It’s challenging to righteously contain the retrospective legacy of James Brown. His music—the driving force of R&B, the palpitating energies of funk that lean lax and low on the “one”—presented a radical paradigm shift to what American mainstream pop sounded like, how it grooved. It hit harder and faster, a purposive agency boasting a definitive sense of urgency. As such, the James Brown of 1964 to 1974 was the apotheosis of cool, an unequivocal inspiration for Black America motivating social and artistic change while providing millions of African-Americans with an unwavering sense of cultural identity. But by the tail end of the twentieth century, the years leading up to his sudden departure in 2006, James Brown represented a very different set of ideals in the eyes of Black America, the generation of youths raised at his steps. His legacy was diminished by a dense history of drug abuse, domestic violence and a newfound, ethically contentious stance towards race relations.
This final snapshot is what the overwhelming millennial populous associate with the James Brown Experience: It’s an absolute injustice to his wealth of recorded and live material (which spans nearly half a century) and a testament to the twenty-first century mode of pop culture consumption, where advanced technology, social networking and the manufacturing of instant journalism radically invert the private-public dynamic. People used to listen with their ears, not their eyes.
For those who did not grow up in an era when James Brown dominated the radio, the most immediate lifelines to experience the artist seem to be through antiquated hip-hop samples and histrionic film soundtracks. But the incalculable sprawl of influence James Brown imparted upon present-day R&B, hip-hop and electronic dance music is outrageously underestimated. James Brown is everywhere: in every high-pitched howl, every untz-untz, every hard bop, every pop, accented in every snare hit and made new with each shimmy and shuffle of contemporary dance.
In his heyday, James Brown was never granted the kind of critical praise he earned. Major music publications had a determinedly “rockist” approach to pop criticism, often neglecting the guileless lyrics and rhythm-based grooves of “race music,” which defined artists like James Brown and his peers. When the ubiquitous scope of his music became too much to disregard, publications tasked (primarily) white men to write about James Brown, journalists who were enamored by the exoticism and physicality of his performance, the ungainly mythology of his adolescence and rise to fame.
As James Brown grew older, I believe he grew more reflective, self-aware of how his own ascension complemented the religious folklore and extraordinary mythos proliferated by centuries of black insurrection. In his biography The One, R.J. Smith writes on how, late in his life, James Brown took to comparing himself to Moses of the Old Testament. His gospel was one to reckon with.
Brown’s boyhood, like his contemporary Bob Marley, was spent in the countryside in long stretches of isolation; his father would often be away for days or weeks at a time. He was abandoned by his mother early in life. Eventually, he moved to Augusta, Georgia and was raised in a brothel (owned by his aunt) that sold bootleg moonshine, and was arrested as a teenager for stealing clothes from a car. That’s the kind of peremptory dialogue talk show hosts of the 1960s and 70s used to introduce James Brown to the American mainstream. He was presented as an underprivileged “street nigga” blessed with the gift of song and dance and the determination to be great.
Yet by 1966, Doon Arbus (among the first female writers to confront the JBE) in the New York Herald article “James Brown is Out of Sight” had exposed new, revelatory insight. Deconstructed first-hand, in a live setting rather than retrospectively on the other side of a television set, Arbus describes Brown in “an ecstasy of agony,” precisely illustrating the exhilarating hysteria of that huge, glorious spectacle:
“It is over, this elaborate personal dream of the head and body and sweat of James Brown, who really believes in himself so fervently that the whole crowd is ready to follow him, even if he can only lead them to some private narcissist vision of James Brown. They know it is not for them to ask what it all means. All that really matters is the sheer energy of his belief.”
I have no reservations in saying James Brown was the greatest artist rock and roll has ever known–ever will know. Being an entertainer was the only successful job he ever had, and through the duration of his life he pursued music with a relentless fervor, toured scrupulously and meticulously, often recording in disparate studio spaces while on the road.
In 1969, New Yorker pop critic Ellen Willis, in her essay exploring the significance of an aesthetic disparity between the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, wrote, “Rock is a socially acceptable, lucrative substitute for anarchy; being a rock-and-roll star is a way of beating the system, of being free in the midst of unfreedom.” Rock music was James Brown’s way of escaping the peril of poverty: He performed so he could eat. That was his way of beating the system.
