In 1968 the poet and critic Amiri Baraka declared James Brown "our number one black poet." He wasn't the only writer who felt that way. Larry Neal, one of Baraka's confederates in the radical Black Arts Movement, recalled later that Brown was a hero to Neal's circle of literary intellectuals. "If the poets could do that," he remembered, "we could just take over America. Suppose James Brown had consciousness. We used to have big arguments like that. It was like saying, 'Suppose James Brown read Fanon.'"
If Brown ever did read Frantz Fanon, an Algerian leftist revered by revolutionaries in the '60s, he kept quiet about it. But the singer did have a place in the Black Power pantheon, one far more interesting and inspiring than anything Fanon ever wrote. At once rural and urban, iconoclastic and conservative, sacred and profane, both the man and his music evoked a radically transformed world while staying rooted in black American traditions.
After an early stint in prison for armed robbery, Brown turned to music, getting his professional start with a group called the Gospel Starlighters. It didn't take long for them to drop their religious repertoire and redub themselves the Famous Flames. Their first hits were recorded in the late '50s, as a style called southern soul was starting to coalesce.
This was a secular sound rooted in the music of the black church. You can divide it into two broad categories: slow and fast. On the slow side were the ballads, some of which were simply gospel without the references to the Lord, and some of which were ably described by the British critic Barney Hoskyns, in Say it One Time for the Brokenhearted, as "a black gospel foreground, with all the vocal improvisation and intensity that implies, superimposed on a white country background." The uptempo records were gritty, earthy, and sharply syncopated, with piercing, percussive horns; they felt a bit like the old jump blues of the '40s and a bit like another sort of church music—the kind where everybody stomps their feet and the Holy Ghost starts to manifest Itself in the pews.
James Brown sang in both styles. If you don't think you hear anything country in his ballads, listen harder: He reportedly recorded but never released an entire album of country covers, and in 1979 he played the Grand Ole Opry. The keyboardist in Opry host Porter Wagoner's band had spent two years playing with Brown, and after Wagoner saw Brown in concert he invited the godfather of soul to come on his show. According to Hoskyns, Brown "performed a medley of 'Your Cheatin' Heart', 'Georgia on My Mind' and 'Tennessee Waltz', then followed with some funk." Some Opry stars protested his presence, but Wagoner later declared that the set "went over real big" with the audience. Brown less enthusiastically said that he "got as much praise as a white man who goes into a black church and puts $100 in the collection plate."
Good as his ballads were, as the '60s wore on Brown was increasingly identified with the uptempo side of soul. As every instrument in his ensemble, from the guitar to the human voice, became part of the rhythm section, Brown and his band created a whole new form of music, called funk. The melodies faded, the increasingly complex rhythms moved to the foreground, and the songs grew longer, as the rhythms became a launching pad for rich improvisations rooted in jazz (and, as other artists adopted Brown's innovations, in Latin rock and Hendrix-style psychedelia). The lyrics, befitting the genre's gospel origins, were ecstatic chants and screams; they carried echoes of both sex and sermons.
In the '60s and '70s Brown spoke out for black entrepreneurship and for strong black communities, for "the need for Afro-Americans to own things if we were ever going to have any real equality." His views soon crept into his music as well. After a decade of crossing over from the R&B world to the pop charts, he lost a large chunk of his white audience in 1968, with "Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud." Over a bare-boned rhythm, Brown shouted:
I worked on a job with my feet and my hands
But all the work I did was for the other man
Now we demand a chance to do things for ourself
We're tired of beatin' our head against the wall and workin' for someone else
It was incendiary stuff, and it attracted black rebels even as white radio programmers backed away. It isn't hard to imagine why Neal and Baraka would project themselves onto the pop star, fantasizing about a Brown with more "consciousness."
It was harder to imagine Brown reading Fanon four years later, when the musician called for the reelection of Richard Nixon. But the same year Brown sang "Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud," the future president had pointed out that "much of black militant talk these days is actually in terms far closer to the doctrines of free enterprise than to those of the welfarist thirties." Nixon went on to endorse "black power, in the best, the constructive sense of that often misapplied term….It's no longer enough that white-owned enterprises employ greater numbers of Negroes, whether as laborers or as middle-management personnel. This is needed, yes—but it has to be accompanied by an expansion of black ownership, of black capitalism."
That might sound like a plan to loosen the strings that held back black businesses, for slashing at the licensing laws and other restraints that kept ghetto enterprises underground. Instead the president announced a black capitalism initiative that amounted to yet more goodies from the government: new contracts, new loans, new red tape. Nixon's black capitalism, like Nixon's white capitalism, had more to do with patronage than with free enterprise. The point wasn't black power; it was quelling unrest and buying votes.
Still, when Robert J. Brown, a special assistant to the president, visited a radio station owned by James Brown in 1971, the singer was drawn to what the White House's envoy had to say. He liked the fact that federal funds were flowing to black businesses and black colleges (though he never took any government grants himself, and in fact was hassled regularly by the IRS). He also managed to convince himself that the president would make Martin Luther King's birthday a holiday, a change that wouldn't actually come until the Reagan years. And since Nixon was sure to win in a landslide anyway, he thought an endorsement might earn him some influence in the administration. "A situation like that puts somebody who's sort of a spokesman in a dilemma," Brown recalled in his 1986 memoir The Godfather of Soul, written with Bruce Tucker. "You can either try to get inside and have some influence, or you can stay outside and be pure and powerless. Either way you're going to get criticized, especially if you're a black spokesman." In the last month of the campaign, Brown announced his support for Nixon.
That didn't go over well with his fans, and protests dogged his concerts for a while. In his memoir, Brown suggested his decision "cost me a lot of my black audience, just like 'Black and Proud' had cost me a lot of my white audience." Black power is a two-edged sword.
Brown had some more hits on the R&B charts after that, some of them pretty big. But by the end of the decade, he was struggling to stay relevant, adapting to trends rather than setting them; one album billed him as The Original Disco Man, which is a bit like Duke Ellington passing himself off as the father of smooth jazz. He charted occasionally in the '80s, but by then he was basically an oldies act.
But at the same time, he was something more. As his own creative energies started to slide, young producers and rappers started slicing, dicing, and remixing his records into new pieces of music. In the mash-up era, this happens to virtually every pop star, but James Brown has been sampled more than any other artist. He didn't just influence hip hop. He became a basic building block of the genre. Some rappers borrowed entire Brown songs, adding little to the mix but some uninspired rhymes; others used little shards of his music to build larger groove collages.
In his 1985 novel Schismatrix, the science-fiction writer Bruce Sterling described people who didn't die—not officially, anyway—but "faded" instead, their corporal existence replaced by a ghostly "programmed web of speeches, announcements, taped appearances, and random telephone calls." James Brown certainly seemed to be fading for the last three decades of his life. Besides the decline in his output, his personal life fell apart. He was credibly accused of beating one of his wives. After a high-speed car chase he was sentenced to six years in prison, in what the critic Dave Marsh called "perhaps the longest sentence ever given in the United States for a traffic charge." He served two years before being paroled.
But like the faded characters in Sterling's novel, his programmed web of rhythms and shouts is all around us. If you want to fuse Brown's music to the words of Frantz Fanon—or Richard Nixon, or anyone else—it's there, just waiting to be deployed. James Brown died on Christmas day, 2006, but he didn't just leave us a great body of work. He left us the tools to make more music long after he's gone.
Jesse Walker is managing editor of reason.