James Brown (1933–2006) was many things to his fans and friends. He was a legendary showman, the Godfather of Soul, a funk music innovator who still holds the record for most songs on the Billboard Hot 100 chart without ever scoring a No. 1 Hot 100 hit. He was a notorious perfectionist who demanded the absolute best of his musicians and enforced a strict no-drug policy with his band (but allegedly abused drugs himself later in his career). With multiple arrests for spousal abuse, paternity questions and other legal issues , his off-stage life was as dramatic as his flashy stage show—and his personal problems became nearly as talked-about as his music.
Politically, Brown was just as complicated and contradictory. His support of Richard Nixon and friendship with Ronald Reagan surprised many Black liberals, just as his willingness to perform for the troops fighting in Vietnam disturbed those who were fervently opposed to the war. Meanwhile, Brown was a champion of the civil rights movement—a cause closely associated with the left—speaking out loudly and clearly in support of equality, as he did in his unforgettable civil rights anthem “Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud.”
Brown believed that the song and its sentiments were crucial in 1968—he wanted children to hear it so they could “grow up feeling pride.” And it wasn’t the only song he wrote in an effort to empower Black people. “I Don’t Want Nobody To Give Me Nothing (Open Up The Door, I’ll Get It Myself)” encouraged both pride and self-reliance.
Brown was also a believer in the power of education, perhaps because he was not able to finish school himself. Brown grew up in poverty, and his early life was filled with turmoil. His mother left the family when he was two, and his father sent him to live with an aunt who ran a brothel. Brown left school for good in the seventh grade after he was dismissed for “insufficient clothing.” Though Brown eventually achieved success, he knew his story was a rare one and he encouraged African-American children and teens to stay in school. In 1966’s “Don’t Be a Drop-Out,” he worked hard to convince young people not to follow in his footsteps.
Though his love for liberal causes like civil rights and education would seem to clash with some of his staunchly Republican stances, it was all part of the James Brown package. Whatever the cause, whenever James Brown turned to activism, his message came through loud and clear—and, as always, it was very funky.
Originally published May 2013