James Brown Born: May 3,1933-Died: December 25,2005 Part Seven
Civil rights and self-reliance
Though Brown performed at benefit rallies for civil rights organizations in the mid-1960s, Brown often shied away from discussing civil rights in his songs. In 1968, in response to a growing urge of anti-war advocacy during the Vietnam War, Brown recorded the song, “America Is My Home”. In the song, Brown performed a rap, advocating patriotism and exhorting listeners to “stop pitying yoursel[ves] and get up and fight.” At the time of the song’s release, Brown had been participating in performing for troops stationed in Vietnam. A day after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Brown gave out a televised concert at the Boston Garden to calm concerned Boston relatives. The show was later released on DVD as Live at the Boston Garden: April 5, 1968. According to the documentary, The Night James Brown Saved Boston, then-mayor Kevin White had strongly restrained the Boston police from cracking down on minor violence and protests after the assassination, while religious and community leaders worked to keep tempers from flaring. White arranged to have Brown’s performance broadcast multiple times on Boston’s public television station, WGBH, thus keeping potential rioters off the streets, watching the concert for free. Angered by not being told of this, Brown demanded $60,000 for “gate” fees (money he thought would be lost from ticket sales on account of the concert being broadcast for free) and then threatened to go public about the secret arrangement when the city balked at paying up afterwards, news of which would have been a political death blow to White and spark riots of its own. White eventually lobbied the behind-the-scenes power-brokering group known as “The Vault” to come up with money for Brown’s gate fee and other social programs, contributing $100,000. Brown received $15,000 from them via the city. White also persuaded management at the Garden to give up their share of receipts to make up the differences. Following this successful performance, Brown was cautioned by President Johnson to visit cities ravaged from riots following King’s assassination to not resort to violence, telling them to “cool it, there’s another way”.
Responding to pressure from black activists, including H. Rap Brown, to take a bigger stance on their issues and from footage of black on black crime committed in inner cities, Brown wrote the lyrics to the song “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud”, which his bandleader Alfred “Pee Wee” Ellis accompanied with a musical composition. Released late that summer, the song’s lyrics helped to make it an anthem for the civil rights movement. Brown only performed the song sporadically following its initial release and later stated he had regrets recording it, saying in 1984, “Now ‘Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud’ has done more for the black race than any other record, but if I had my choice, I wouldn’t have done it, because I don’t like defining anyone by race. To teach race is to teach separatism.” In his autobiography he stated:
The song is obsolete now… But it was necessary to teach pride then, and I think the song did a lot of good for a lot of people… People called “Black and Proud” militant and angry – maybe because of the line about dying on your feet instead of living on your knees. But really, if you listen to it, it sounds like a children’s song. That’s why I had children in it, so children who heard it could grow up feeling pride… The song cost me a lot of my crossover audience. The racial makeup at my concerts was mostly black after that. I don’t regret it, though, even if it was misunderstood.
In 1969, Brown recorded two more songs of social commentary, “World” and “I Don’t Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing”, the latter song pleading for equal opportunity and self-reliance rather than entitlement. In 1970, in response to some black leaders for not being outspoken enough, he recorded “Get Up, Get into It, Get Involved” and “Talkin’ Loud and Sayin’ Nothing”. In 1971 he began touring Africa, including Zambia and Nigeria. He was made “freeman of the city” in Lagos, Nigeria by Oba Adeyinka Oyekan, for his “influence on black people all over the world.” With his company, James Brown Enterprises, Brown helped to provide jobs for blacks in business in the communities. As the 1970s continued, Brown continued to record songs of social commentary, most prominently 1972’s “King Heroin” and the two-part ballad “Public Enemy”, which dealt with drug addiction.
During the 1968 presidential campaign, Brown endorsed Democratic presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey and appeared with Humphrey at political rallies. Brown began supporting Republican president Richard Nixon after being invited to perform at Nixon’s inaugural ball in January 1969. Brown’s endorsement of Nixon during the 1972 presidential election negatively impacted his career during that period with several national Black organizations boycotting his records and protesting at his concert shows. Brown stated he was neither Democratic nor Republican despite his support of Republican presidents such as Nixon and Ronald Reagan. In 1999, when being interviewed by Rolling Stone, the magazine asked him to name a hero in the 20th century; Brown mentioned John F. Kennedy and 96-year-old, former Dixiecrat Senator Strom Thurmond, stating “when the young whippersnappers get out of line, whether Democratic or Republican, an old man can walk up and say ‘Wait a minute, son, it goes this way.’ And that’s great for our country. He’s like a grandfather to me.” In 2003, Brown was the featured attraction of a Washington D.C. fundraiser for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Following the deaths of Ronald Reagan and his friend Ray Charles, Brown said to CNN, “I’m kind of in an uproar. I love the country and I got – you know I’ve been around a long time, through many presidents and everything. So after losing Mr. Reagan, who I knew very well, then Mr. Ray Charles, who I worked with and lived with like, all our life, we had a show together in Oakland many, many years ago and it’s like you found the placard.”