Table of Contents
II. The Black Power Movement
1. Cultural Nationalism
2. The Black Aesthetic
III. A Brief History of Black Music
IV. James Brown’s Appropriation of Black Nationalist Values in His Life and Music
1. James Brown’s Music
2. The Political Tone of James Brown’s Songs
3. Private Life and Black Power?
4. James Brown and the Black Experience
5. James Brown and His Influential Power in Music
V. James Brown’s Appropriation of Black Nationalist Values in Politics
1. James Brown as Uncle Tom
2. James Brown for Presidents
3. Riot Control
4. James Brown the Benefactor
VI. James Brown’s Appropriation of Black Nationalist Values in Economics
1. The American Dream
“The Godfather of soul”, “the hardest working man in show business” or “Soul Brother Number One”, are the various different attributes attached to James Brown who made a very important contribution to the Black Power Movement. James Brown reached his audience in concert halls and via radio and television. As a musician, performer, and role model, he touched the soul of nearly every black American at a time when Afro-Americans sought to re-define themselves. The time had come to create a black aesthetic that would reshape the Western cultural sphere.
Beside James Brown, Black America saw the rise of other cultural heroes like Muhammad Ali and Shaft. They all contributed in their own way to the black liberation struggle. However, the Black Power Movement did not only consist of a cultural branch but also of political and religious organizations. Figures like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King jr. were charismatic leaders whose importance can not be overemphasized.
Still, the basis of the Black Power Movement (hereafter BPM) was the individual, the group and the community. The black experience, together with black everyday life was the origin and source of the black struggle. Since James Brown grew up in a southern American black community and knew what this experience meant, he was able to authentically convey this on stage. Beyond his career as a musician, he was also interested in the fate of his people. He was in his own way an active political figure, using his popularity to change the social conditions for black communities. Furthermore, Brown was one of the first black American musicians to enter the white-dominated world of economics. Although he had never been close to black nationalists, he lived – consciously or unconsciously – their visions. Yet he always stressed his belief in the American Dream and patriotism. Consequently, he can be considered a symbol of black cultural Nationalism and a patriotic American at the same time. It is this dichotomy and ambiguity of James Brown that will be discussed in the following essay.
To understand how James Brown applied the ideas and values of black cultural Nationalism, it is necessary to know about the historical context and structure of the BPM and black Nationalism, which then leads us to the emergence and meaning of the black aesthetic and Soul. In addition to this rather theoretical approach, a brief history of black American music is crucial to understanding the influences on James Brown and the impact he had. Only through a solid knowledge of black Nationalism, Soul and Black Music, it is possible to demonstrate when, how, and why James Brown appropriated both black Nationalist demands and American values.
II. The Black Power Movement
Since James Brown’s life paralleled the black liberation struggle it is necessary to define the movement at a point when James Brown was not only at the top of his career, but also politically, economically, and socially involved in the Black Power Movement.
What William L. Van Deburg called the “Black Camelot” in his book of the same title, describes “a metaphorical device meant to symbolize and illuminate the new world order sought by African-Americans of both the civil rights and the Black Power eras.”[i] In other words, the BPM was the Afro-American quest for socio-cultural equality. What made it exceptionally was the fact that the BPM was essentially self-directed, radical, and sought to gain power: Black Power. However, there were different ways to gain Black Power. According to Van Deburg, one of the three main ideologies was “assimilation”. Its members sought quick integration into the mainstream. Then there were “pluralists”, who accepted the idea of the American society as a "salad bowl". By competing with other ethnic groups - economically, politically and culturally - pluralists wanted to attain Black Power. The third group was the “Nationalists”, who wanted to build up a black community, separated from other ethnic groups in most areas of life. Nationalists themselves can be subdivided in territorial Nationalists, like the Nation of Islam who wanted to create a separate, independent black state within America, or go back to Africa; revolutionary Nationalists like the Black Panthers, who sought to gain Power by destroying the system by all means; and finally, cultural Nationalists like the Organization US which claimed that black political and economic power could only emerge out of a distinctive African-American culture.[ii] The aspect of cultural difference between African-Americans and Euro-Americans is the fundamental to cultural Nationalists.[iii] All Nationalists promoted community work because in their opinion it was the first step towards independece an self-reliance.
