James Brown, the so-called “Godfather of Soul” died Christmas Day at 73. He is credited with influencing our present day rap, rhythm and blues and soul musicians. His passing will be memorialized with new retrospectives and old documentaries, all emphasizing his music. Brown was also known as “The hardest working man in show business.”
He should also be remembered for his contribution to the black discourse. He made musical statements about “being black and being proud,” which changed the American vernacular.
The use of the word “colored” to refer to a black person was changed to “black.” His influence on black people as they emerged from American apartheid in the late 1960s and early 1970s was substantial.
In April, 1971, I was stationed at Fort George G. Meade, Maryland, near Baltimore. One night I was assigned to command a small armed detachment of young soldiers, some white, some black. Our mission: To ensure that the “Black Panthers” didn’t come and steal weapons that were being stored in a locked truck overnight during the First Army Rifle and Pistol Matches. The Black Panthers were more growl than bite, but the Army took them very seriously.
Our company’s arms room featured a .50 caliber machine gun facing the front door from the inside. Some of the military leaders thought that a Panther-led race riot was just a Molotov cocktail away.
That night, the young blacks in our little group listened to an AM radio R&B station out of Baltimore. It was one of several owned by James Brown along the East Coast.
At about midnight, Mr. Brown came on live and gave about a 10-minute discourse on racial inequality he said was still being practiced by the city of Baltimore and some of its merchants. Brown urged his listeners to “not go downtown to shop tomorrow” as a means of letting the city fathers know that it was time to change and to change with the times.
Brown encouraged nonviolence as a means to the end of segregation and racism. He chose to give his message through his lyrics and music and to influence young leaders with his concept of cooler heads prevailing.
On the flip side, Brown had what most obituary writers will call “a troubled life.” He was an orphan who grew up on the streets of then-segregated Augusta, Ga., and who had run-ins with the law even after becoming a show-business success. He was in the initial class inducted into Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He bought the Augusta radio station where he had once shined shoes. There is a statue in his honor nearby. Most importantly, his influence and his music will live on.
Play it loud and play it proud.
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