Updated: Aug 19, 2020
Say it Loud! (I’m black and I’m proud!): Soundtracking the movement
It’s hard not to get emotive about soul. It is a genre, a movement, a state of being that encompasses the beauty, the pain and the diversity of blackness from its gospel, jazz and rock ’n roll roots. Soul is an event in of itself- taking from the black church tradition in the US, a soul song, or a soul performance is a dialogue, perhaps somewhat scripted, but a dialogue nonetheless. The singer is the preacher, performing in a ‘call and response’ style with the audience, the musicians or even both. James Brown, a.k.a Soul brother no. 1 along with a whole host of legendary names virtually soundtracked the Black Power and Civil Rights movement in the 60s and 70s, reflecting burgeoning black consciousness and black pride. In Motown, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Edwin Starr were lamenting the Vietnam War and urban poverty; in Chicago, Curtis Mayfield sang ballads to Miss Black America; the music halls of New York were filled with the revolutionary music of Nina Simone who showcased her unique blend of jazz, classical and soul music to carry the movement on her shoulders.
James Brown was very much a part of this musical community, releasing what is arguably one of the most unapologetic statements with the song, ‘Say it Loud! (I’m black and I’m proud)’ in 1968.
Some people say we’ve got a lot of malice/ some say it’s a lot of nerve/ But I say we won’t quit moving until we get what we deserve.
There is no whiff of pleading in Brown’s words or tone. He is demanding justice and an equal share in society with no sense of compromise. We’d rather die on our feet/ than be living on our knees- on this track Brown embodies the revolutionary mantra of the Panthers, Carmichael, Angela Davis. He even extends his demand for equality to the realm of economics with the lines, we demand a chance to do things for ourselves/ we’re tired of beating our head against the wall/ and working for someone else. Brown is clearly an advocate of black capitalism in his lyrics; a reflection of his practices in real life. Brown was adamant that he received the benefits of his music, however, much like with Berry Gordy this came at the expense of the black musicians he worked with. Many of Brown’s band complained that the godfather of soul bullied them relentlessly and put them out of pocket. There is a clear paradox here between Brown’s demand for economic empowerment and his own practices. Even Brown’s rich discography was hugely contradictory with songs that uphold the status quo, such as ‘Don’t be a dropout’ and his music often reproduced misogynistic narratives about the role of women in romantic relationships. And that’s without going into his well-documented history of domestic abuse. James Brown’s legacy is a complex one. His most enduring song, ‘Say it Loud’ used predominantly Asian and white child backing singers arguably diluting the message of the song.
James Brown is no role model but his music is an important part of a movement that brought sentiments of black pride to popular music. The songs that soundtracked the movement half a century ago are still relevant today but it is equally important to recognise the limitations of that music. There are a new generation of musicians who truly embody intersectionality and protest today, led by artists such as Noname and Rapsody, who have pushed for black liberation and anti-capitalism in their music and activist work. Just like the boomers did before us, we must put our generation of musicians in the pantheon of revolutionary music.