Because James Brown lived, promoted and appropriated most of cultural nationalist values and its aesthetic, it makes sense for this essay to concentrate on the cultural field of black Nationalism. Yet that does not mean that the two other branches, together with their organizations and leaders, did not contribute to the black liberation struggle.
1. Cultural Nationalism
African American communities were, what cultural Nationalists sought: distinctiveness in everyday life, music, clothing, look and behaviour. For most cultural Nationalists, returning to their African roots would be a step forward. Because of their community work and close links with individuals and also with the black community, cultural Nationalists had a wide appeal for most African-Americans. The black artist gained an important role within the concept of cultural nationalism. The black artist had to reject white western aesthetics and proclaim the black aesthetic. Nevertheless, black art was considered rather to be functional than only art for art’s sake. It should create black symbols, values, pride and consciousness. A change from Negro to black was only possible if the black artist turned his perspective towards his own community without caring about white mainstream critics. Only if white cultural domination was broken, black power could grow. This aim and process became a national issue and thus more visible to white America.[iv] Yet, the image of Black Power that reached most white American households had a negative connotation. To them it had more in common with real physical violence than cultural liberation. The aggression of the BPM is just one of many differences between this and earlier periods of the black liberation struggle.[v]
It is important to understand that the rejection of white cultural supremacy is not an ideology born in the revolutionary nineteen sixties, but is rather an idea more than 100 years old.[vi] In 1900, Pauline Hopkins was already expressing the power of black art to develop and be developed in the black community.[vii] Twenty years later in the Harlem Renaissance, Alain Locke proclaimed that the black community had a group inferiority complex that would produce a social dilemma for the following generations.[viii] However, according to Samuel A. Floyd, Jr. the black aesthetic of the 1960s created an egalitarian environment, so that every member of the black community could become an artist in contrast to the concept of the talented tenth of the Harlem Renaissance.[ix] Another critic Adam David Miller complains that Harlem Renaissance authors wrote in the style of their oppressors in order to express their own aesthetic, instead of using a distinct black one. Miller criticises black artists of that time for having a universal, and thus also white, audience in mind.[x] Yet, Donald Byrd draws the conclusion that “from this Renaissance, the realization emerged that there has always been a black cultural heritage in black music.”[xi]
Coming back to cultural Nationalism in the Black Power era, its leaders, such as Imamu Amiri Baraka Baraka and Maulana Ron Karenga, cannot be ignored. Karenga – founder of the cultural nationalist organization US – called for black art as part of the revolution, because this struggle could only be won by winning the minds of the black people. He wanted a black aesthetic, that would judge the validity and beauty of black art as an avoidance of the madness of the western world, which was based on white America’s values.[xii] In Karenga’s mind the social criteria of art was more important, and it had to support and reflect upon the black revolution. “For all art must reflect and support the black revolution, and any art that does not discuss and contribute to the revolution is invalid….”[xiii] Every personality in a group can show uniqueness but at the same time be part of the collective and the collective experience. Karenga maintained that art was firstly social and secondly aesthetic, because the black artist asked firstly for socio-political rights in demanding freedom, for example, for his art.[xiv] Finally, the collective function of art was to brighten up the everyday life of blacks and encourage them.[xv] In addition to providing identity, art created unity on both the individual and the national level.[xvi] Although Karenga’s works were not widely distributed, he created a new value system that another important cultural nationalist, Baraka, applied.[xvii]