Nevertheless, as a case study, the definition of a “rock-and-roll star” presented by Willis cannot help but be aptly disputed by the unique phenomenon of James Brown. Yes, there were few black artists of the 50s and 60s who faced the same boldfaced kind of “unfreedom” he did. And it’s true, music and the consequence of its fame gave Brown a shot at self-emancipation. But anarchy was far from his directive. His own personal political predilections were firmly capitalist, unabashedly do-it-yourself, exemplified by his cordial relationship with former President Richard Nixon. No, it seems that in many ways, and as a concurrent trend throughout his career, James Brown’s music (even in its astonishing idiosyncrasy) sought a certain sense of conformity, an aural accordance with the common people.
Take, for instance, “Please, Please, Please.” In 1956, it was the inaugural track released by the Godfather of Soul, credited to James Brown & the Famous Flames. It’s one line, a handful of words that coil and kink in a trance-like cadence for just under three minutes. It’s an open gesture, the sonic equivalent of James Brown, hand outstretched, ready to take yours and wrench you into an inescapable groove. This 1964 performance of “Please, Please, Please” on The TAMI Show (sharing the bill with the Rolling Stones, Marvin Gaye and the Beach Boys) is nothing less than legendary.
By the concluding year of the 60s, funk had arrived. Reconfigured from the suave, sauntering R&B balladry of 1962’s “I Don’t Care,” James Brown’s “Cold Sweat” introduced the world to the ugly, crude, and sensational accoutrements of funk. I’m convinced that if Mr. Brown had not come across this groove—had he not revolutionized pop music with this sweeping new sound—someone else would have. But it sure enough wouldn’t have held a candle to the therapeutic belligerence and unceasing volatility of the JBE.
For a majority of the 1960s, James Brown was highly regarded as the most important and influential African-American man in the nation. He was a cultural icon that inspired pride, hope, optimism, and pervasive positive energies; James Brown displayed more power over blacks than most politicians and activists of equal or greater public stature. But the weapon he bore was a two-pronged sword. On one hand, Mr. Brown was asked to represent an entire race, beset with centuries of violence and injustice. Conversely, as an American celebrity, this artist was bogged by specific demands from his country, possibly disturbed by the civil responsibilities ilicted from his fame. Throughout his career, he painstakingly negotiated both.
The double consciousness of African-American identity and mainstream American celebrity identity is a tenuous one, where black coolness becomes synonymous with power. The ways in which an individual handles said power is often determined by how much of it they are granted. In Questlove’s six-part expository essay titled “How Hip-Hop Failed Black America,” he ruminates on the cultural cache of blackness in White America. “Certain African-American cultural figures — in music, in movies, in sports — rose above what was manifestly a divided, unjust society and in the process managed to seem singularly unruffled,” he wrote. “They kept themselves together by holding themselves slightly apart, maintaining an air of inscrutability, of not quite being known. They were cool.”
In the essay, Questlove cites Miles Davis, Lena Horne and Sly Stone as African-American purveyors of cool, and although he never mentions James Brown by name the exposition is absolutely riddled in subversive head nods to the JBE. “Singularly unruffled” is the appearance he maintained for much of 60s and 70s, while simultaneously tapping into both the White and Black market with equal vitality. But Mr. Brown—it seems—was not a trustworthy man. Abandoned by his mother at the age of four, he never truly seemed to rise above issues of trust with his wealth of band members and lovers. James Brown’s cool, in the second half of his life, manifested as dangerous powers.
Further in the essay Questlove writes, “Taken to the extreme, cool can be sociopathic; taken to the right levels, it’s a supremely intelligent mix of defense mechanism and mirroring.” Here, in analyzing James Brown, the three words “sociopathic,” “defense” and “mirroring” speak multitudes. The entertainer experienced several distinct stylistic phases in the manner he presented himself (i.e. hot pants and moustache era J.B., afro and bellbottoms era J.B.). What’s ceaselessly interesting about James Brown, as Questlove elaborates, is how figures of Black cool “simultaneously drew the gaze of white cultural observers and thwarted that gaze.” With the ascension of James Brown, Black America was no longer submitting to the cultural constructions of White America; instead the latter was adamant in thoroughly studying the former. By 1979, though, Mr. Brown was no longer thwarting this gaze but actively and wholly submitting to it.
