James Brown: Lyrics of Fury

Among the many amazing gifts that James Joseph Brown, Jr. was born with, among the most fascinating was the assured and decisive way in which he applied his talent.  He had full command of his actions and was well aware of their effects on the community around him.  Brown was more than simply a “street […]

Among the many amazing gifts that James Joseph Brown, Jr. was born with, among the most fascinating was the assured and decisive way in which he applied his talent.  He had full command of his actions and was well aware of their effects on the community around him.  Brown was more than simply a “street reporter.”  He  held a mirror up to American society, and often tried to change the harsh realities that were reflected.


Born in Barnwell, South Carolina during the Great Depression, James Brown’s life began in poverty and ended with him becoming one of the most important figures in the history of American music.  Name one genre of American music that Brown didn’t help create and/or influence in some way.  Gospel, Rock, Jazz, Reggae, Funk and Rap have all been blessed by The Godfather of soul.


He began recording in 1953;his early work generally reflecting of the  R&B that was prevalent at the time.  His music seemed to hit its artistic peak during the Black Power and Black Pride movement of the late 60’s and early 70’s.  Beginning in 1967 with the #1 R&B hit “Cold Sweat”, the musicality and structure of his songs began to evolve.  His songs began to include breaks (Extended interludes during a song where the vocals and basslines drop out and percussion takes center stage).  He also pioneered a new vocal style which seemed to combine singing, scatting, and simply speaking.


His evolution fully in effect, James Brown released a number of singles which seemed to provide the soundtrack for the times.  The songs were socially and politically conscious and touched on a number of topics that were relevant to the Black community.  Subjects such as self-sufficiency and determination (“I Don’t Want Nobody To Give Me Nothing [Open Up The Door, I’ll Get It Myself]”), presidents entering the White House(“Funky President [People It’s Bad]) and drug addiction (King Heroin).


Funky President – James Brown

I Dont Want Nobody To Give Me Nothing (Open The Door, Ill Get It Myself) – James Brown

In many ways, “I Know” by Jay-Z is modern version of “King Heroin”, which James delivered in the form of a poem: 


Now, you must lie in that county jail

Where I can’t get to you by visit or mail


So Squirm – with discomfort – wiggle and cough (hack!)

Six days of madness, hah! You might throw me off


Curse me in name!  Defy me in speech!

But you’d pick me up right now If I were in your reach


Ahead of his time.

King Heroin – James Brown


On April 4th, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.  As the news spread across the country, its effect on the Black community was immediate and devastating.    For many, the time for speeches and diplomacy had come to an end.  A champion of peace had been murdered, and  riots began to break out in cities across the country. 


Realizing that Boston was in the path of the storm, newly elected mayor Kevin White was unsure of what to do.  He initially contemplated cancelling a James Brown concert that was scheduled to take place at the Boston Garden the following night, fearing that such an event would attract the very element (Tens of thousands of angry, disenfranchised young black people) that was threatening to tear the city apart.  White was advised against cancelling the show by Harvard Law Student Tom Atkins, then the only Black City councilman in Boston.  Atkins told White that cancelling the concert could actually escalate racial tensions in the city and increase chances of a riot. The show could be used to not only pay tribute to Dr. King, but to steer (rightfully) angry people away from destroying the city.


White came to the conclusion that the best way to keep potential rioters off the streets for the coming weekend would be to televise the concert.  When he couldn’t find anyone to agree to tape the program, he finally convinced Public Station WGBH to broadcast it live.  Although a solution had been found, Mayor White and his camp couldn’t celebrate just yet.  As news spread of the live broadcast, many ticket buyers began showing up the Garden for refunds, figuring they could simply stay home and enjoy the concert instead of paying for it.


James Brown had gotten word that people had stopped buying tickets and had instead decided to stay home and watch the concert for free.  Furious about the money he stood to lose, Brown made an angry call to Atkins.  Brown told Atkins that he stood to lose as much as $60,000 dollars in total.  Atkins informed Mayor White about the situation, who then informed Atkins that there was no way the city could Pay Mr. Brown that much.  Again, Mayor Whites advisors convinced him to do the sensible thing: Pay Brown his money.


Finally, the concert went off nearly without a hitch. James opened the show with statement in which he called Dr. King “America’s best friend”.  At one point, things got out of hand as some audience members began to jump on stage with the band.  Boston police officers quickly began to fill the stage from one end to other, ready to do battle with rowdy concert goers. Just when it seemed to reach the boiling point, James Brown stopped the music and began to chastise the crowd:


“Wait a minute.  We’ve gotta show that we’re young men and young ladies!  We are Black!  Don’t make us all look bad!  Let me finish doing the show!  You making me look very bad, because I asked the Police to step back!  You’re not being fair to yourself or me either, or your race!  Now I asked the police to step back because I figure I can get some respect from my own people!  Now we together, or we ain’t!”


 The crowd responded “yeah!”, and the show continued without any interruption.  It appears that James didn’t need to sing his message in order for us to understand.  Even without  his band playing behind him, when he spoke, black folks listened. While other cities around the country were crumbling and burning, James Brown did his best to hold Boston together for that one night.  He succeeded.


At times his music was a shot of adrenaline.  At times it tugged at the heart strings and caused tears to fall.  At times it made one look inward.  At times it simply made you want to dance.  It did all of this through simple language.  The lyrics of James Brown read like a study in the economy of words.  One doesn’t need to be super articulate to get his point across.  Often, the simplest language will do.  It’s usually the simplest words and phrases that find the most direct route to our soul.  Sometimes it doesn’t even take that much.  Sometimes it only takes scream.  Or a phrase:


Say it loud: I’m black and I’m proud!

Say it loud: I’m black and I’m proud!