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In 1968, racial tensions were at a peak in the United States. The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. challenged the belief that race-related discrimination and disparities could be resolved through peaceful means. The civil rights leader’s death sparked riots and rebellions in major cities throughout the country.
That same year, a singer known as “Mr. Dynamite” called on his fellow African Americans to not only take pride in the color of their skin, but to “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud.” The exuberant funk hit became something of an anthem for the Black power movement, and James Brown was established as a critical voice in the conversation about Black identity.
“Do you know I used to shine shoes in front of radio station WRDW in Augusta, Georgia?” Brown asked 40,000 of his fans during a show at Yankee Stadium, according to 1968 issue of Newsweek.1 “I now own that station. That is Black power.”
But, as we’ll investigate, not everyone in the Black power movement agreed.
Anxieties in the aftermath of King’s assassination are explored in the 1993 documentary James Brown ’68: The Politics of Soul2. In the video, Boston’s city leaders recall the struggle in deciding whether to go on with a James Brown concert scheduled for the night after the civil rights leader’s death.
Cities across the country had erupted in violence on April 4, and Boston was no exception. Concerns about a second night of fires and rioting led the mayor, Kevin White, to consider cancelling the concert, which Black city council members warned would likely further upset frustrated and despairing Bostonians.
Former councilman Tom Atkins remembered advising: “If word gets out in the Black community, particularly the part of the community who would have been at the concert – young Black people, young Black men, young Black women – that the city would not let James Brown come to town and perform in the wake King’s assassination, all hell would break loose.”
So, Atkins and White devised a plan to continue with the live concert but on smaller scale. They also convinced a local television station to broadcast the performance, hoping to entice people to stay off the streets.
It was an arrangement that cost the city $60,000 to make up for the ticket sales Brown stood to lose by having the show televised. That steep price tag gave the mayor a moment of hesitation, but he knew what he had to do.
And White said it was worth every penny – James Brown did not disappoint.
A night of high-energy funk and soul from the charismatic performer provided a cathartic outlet for the raw emotions that rippled throughout the city on April 5. As The Boston Globe3 reported, “Brown sang and danced and as usual thrilled his audience. But he also talked to them, and for this he is being credited with helping to avert potential disaster.”
According to Newsweek, Brown’s definition of soul was “all the hard knocks the Black man had, all the punishment, and it’s all the unfulfilled dreams that must come true.”
Born in 1933, Brown grew up in extreme poverty in South Carolina. He dropped out of school in the 7th grade and went to work shining shoes and dancing for spare change on the streets. “No one I ever knew, not a relative, not a friend, ever made it,” he said. “I wanted to make it.”
Through soul music, Brown fulfilled his dreams and built a multimillion dollar empire. In doing so, he was able to set an example for young people that it was possible to “make it” despite growing up poor, lacking opportunities for education and struggling against racism.
By 1968, he still wasn’t well-known to white audiences, yet Brown sold 50 million records and electrified nearly 3 million fans throughout 300 performances over the course of a year. To the youth who looked up to him, Brown seemed like a king, with more cars and clothes and cash they might have imagined could ever belong to someone who looked like them.
With his infectious, exuberant style, Brown’s concerts were frequently compared to revivalist camp meetings with the star delivering fiery musical sermons on how to live the good life. He advocated for education and philanthropic efforts, self-empowerment and non-violent activism against racial discrimination.
“Don’t terrorize – organize!” he preached to his fans. “Don’t burn – learn!”
“We need a lift,” the musician told Newsweek. “We need leadership, we need education, we need hope.”
And that is what, despite struggles with drugs and domestic violence,4 Brown strove to offer.
But for more radical Black activists, Brown’s commercial success and excessive wealth made him seem like a sell-out.
The criticisms of Brown and the phenomenon he represented were explored in a 1970 issue of The Inner City Voice,5 a left-wing newspaper published in Detroit by the League of Revolutionary Black Workers.
An article written by J.K. Obatala defends the decision of the government in Tanzania to outlaw soul music. While this ban first seemed like “a deliberate slap in the face to Afro-Americans,” Obatala, as a student in Africa, had an epiphany watching Brown perform on Ghanaian television.
For audiences watching the program, Brown perpetuated the “Myth of Afro-American Affluence” and demonstrated to viewers that “the Horatio Alger story was still a ‘living reality’ in American life” and “hordes of formerly impoverished scions […] were battling their way from the bottom to the top of the ladder.”
As a result, Obatala argued, soul music signified “the good life in America” rather than a “cultural reflection of the long years of suffering inflicted” on Blacks in the U.S. “The concept of soul,” he elaborated, “has become impregnated with the ideological germ of capitalism.”
Soul music presented a deceptive image of Black prosperity. It served as propaganda for “Black capitalism” and seemed to have a greater impact on ideas of Black American identity than “the writings of great African and Afro-American intellectuals.”
The way Obatala saw it, James Brown’s brand of soul music was a bad influence – a vice, like booze or dope. According to him, it had a plebeian, narcotic effect:
[E]veryone, the oppressor and the oppressed, the rich and the poor, can relate to soul music. Dealing mainly with love and sex is politically neutral…while, at the same time, the simple and uncomplicated rhythm appeals to the mass mind. Like alcohol and drugs, Soul music is a psychological depressant and at the same time hallucinatory. Not only does it demand total involvement, but it’s monotonous rhythm is hypnotic, inducing a state of blissful euphoria which releases one’s inhibitions and at the same time retards the thinking process. Soul music therefore creates and in an anti-intellectual atmosphere.
Exploring the relevance of James Brown in the Black power movement illuminates various historical perspectives and sheds light into ongoing issues related to race in the U.S.
Fifty years later, the struggle continues to understand and define African-American identity. Questions remain about the meaning of Black freedom and where we are as a culture in attaining it. While there are no easy answers or tidy conclusions, one thing in this debate is for sure – watching James Brown perform still induces a state of blissful euphoria.
For further research…there’s a dissertation for that!
Discover academically-reviewed, scholarly research on the relationship between soul music and Black freedom. With deep coverage and extensive bibliographies that surface sources and ideas that would otherwise be missed, dissertations are essential and illuminating resources.
Ferri, D. R. (2013). Funk my soul: The Assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Birth of Funk culture (Order No. 3597011). (1449399483).
Kohl, P. R. (1994). Who Stole the Soul? Rock and Roll, Race, and Rebellion (Order No. 9428007). (304147647).
Morton, B. G. (2016). Data-Driven Approach to Recognizing Influence Between Musicians (Order No. 10143295). (1824705308).
Ongiri, A. A. (2000). ‘Black Arts for a Black People!’: The Cultural Politics of the Black Power Movement and the Search for a Black Aesthetic (Order No. 9967452). (304595983).
Vincent, F. L. (2008). The Lumpen: Music on the Front Lines of the Black Revolution (Order No. 3331828). (304694994).
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Explore additional content expertly curated for research on the Black Freedom Struggle, spanning slavery to civil rights and beyond.