Imamu Amiri Baraka – artist and political leader and one of the initiators of the black arts movement – rejected Western musical conventions which stood for “…an exploitative and inhumane society.”[xviii] Being an artist and political figure at the same time did not prove contradictory for Baraka, because he saw both professions as two different, yet important, ways to fight for the Cultural Revolution. His statement that he saw “art as politics, and politics as art,“ sums his political and artistic role up.[xix] Baraka argued that in order to survive culturally as well as politically, a new system of values – Karenga’s “black value system” – was needed. This value system consisted of seven principles which demanded unity, self-determination, collective work, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith. The aspect of looking at the self was basic to the new value system. Baraka asked for self-definition, self-efficiency, self-defence, and most importantly self-respect. Like Karenga, he stressed the importance of personality instead of individuality, because “Individualism is a white man’s idea.”[xx]
Beside these two leaders, artists also contributed to the discourse of cultural nationalism. The poet Larry Neal claimed that the black arts Movement (BAM) was searching for a re-evaluation of western cultural aesthetics.[xxi] In addition to this, the development of a black consciousness, and again, self-determination, were main goals of cultural nationalism.[xxii] To Max Roach, a jazz musician among other professions, “the essence of black consciousness is the recognition of a distinct black identity…”[xxiii] He claimed that instead of using white terminology blacks should start to re-define themselves in every way.[xxiv] According to another cultural nationalist, Harold Cruse, black cultural nationalism was an answer to the dominant white cultural nationalism.[xxv] In the case of music, this would mean understanding that black music was a micro-culture within the macro-culture of black “aesthetic” culture. “For music is culture, and culture is unique to the needs of the people, and created by the genius of people.”[xxvi]
2. The Black Aesthetic
In addition to these perspectives on cultural nationalism, it is necessary to know what is meant by the term black aesthetic. However, it is not my intention to define an ideology that means different things to different people. I’d rather like to give a picture of what I assume the black aesthetic is: its functions, direction and uniqueness.
The black aesthetic had social and collective functions. Firstly, black art had to brighten up everyday life in black ghettos instead of just mirroring/reflecting it. Therefore black communities were the source, the audience and jury at the same time. This exchange between artist and audience was mutual, and also contains the aspect of teaching new values and ideas via black art. This simultaneous process on the personal and community level supported the shift from Negro to black.[xxvii] One of the effects of this new collective and classless pride was critically observed by the state. To the US Riot Commission the “typical rioter” seemed to be “extremely proud of being black”.[xxviii] Or as Frank Kofsky would state it in his book Black Nationalism and the Revolution in Music “Black Americans are taking their destiny into their own hands and shaping events rather than being shaped by them.”[xxix]
The newborn self-direction of the black aesthetic was probably one of the most important changes to earlier movements like the Harlem Renaissance. The new black artist did not produce art for a white audience neither was he trying to assimilate white values, because he is not longer interested in white America. In The Black Aesthetic, Addison Gayle claims that the new black artist would be honest to his brothers, in contrast to earlier artists, who because of their “white perspective,” were insincere to the black community and themselves.[xxx] Karenga also states that all art reflects the value system from which it comes.[xxxi] Hence an inward-directed perspective reflected new, and most importantly only black values. When we consider the example of black music, it is the audience who gives “…their own definitions and make their own judgments.”[xxxii]
However, the black aesthetic consists not only of a collective function and a self-direction, but also of racial memory and consciousness, in other words: learning consciously from the past to fight powerfully in the present struggle for a better future.[xxxiii] The racial consciousness makes the black aesthetic unique because it includes the black experience in American history. Therefore slavery and segregation contribute to the racial memory of African-Americans. But social, political, and economic injustices also represent a racial consciousness that is part of the black aesthetic.[xxxiv] Closely related to the black experience is the idea of white oppression.
