ChickenBones: A Journal
for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes
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Brown believed in black capitalism. Brown embraced Nixon. In later years
he would recognize that money wont save you and cozying up
to Tricky Dick was not the best idea in the world.
CDs by James Brown
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Music Commentary by Mtume ya Salaam & Kalamu ya Salaam
–from Breath of Life
The ass end of an elephant. A lot of the paeans to James Brown, a lot of the posthumous assessments, damn near all of the effusive praise from the mainstream press is alleach an every worda case of judging an elephant by looking only at its ass, i.e. they are looking backwards and making all kinds of statements, much of which may be factual as far as they go, but all of it is generally misleading because they decontextualize James Brown from the times. If you only look at an elephants ass, you will never understand two of the elephants more distinctive characteristics: its nose and its tusks. Everybody knows Say It Loud and champions it as a song which changed America. Well, thats not entirely true. Also, everybody knows that James Brown is the progenitor of funk music, but theres more there than usually noted. Poltiics and Blues. This is what Im talking about. First on a political tip, JB was pushed into Say It Loud. The black nation was on the move, burning upand not just metaphorically. Rap Brown was paying James Brown visits. Browns core audience was more militant than it had ever been, so militant that they encouraged JB to cut his conk. JB even co-wrote and produced a Hank Ballard song with the lyric: how you gonna get respect / if you havent cut your process yet? You better believe wearing an afro was a major statement for/from James Brown, a statement he felt compelled to make by the mood of black folk in the late sixties. Say It Loud (by the way, this is a live version from a Dallas, Texas concert) is a contradiction and a paradox. It was cut in Seattle (if I remember correctlymy books are in storage so I cant check it definitely), in any case, band members were urging JB to do something that spoke directly to the movement, and when JB decided to do it, the band was on the road and typically he wanted to do it when he was moved to do it so they went into the studio and they had the idea to use a chorus of children except they couldnt find enough black kids so it was actually an integrated childrens chorus shouting Im black and Im proud. Isnt that a gas? Brown believed in black capitalism. Brown embraced Nixon. In later years he would recognize that money wont save you and cozying up to Tricky Dick was not the best idea in the world. Rather than try to help JB in his later years and offer him administrative support in exchange for his many years of advocating capitalism, the system tried their damnest to bury him. Which is why, I dont care how conservative he often was politically, I will always embrace James Brown because this was one negro the system could never digest. Money issues not withstanding. His white wives and domestic violence woes not withstanding. Etc. etc. (whatever ones particular disinclination to bow down fully on all fours to Mr. Brown), for whatever reasons, nothing disagreeable he has done outweighs how the system has demonized and attempted to trivialize James Brown.
Lets be clear, while JBs contributions to American music in general and to rap in particular are incomparable, the fact is it is the adulation and admiration of the rap audience which has made James Brown immortal and made it impossible for the system to ignore him. Young people in general, and Black youth in particular are the secret ingredient in the worldwide success of James Brownand you can take that to the bank. I do not mean to downgrade JBs musical genius or entertainment expertise, I just mean to acknowledge that our peoples love for James has kept James in the forefront and by our people I mean essentially blues people (especially if you understand that rap is just 21st century blues). Blues power. Yes, yes yall. Blues. So we have those four political cuts: Say It Loud, Funky President (which its funky flutes), “How You Gonna Get Respect” and I Dont Want Nobody To Give Me Nothing. Do yall realize that Black people in America do not own (not even) one major national media company: no television network, no radio network, no national newspaper. Were it not for the Johnson publishing empire Let me stop, I dont want to go down this road. Im just saying listen again, and again, to I Dont Want Nobody To Give Me Nothing. Listen and listen hard. But the other foot, the good foot, was and is the blues. On these three cuts, JB is singing & talking, and playing a mean blues piano. JB like you probably have not heard him before. The blues. The bedrock foundation of African American music. How foundational? Well, everybody always be pointing to gospel music, but gospel music as we know it is the blues outside child. Kalamu, what are you talking about? Im saying that gospel music as we know it did not exist until Thomas Dorsey, Mahalia Jackson, and later on some other folk, brought blues elements into the church. Anybody that doesnt believe this, you need to do some hard study and get beyond mainstream Christian claims. Facts is facts. Check it out. But again, that is not the subject. Right now we are talking politics and blues. Thats my homage to James Brown. Politics and blues: How the people moved JB and he in turn moved the people. How he was based in the blues because the blues gave him a way to express his life experiences. How he developed a respect for kuchijagulia, i.e. self-determination, mainly because didnt nobody give him nothing, he had to work, and work hard. I guess thats enough.
