adrenaline in American music. Then check in on his recordings from a few years later and listen as he changed the way the world danced for the next 40 years and counting. And even that sells him short. He provided the meatiest musical sustenance to a generation you could imagine and by doing so moved mountains.

Though he had his failings in his personal life, there was no hate in his message to the world. In the late '60s, he could have started riots with nothing more than a few inflammatory words. But unlike his spiritual descendant Radio Raheem, love always trumped hate inside his soul.

In the end, he transcended the world of mere mortals. I saw him at a shamefully underattended show in Houston in 1999, and by the end of the show, which I thought would expose him as a doddering old man well past his glory days, I found myself pressing toward the stage with a few hundred others who all wanted to touch his hand, or the hem of his garment, or something.

Brown, never one for unnecessary modesty, knew he had Christ-like powers onstage. As he put it in the liner notes to Star Time, his boxed set: "JAMES BROWN is a concept, a vibration, a dance. It's not me, the man. JAMES BROWN is a freedom I created for humanity."

And all humanity -- black, white, brown, yellow, purple with pink hair and green breath -- is immeasurably the better for it. From every mountainside, let James Brown ring.

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