White oppression, though, can be subdivided into cultural and psychological oppression that stem from the traditional Western aesthetic. But there are also forms of economic and religious oppression, not to forget the issue of reverse racism. The traditional white Western aesthetic denies any contribution by Afro-Americans to American culture. Until the BPM, whites controlled and defined the aesthetic norms.[xxxv] The white domination in Western aesthetics leads to psychological and cultural oppression of black culture. This situation is even supported by the media, which manipulates and “brainwashes” African-Americans so that they are embarrassed of their own culture.[xxxvi] Hence, the constant attack on the black self eventually leads to self-hatred, that is produced by identification with the aggressor.[xxxvii] One example of how white Western and black aesthetics differ is that “Whites see the value in art/music as the product and blacks see the value in art the process of producing art.”[xxxviii]
In the economic oppression of black culture white critics play a large role. They critique black art in terms of Western aesthetic norms.[xxxix] An example of this is scepticism among white critics about the development of jazz when “New Jazz”(Soul music and funk) appeared. This was because they were no longer able to maintain “… their powerful position of criticizing black music with white values.”, because it did not aim at a white market.[xl] Still, during the height of black cultural movements, white money was used to produce black art.[xli] Economic independence was therefore a main goal of Black Power artists. Eventually there was also religious oppression, in the form of Christianity. Converting blacks to the Christian religion cut off African religious roots, and this did not make “…them equal, or free, but simply more tractable.”[xlii]
The reverse racism or the so-called “Crow Jim” was the white answer to Black Power. It expressed the fear that if black people came to power they would discriminate against their white oppressors because of their skin color. Black Power leaders always had to defend themselves against accusations of promoting reverse racism.
Once the wider concept of the black aesthetic is understood, it is possible to concentrate on the concept of “soul”. Again, to give a single definition for a term that is used by many in different ways seems inappropriate to me. However, a definition that conveys the meaning of soul well is as “the ability to communicate something of the Negro experience.”[xliii] Soul, as a word and concept, was invented and introduced by black people. I regard the role change of the denominator – from white to black – as a marvellous illustration of the applied black aesthetic. Soul entered black everyday life quickly because it was closely related to the black community. Soul became a prefix used for all kinds of things: soul food, soul style, soul music and even soul brother and soul sister. Soul not only linked black people to their culture, but also functioned as a group definition and as a connection to the black aesthetic. Brian Wards – in his book Just my soul responding – asserts that soul style is “manifested in distinctively black ways of walking, talking, eating, dressing, joking, thinking, working, playing, dancing and making music [that] defied easy analysis or imitation by outsiders.”[xliv] In contrast to Ward, Julian Mayfield states that it is neither a way of talking, nor soul music that makes up the black aesthetic, because everybody – including the white mainstream – can learn, imitate and claim it.[xlv] Yet others again claim that with the rise of soul, “ [b] lack is no longer inferior, no longer a poor copy of white.”[xlvi] Rather white musicians, who interpreted soul music, were poor copies of black artists.
Via soul music, black performers transmitted the message of Black Power to the people. This process can be regarded as an elevation “of the consciousness of an African heritage.” Soul music appeared as a genre as early as 1965, but was merely mentioned in the mass media until 1969.[xlvii] It had its tradition in urban black popular music, and promoted new values like black pride and unity by reflecting beauty and reality in black communities. In the end the black aesthetic had its influence on American popular culture, but at the same time critical voices complained about a sell-out of soul, because the abundance of soul provided by the media and economy led to a decline of interest in the BPM. However, today its cultural influence in sports, film and music is more visible than ever.[xlviii]
III. A Brief History of Black Music
Besides the influence of black artists of the Black Power era like James Brown, it is necessary to know the history of black art in order to understand the roots of black music. In other words: a brief developmental overview from jazz, blues and gospel, via R&B, soul music and funk, to today’s genres such as rap and hip-hop. Although aware that black music started centuries ago with African folk music and black spiritual music, I will limit the outline to James Brown’s lifetime, where direct influences by certain genres are evident. Evident is the cultural memory that is in the music itself. It shows that black music has not only survived permanent white oppression but also that “once black men and their music hit the soil of America, America, her music and that of the entire Western world would never be the same.”[xlix]
Jazz – a genre in black and white – was the music James Brown grew up with. It demonstrates perfectly the salient difference between black and white artists. Most successful black artists like Charlie Parker died very young of drugs or alcohol abuse.[l] They stood under economic as well as racist pressure. The black artist had to face what Langston Hughes called The Racial Mountain: an “almost insuperable obstacle of attempting to define himself as a black artist, practicing a black-based art in a country that is deathly afraid of both its artists and its blacks.”[li]
[i] Van Deburg, William L. Black Camelot: African-American culture heroes in their times, 1960-1980. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997, 22.