In the cosmic sense, the sense in which we say for example that Bird Lives, in that sense, James Brown is not dead, he is just taking a well deserved rest. R.I.P. JB, R.I.P.Kalamu ya Salaam
Because of scheduling conflicts, Im having to write this response before Ive read Kalamus post. But I still I have to say a word or two about J.B. Im no fan of hyperbole, but when it comes to James Brown, its actually difficult to overstate is contribution to black American music. He enjoyed one of the longest and most significant careers in the history of R&B. If that wasnt enough, his rhythms are
also the cornerstone of a entirely separate genre of music, that being hip-hop. I dont think it overstates the case to say that James Brown is the only musician from outside of hip-hop culture without whom hip-hop could not exist. In other words: no J.B., no rap. RIP, J.B. Youre the man. Mtume ya Salaam
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Thanks for the straight up blues pieces by James Brown. Maybe JB should have done more of that. I always thought Bobby Rush was a James Brown with the blues but of course with much more honest country humor. JB was a man filled with enormous contradictions (demons) as well as creative talent and imagination. In a sense I preferred the proto-political James Brown. There was much of the 60s and 70s that he did not digest well. He just did not have the education and intellect to do so. Though he popularized a few Black Power/Black Arts ideas, he also bastardized them for they really did not sink very deep. He turned ideas into popular slogans for the dull masses. And to a degree he became an embarrassment in more ways than one.
It’s true, as Kalamu says, he could not be fully digested by the respectable status quo. Overall, Kalamu’s comments are insightful and add greatly to tales about JB. I, however, would like to take issue with his analogy: “I mean . . . rap is just 21st century blues.” That is the second time I’ve read this week his analogy of blues and rap. He made it more forcefully in the commentary HOWLIN WOLF, MUDDY WATERS, & BO DIDDLEY. I generally agree with Kalamu’s views, especially when it comes to music, but . . . Analogies in general are problematical. The blues and rap analogy really stretches the truth of things.
Yes, you can find some “similarities” between the two but to say one is the other does violence to the blues and to blues artists. It is like saying a limb is a root; a son or a cousin is the parent. The major difference between the blues and rap is that the blues have a moral/ethical center that cannot be approached by rap lyrics. It is much more grounded in the community, among the people, despite the criticisms of church and other respectable folks. Rap cannot make such claims. Rap has its basic root in minstrelsy rather than the blues, an appeal outside of the community that blues never strove for. Of course, R & B is another subject altogether and probably should not be fused with the blues as one and the same thing.
Again thanks for the blues pieces by JB. They were new and refreshing. Rudy
the problem is us, not the form
the real problem is the state of our people not the form of expression. why you think i mentioned the lack of national black media? i believe you are right that “analogies in general are problematical” but the limitations of any analogy does not make the analogy wrong. the blues is a major foundational element of all contemporary black music. period. rap is a blues manifestation, especially given its rootedness in the masses, its folk poetry of language (those dazzling displays of verbal acrobatics are unmatched in anything else happening in music today, its a way with words and with the sound of words that is astounding, if you can hear it). as for the moral/ethical center thats a whole other discussion that requires us to ask whose/what morals, whose/what ethics. there is no easy answer.
the commercialization of rap is both the attraction of it for todays youth and the destruction of it in terms of what you, Rudy, identify as “minstrelsy.” the blues musicians you revere and hold up as examples are the top of the line, we both know there were more than two jokers in the blues deck, there were a bunch of minstrels in the blues, its just when we reference, we reference by the best, and if we choose the best of rap, we wont be talking about the minstrels. thanks for your comments. and, oh yeah, one more thing, i prefer the blues-based/funk-based jb, which is to say, i prefer all of pre-eighties jb, because afterwards he became just the sort of minstrel that you characterize and chastise rappers about. we may not want to see it, but who refers to jbs post “living in america” as great recordings? kalamu
posted 31 December 2006
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Brown talks about the difficulties of his early life. He only went to school through 7th grade but he says the lack of education also ensured that he would learn about life through experience. “I know the whole thing and I’m glad I know it,” he says. “I have a 7th grade education formally but a doctor’s degree in the street. I know what it’s about.” Before his musical success, he says, he worked at a lot of hard, low-paying jobs, such as shining shoes and picking cotton. But at the time interview, he owned three radio stations and was producing his own syndicated television show. Brown startles Scott by announcing it is his 45th birthday, rising from his chair and launching into a series of dance moves that included dropping to his knees and popping back up to his feet. Scott asks how Brown can keep doing that kind of thing at his age. Matrix
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James Joseph Brown, Jr. (May 3, 1933 December 25, 2006) was an American singer and entertainer. Eventually referred to as “The Godfather of Soul”, Brown started singing in church groups and worked his way up. He has been recognized as one of the most influential figures in the 20th century popular music and was renowned for his vocals and feverish dancing. He was also called “the hardest working man in show business” As a prolific singer, songwriter, dancer and bandleader, Brown was a pivotal force in the music industry. He left his mark on numerous artists. Brown’s music also left its mark on the rhythms of African popular music, such as afrobeat, jùjú and mbalax, and provided a template for go-go music. Wikipedia
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The Shining Words: Chairman Mao Originally published in Scratch, March/April 2007.
In the early hours of Christmas Day 2006 James Brown, weak from pneumonia and suffering congestive heart failure, turned to his long-time friend and manager Charles Bobbit and said simply, Im going to leave here tonight. After making his peace with the Creator, the Godfather of Soul lay back in his Atlanta hospital bed one final time, passing on to a better place not of this earth.