Thulani Davis, in her 1980 Village Voice article “J-a-a-a-ames Brown!” extracted the foils and faults of the JBE and foresaw the sustaining trajectory his life would take for the subsequent 26 years. “When I was in college,” she prefaced, “I liked to speak of his Africanness by claiming Brown was the embodiment of the phenomenon of the Diaspora.” She uses words like “narcissistic and wonderful,” “selfish and fun” to recount the marvel of James Brown, but by close of the essay she has developed her initials observations with a new lens, “While I have always loved James Brown by ignoring his unsophisticated notions about what is good for a race, I have had to keep dancing with the idea that he is not alone and that my generation did not manage to change the world (yet!).” Davis cites unfavorable quotations by Mr. Brown: “he’s told some interviewers white people are the best friends blacks ever had,” “Jewish people ‘taught’ blacks about their rights,” “blacks are ‘crippled,’” “that ‘you got to open up the farms again and put black people back to work with what they can work with—their hands.’”
Thulani Davis accuses James Brown of being “out of step with the generation raised on his steps,” describes how the provocative allure of the JBE can simultaneously seduce us and disgust us. More than Ms. Franklin, light years away from Space Cadet Clinton, Davis wrote, “James Brown, I think, takes himself more seriously than any of these people and because of that has been more difficult to deal with.”
James Brown endured his role as black cultural ambassador, but it appears that this man ultimately fell victim to the flipside, the absolute tragedy that is the failed state of the American Dream, proliferating pervasively through our culture of urgency, sensationalism and extreme narcissism.
The notion of American icons in popular culture, of a certain prolific stature, embodying this narcissism is a repeated one, seen expressly through contemporary Black artists like Michael Jackson, Kanye West and essentially every major label rap act post-The Chronic. Christopher Lasch wrote on this phenomenon in his 1979 book The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations. Lasch speaks on gargantuan narcissistic personalities manifested within popular culture in particular terms: “He cannot live without an admiring audience”; “[his individuality] contributes to his insecurity, which he can overcome only by seeing his ‘grandiose self’”; “For the narcissist, the world is a mirror.”
There were other narcissistic personalities preceding James Brown whose own lives tapered off to tragedy, Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra to name a few, but the matter of race was one which was integral to observing the legacy of the JBE. He had to bear the unjust responsibility of representing an entire race of oppressed individuals. It’s only natural that it started to get to his head.
I refuse to believe blackness bred that narcissism. It’s incredible how history has repeated itself in that respect, artists who rise to unbelievable heights of fame and take a long, loud drop back through the stratosphere. James Brown became James Brown because America demanded as much. In the opening section of The Payback cut “Mind Power,” Mr. Brown wails with conviction, “These are crucial and critical time.” This record, the only certified gold full-length of his career, was released in 1973, when America needed the bewildering and divine entity that is James Brown to ground all the sprawling, psychosomatic madness. It’s my favorite album and not just because it taps in the mystic, supernatural force of organized sound that even Mr. Brown cannot make sense of with words (see “Time is Running Out Fast”). The Payback is the record I hold most dear because it represents a time when James Brown was a prophet, a bastion of Black idolatry, before America failed James Brown.
This year, the scintillating James Brown Hollywood biopic Get On Up was released by Universal Pictures. Produced by Mick Jagger, among others, the film’s production often strayed from historically accurate accounts of his life, veering to a more sensationalist and scandalizing portrayal of the late great Mr. Brown. Get On Up’s opening scene, in the words of one of our nation’s premiere film critics, “plays like a bad Dave Chappelle skit.” It has Chadwick Boseman depicting an early 80s James Brown, clad in a vomit-green track suit, wielding a shotgun through an office building he owns. He’s mad–mad because someone took a shit in the bathroom of his building.
“How would you like it if you came home and found James Brown takin’ a shit in yo’ toilet?” he screeches before accidentally firing off a round into the ceiling. This continues for 138 minutes.
Get On Up is a sad attempt at re-assembling the complex and convoluted past of James Brown, despite the $30 million pumped frivolously into this endeavor. Thankfully, HBO released the documentary Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown just a few months after Get On Up. This historically reconstructive doc is probably the most informative and groundbreaking portrayal of Mr. Brown, revealing previously unearthed live footage from international performances throughout the 70s. For a thoroughly enlightening education of Mr. James Brown, watch Mr. Dynamite below and feel good.
Cover illustration by Jacob Garner