Father of Funk: The Life-And Afterlife-Of James Brown

By Walker, Jesse | Reason, March 2007 | Go to article overview

Father of Funk: The Life-And Afterlife-Of James Brown


Walker, Jesse, Reason


IN 1968 Amiri Baraka declared James Brown "our number one black poet." He wasn't the only writer who felt that way. Larry Neal, one of Baraka's confederates in the radical Black Arts Movement, later recalled that Brown was a hero to Neal's circle of literary intellectuals. "Suppose James Brown had consciousness. We used to have big arguments like that" he remembered. "It was like saying, 'Suppose James Brown read Fanon.'"

If Brown ever did read Frantz Fanon, the leftist author of The Wretched of the Earth, he kept quiet about it. But the singer, who died on Christmas Day, did have a place in the Black Power pantheon, one far more interesting and inspiring than anything Fanon ever wrote. He wasn't just an enormously popular musician whose influence can be heard everywhere from Africa to Nashville. At once rural and urban, iconoclastic and conservative, sacred and profane, both the man and his music evoked a radically transformed world while staying rooted in black American traditions.

Brown's earliest hits were recorded in the 1905s, as a style called Southern soul was starting to coalesce. This was a secular sound rooted in the music of the black church. You can divide it into two broad categories: slow and fast. On the slow side were the ballads, described by the British critic Barney Hoskyns as "a black gospel foreground, with all the vocal improvisation and intensity that implies, superimposed on a white country background." The up-tempo records were gritty, earthy, and sharply syncopated, with piercing, percussive horns. They felt a bit like the old jump blues of the '40s and a bit like another sort of church music--the kind where everybody stomps his feet and the Holy Ghost starts to manifest Itself in the pews.

Brown began as a balladeer; his first hit was "Please, Please, Please," a classic case of a song that would be gospel if only it mentioned God. But as the '60s wore on he was increasingly identified with the up-tempo side of soul. As every instrument in his ensemble, from the guitar to the human voice, became part of the rhythm section, Brown and his band created a whole new form of music, called funk. In tracks like "Cold Sweat" and "The Boss," the melodies faded, the increasingly complex rhythms moved to the foreground, and the songs grew longer, as the rhythms became a launching pad for rich improvisations rooted in jazz. The lyrics were ecstatic chants and screams; they carried echoes of both sex and sermons.

In the '60s and '70s Brown spoke out for black entrepreneurship and for strong black communities, for "the need for Afro-Americans to own things if we were ever going to have any real equality." Those views soon crept into his music. In 1968's "Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud," Brown preached over a bare-boned rhythm: "I worked on a job with my feet and my hands/But all the work I did was for the other man/Now we demand a chance to do things for ourself/We're tired of beatin' our head against the wall and workin' for someone else." This was incendiary stuff, and it attracted black rebels even as white radio programmers backed away.

It was harder to imagine Brown reading Fanon four years later, when the musician called for the re-election of Richard Nixon. But the same year Brown sang "Say It Loud" the future president had called for "black power, in the best, the constructive sense of that often misapplied term.... It's no longer enough that white-owned enterprises employ greater numbers of Negroes, whether as laborers or as middle-management personnel. …

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