[ii] Van Deburg, William L. New Day in Babylon: The Black Power Movement and American Culture, 1965-1975. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1992, 129.
[iii] Pinkney, Alphonso. Red, Black, and Green: Black Nationalism in the United States. London: Cambridge UP, 1976, 127.
[iv] Benzon, William L. “Music Making History: Africa Meets Europe in the United States of the Blues.” Leading Issues in African American Studies: 189-233.
[v] Gayle, Addison Jr. “Introduction.” The Black Aesthetic. Ed. Addison Gayle Jr. New York: Doubleday & Company. 1971: xv.
[vi] Floyd, Samual A. The Power of Black Music: Interpreting its History from Africa to the United States. New York: Oxford UP, 1995, 183.
[vii] Gayle, Addison Jr. “Introduction.” The Black Aesthetic. Ed. Addison Gayle Jr. New York: Doubleday & Company. 1971: xv.
[viii] Locke, Alain. “Negro Youth Speaks.” The Black Aesthetic. Ed. Addison Gayle Jr. New York: Doubleday & Company. 1971: 17.
[ix] Floyd, Samual A. The Power of Black Music: Interpreting its History from Africa to the United States. New York: Oxford UP, 1995, 183.
[x] Miller, Adam David. “Some Observations on a Black Aesthetic.” The Black Aesthetic. Ed. Addison Gayle Jr. New York: Doubleday & Company. 1971: 398.
[xi] Byrd, Donald. “The Meaning of Black Music.” The Black Scholar 3.10 (1972): 28.
[xii] Karenga, Ron. “Black Cultural Nationalism.” The Black Aesthetic. Ed. Addison Gayle Jr. New York: Doubleday & Company. 1971: 32.
[xiii] Ibid. 33.
[xiv] Ibid. 36.
[xv] Ibid. 34.
[xvi]Pinkney, Alphonso. Red, Black, and Green: Black Nationalism in the United States. London: Cambridge UP, 1976, 141.
Karenga Ron. “Black Cultural Nationalism.” The Black Aesthetic. Ed. Addison Gayle Jr. New York: Doubleday & Company. 1971: 34.
[xvii] Pinkney, Alphonso. Red, Black, and Green: Black Nationalism in the United States. London: Cambridge UP, 1976, 129.
[xviii] Kofsky, Frank. Black Nationalism and the Revolution in Music. New York: Pathfinder Press, 1972, 140.
[xix] Pinkney, Alphonso. Red, Black, and Green: Black Nationalism in the United States. London: Cambridge UP, 1976, 140.
[xx] Ibid. 130.
[xxi] Neal, Larry. “Some Reflections on the Black Aesthetic.” The Black Aesthetic. Ed. Addison Gayle Jr. New York: Doubleday & Company. 1971: 13.
[xxii] Neal, Larry. “New Space/ The Growth of Black Consciousness in the Sixties.” The Black Seventies. Ed. Floyd B. Barbour. Boston: Porter Sargent Publisher. 1970.
[xxiii] Roach, Max. “What “Jazz” Means to Me.” The Black Scholar 3.10 (1972): 3-7.
[xxiv] Roach, Max. “What “Jazz” Means to Me.” The Black Scholar 3.10 (1972): 3-7.
[xxv] Pinkney, Alphonso. Red, Black, and Green: Black Nationalism in the United States. London: Cambridge UP, 1976, 145.
[xxvi] Tyler, Robert. “The Musical Culture of Afro-America.” The Black Scholar 3.10 (1972): 22.
[xxvii] Gayle, Addison Jr. “Introduction.” The Black Aesthetic. Ed. Addison Gayle Jr. New York: Doubleday & Company. 1971: xv.