Music fans of the world mourned the passing of a legend. James Brown, it had seemed to many of us, was bigger than life, someone that no hardship, obstacle, or setbackbe it growing up in the Jim Crow South, incarceration, band mutinies, or changing popular musical tastescould hold back. We of the hip-hop generation, of course, felt a great kinship with James for having helped him overcome the latter. During the better part of the late 70s and early 80s when Black radio turned its collective back on JB, essentially writing off Soul Brother #1 as Soul Brother # Done, South Bronx selectors kept his heaviest beats in rotationone break and two copies at a timeand commemorated his birthday with annual Zulu Nation throwdowns. By the mid-80s, when producer Marley Marl discovered the powers of digital sampling (and soon after the super-powers of sampling James Brown and his productions) the Godfather was once again back and, to quote a line from his own Coldblooded, hipper than hip. He was hip-hop.
Rap cats took great pride in taking credit for the restoration of his career (lest we forget Daddy-Os oft-quoted lyric from Stetsasonics Talkin All That JazzTell the truth James Brown was old/ Til Eric and Ra came out with I [Know You] Got Soul). But the truth of the matter was it was James whod blessed us by laying down the true blueprint of hip-hop (sorry, Kris; sorry, Hov) with the pioneering rhythm method of his funk recordings of the late 60s and early 70s. On ground-breaking groove-centric workouts and extended jams like Soul Power, Funky Drummer, Escape-Ism, Make It Funky, Mind Power, Papa Dont Take No Mess, the almighty Give It Up or Turnit a Loose, and countless others, traditional song structure was handed its walking papers, replaced by funk-drenched vamps repeated to the edge of panic before temporary relief arrived in the form of a bridge every now and then.
This was rhythm for rhythms sake, a celebration of beats so bad (meaning good) that the self-dubbed Minister of New New (two times!) Super Heavy Funk could even cease singing, drop entire songs of spoken jewels, or have his prodigious band-members shout out their hometowns and still keep the party live. This was the futurethe basis of not just hip-hop, but every other genre of modern club or dance music now in existence. James himself knew it; it just took the rest of us a while to catch up to him.
No such uncertainty existed on Thursday, December 28th, 2006 when blocks upon blocks of James Brown fans withstood several hours waiting on line in the winter chill to see our musical guiding light grace the stage of Harlem USAs Apollo Theater one last time, and say goodbye and thank you. We represented different generations; from old timers whod seen the Godfather perform frequently over the years; to young childrenthere at the behest of their parents for whom hearing Say It Loud, Im Black and Im Proud sung in unison by a crowd of strangers the same complexion as theirs induced an epiphany that was priceless to witness. Our common bond was undeniable: the soundtrack to our lives would be entirely unimaginable without James Brown.
The King is dead; long live the King. James Brown Forever. R.I.P.
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By Gil Scott Heron
Shortly after we republished The Vulture and The Nigger Factory, Gil started to tell me about The Last Holiday, an account he was writing of a multi-city tour that he ended up doing with Stevie Wonder in late 1980 and early 1981. Originally Bob Marley was meant to be playing the tour that Stevie Wonder had conceived as a way of trying to force legislation to make Martin Luther King’s birthday a national holiday. At the time, Marley was dying of cancer, so Gil was asked to do the first six dates. He ended up doing all 41. And Dr King’s birthday ended up becoming a national holiday (“The Last Holiday because America can’t afford to have another national holiday”), but Gil always felt that Stevie never got the recognition he deserved and that his story needed to be told. The first chapters of this book were given to me in New York when Gil was living in the Chelsea Hotel. Among the pages was a chapter called Deadline that recounts the night they played Oakland, California, 8 December; it was also the night that John Lennon was murdered. Gil uses Lennon’s violent end as a brilliant parallel to Dr King’s assassination and as a biting commentary on the constraints that sometimes lead to newspapers getting things wrong. Jamie Byng, Guardian / Gil_reads_”Deadline” (audio) / Gil Scott-Heron & His Music Gil Scott Heron Blue Collar Remember Gil Scott- Heron
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Edited by Michael Oatman and Mary Weems
Preface by Lamont B. Steptoe
This anthology is a tribute in poems to James Brown and includes work by over 30 poets including Amiri Baraka, Emotion Brown, Katie Daley, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Kelly A. Harris, Tony Medina, Ayodele Nzinga, Michael Oatman, Michelle Rankins, Patricia Smith, Lamont B. Steptoe, George Wallace and Mary Weems.
“On May 3, 1933, James Joseph Brown was born in Barnwell, South Carolina in the heart of Jim Crow America. On December 25, 2006, JB, the hardest working man in show business passed on. These poems celebrate, memorialize and speak to the legacy of the Godfather of Soul. They share their memories from childhood to adulthood of the man who was influenced by such musical giants as Little Richard, but who laid the physical and musical steps for artists such as Michael Jackson and many current Rap and Hip Hop musicians today.”Adah Ward-Randolph
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From The World and Africa, 1965
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update 6 February 2012