[xxviii] Kofsky, Frank. Black Nationalism and the Revolution in Music. New York: Pathfinder Press, 1972, 145.
[xxix] Kofsky, Frank. Black Nationalism and the Revolution in Music. New York: Pathfinder Press, 1972.
[xxx] Gayle, Addison Jr. “Introduction.” The Black Aesthetic. Ed. Addison Gayle Jr. New York: Doubleday & Company. 1971: xv.
[xxxi] Karenga, Ron. “Black Cultural Nationalism.” The Black Aesthetic. Ed. Addison Gayle Jr. New York: Doubleday & Company. 1971: 33.
[xxxii] McClendon, William H. “Black Music: Sound and Feeling for Black Liberation.” The Black Scholar 7.5 (1976): 20.
[xxxiii] Mayfield, Julian. “You Touch My Black Aesthetic and I'll Touch Yours.” The Black Aesthetic. Ed. Addison Gayle Jr. New York: Doubleday & Company. 1971: 26.
[xxxiv] Wellburn, Ron. “The Black Aesthetic Imperative.” The Black Aesthetic. Ed. Addison Gayle Jr. New York: Doubleday & Company. 1971: 132.
[xxxv] McClendon, William H. “Black Music: Sound and Feeling for Black Liberation.” The Black Scholar 7.5 (1976): 20.
[xxxvi] Van Deburg, William L. New Day in Babylon: The Black Power Movement and American Culture, 1965-1975. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1992, 129.
[xxxvii] Neal, Larry. “New Space/ The Growth of Black Consciousness in the Sixties.” The Black Seventies. Ed. Floyd B. Barbour. Boston: Porter Sargent Publisher. 1970, 16.
Fuller, Hoyt W. “Introduction: Towards a Black Aesthetic.” The Black Aesthetic. Ed. Addison Gayle Jr. New York: Doubleday & Company. 1971: 3.
[xxxviii] Stewart, Jimmy. “Introduction to Black Aesthetics in Music.” The Black Aesthetic. Ed. Addison Gayle Jr. New York: Doubleday & Company. 1971: 81.
[xl] Wellburn, Ron. “The Black Aesthetic Imperative.” The Black Aesthetic. Ed. Addison Gayle Jr. New York: Doubleday & Company. 1971: 132.
[xli] Haralambos, Michael. Right on: From Blues to Soul in Black America. London: Eddison Press, 1974. 93.
[xlii] McClendon, William H. “Black Music: Sound and Feeling for Black Liberation.” The Black Scholar 7.5 (1976): 20.
[xliii] Mims, A. Grace. “Soul – The Black Man and his Music.” Negro History Bulletin 33.6 (1970): 141.
[xliv] Ward, Brian. Just my Soul Responding: Rhythm and Blues, Black Consciousness and Race Relations. Newcastle upon Tyne: UCL Press, 1998, 182.
[xlv] Mayfield, Julian. “You Touch My Black Aesthetic and I'll Touch Yours.” The Black Aesthetic. Ed. Addison Gayle Jr. New York: Doubleday & Company. 1971: 24.
[xlvi] Haralambos, Michael. Right on: From Blues to Soul in Black America. London: Eddison Press, 1974, 130.
[xlvii] Maultsby, Portia K. “Soul Music: Its Sociological and Political Significance in American Popular Culture.” Journal of Popular Culture 17.2 (1983): 51.
[xlviii] For a critical view on the exploitation of soul in advertisements see Ward, Brian. Just my Soul Responding: Rhythm and Blues, Black Consciousness and Race Relations. Newcastle upon Tyne: UCL Press, 1998, 431.
[xlix] Mims, A. Grace. “Soul – The Black Man and his Music.” Negro History Bulletin 33.6 (1970): 141.
[li] Kofsky, Frank. Black Nationalism and the Revolution in Music. New York: Pathfinder Press, 1972, 26.
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- Paul Vierkant (Author), 2005, James Brown and the Black Power Movement or Was America's Soul Brother Number One a Black Nationalist?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/60909