Music lends a voice to circumstances, times, and places. Multifaceted, it can give voice to the disenfranchised as well as lull a child to sleep at its mother’s bosom; it can uplift a nation defining love, hope and fear. Utilized for diverse purposes, it has been used to ease the suffering of people and/or used to motivate slaves in the cotton fields giving rhythm to the mundane backbreaking day-to-day chores done on plantations in the South. Employed by the military for marching purposes, it also has been used by chain gangs doing hard labor working on the roadsides of the nation. Whether for ministry or revolution, often using metaphor to mask the message, music can be used to heal as well as to subvert.
Some of the greatest anthems have arisen from the ashes of struggles on the soil of the United States and defined and articulated major turning points in the history of the nation. For instance, The Star Spangled Banner was a product of a poem by Francis Scott Key commemorating the defense of Fort McHenry in the Battle of Baltimore during the War of 1812. This poem later became the soundtrack known throughout the world defining the great struggle it took to become a nation.
Likewise, Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing, written by James Johnson Weldon, gave identity to the African American struggle up through slavery and the turn of the century. A song known as “The Black National Anthem,” calls for the ringing of liberty and hope for the future of a people in the throes of racism, Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan compelling blacks to press on “til victory is won.” The song, adopted by the NAACP in 1919 as an anthem, clearly articulates the parallel universes shared by blacks and whites in this country. During and after the Civil Rights Movement it was and still is sung in tandem with the Star Spangled Banner where African Americans are predominantly in attendance.
In 1968 America had reached its boiling point. With the onset of the Vietnam War, the country had grown tired of what was considered an endless proposition. Martin Luther King, Jr., our greatest civil rights leader, was assassinated precipitating one of the most tumultuous periods in American history erupting into race riots across the nation (Baltimore, Boston, Detroit, Kansas City, Newark, and Washington, DC). President Lyndon B. Johnson signed a new Civil Rights bill. The Black Panther Party, very active at the time, was known for its militant stance on civil rights and self-defense.
James Brown hit the airwaves with what was hailed as an anthem, in retrospect a political statement, with Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud. Revolutionary by the standards of the time (1968), the song was an unfiltered, incendiary message of racial pride articulating the concept of beauty and self-love denied blacks for so long in America. Explosive, it complimented the “Black Power” chants of the Black Panther Party and helped to provide a soundtrack redefining an era. Through this culmination of events in 1968, blacks forever changed the ways in which they viewed themselves in the context of this nation, no longer accepting a definition heaped on them through a prism of racism.
“For over a decade, ever since the landmark 1954 Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas decision outlawing school segregation, the ‘second Reconstruction’ had moved from victory to victory, leveling the monstrous edifice of Jim Crow that had shadowed southern race relations since the 1890s.”1 However, in 1968 it was still apparent according to the Kerner Commission Report that two separate Americas still existed: separate and unequal. Although little remained of publicly enforced discrimination, equality of white and black in America was nowhere in sight.
Despite the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the effects of poverty were compounded by residential segregation. The advent of television brought the plight of Southern blacks into the homes of white Americans in northern cities, who empathetic, when confronted with northern migration they were fiercely protective of their turf. Legally they had to accept a black employee in the workplace or a black diner at the lunch counter, but the line was drawn at the sight of a black family moving into their neighborhood. In fact, in northern cities de facto segregation and discrimination decreed blacks must remain confined to ghettos.
The ghettos may have accomplished the feat of ringing in the undesirables but it further alienated men and women who already felt wronged by white society. In the post World War II era, black Americans had experienced a revolution of rising expectations combined with and supported by victories in the courts. “Growing numbers of young African Americans, along with diverse black religious leaders, dismayed by the great political and economic disparities between themselves and white Americans, became catalysts for an increasingly radical turn in the civil rights movement.”2
Economic equality, an ever-present problem, plagued black communities because whites were disproportionately in better positions on the work front. Opportunity had a trickle-down effect leaving blacks to believe they were still getting the scraps from the table of America, especially when compared to the occupational wealth of whites. They got leftovers at best.
Police brutality and repression fanned the flames of resentment. The racial make-up of the police force did not reflect the community in which they worked. Predominantly white, they feared and despised the people they were supposed to protect, and treated them with contempt. Ill-equipped and poorly trained, working class whites were recruited to police people who were close in status and most likely in direct competition with for housing and employment. Whitney Young summed it up when he said:
“Overcrowded ghettos, cheating storeowners, bankrupt educational systems, discriminatory job practices – all of these are violent attacks on the dignity and worth of individual men. They kill souls as surely as bullets kill people.”3
By mid-decade the cries of dissent and dissatisfaction were coursing through the ghettos. In 1965 Malcolm X’s meteoric rise to prominence came with a message that articulated what was in the hearts and minds of people, further inciting tendencies towards violence. James Baldwin opines in The Fire Next Time, “there is no reason that black men should be expected to be more patient, more forbearing, more farseeing than whites; indeed, quite the contrary.”4 It tapped into the disenchantment felt before and after with the Civil Rights Act that had no bearing on day-to-day life in the ghetto, lacking solutions to the problems at hand. “Malcolm’s dismissal of the goal of racial integration and King’s message of redemption through brotherly love resonated with many younger civil rights workers disillusioned by white violence.”5 His appeal was reminiscent of Marcus Garvey’s uplifting and empowering call to blacks to stand up for what they deserved.
During 1968 the Civil Rights Movement was in peril. King was exhausted, physically and emotionally; despair was creeping into his message. “Many of his former disciples were floating away on diverging streams of dissent; even to his friends, he looked more and more like a prophet without a constituency.”6 There was a “changing of the guard” taking place just like that between the leadership of Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey where different times required different measures. King’s strategy worked well for the South but the inner-city of the north was a different animal.
“The civil right’s leader’s language was becoming more extreme, and he was aware of his own role in creating a crisis of expectations. ‘A kind of genocide has been perpetrated against the black people,’ he told a Miami audience, ‘psychological and spiritual genocide. … Bitterness is often greater toward that person who built up the hope, who could say, ‘I have a dream,’ but couldn’t produce the dream because of the failure and the sickness of the nation to respond to the dream.’”7
In February 1968 the Kerner Commission issued a report that used harsh language to assuage the racial precipice that the country was tottering over slowly descending into catastrophe. White people as well as the press were indicted as enablers of segregation and discrimination in the ghettos across America. The irony was that President Lyndon Johnson, who commissioned the report, felt offended by its tone and implication. It received much press turning into a debate between liberals and conservatives. Recommendations were made just as they were in the reports of the 1919 Chicago riot, the Harlem riots of ’35 and ’43, and the Watts riot. Just as in the past, the recommendations were met with inaction creating an even more volatile situation, because “The Negroes of this country may never rise to power, but they are very well placed indeed to precipitate chaos and ring down the curtain on the American dream.”8
The Kerner Commission reinforced King’s agenda in planning the Poor People’s Campaign, a massive demonstration in Washington, DC. The plan was for thousands of blacks from the South to camp out at the capital with a demand for redistribution of the nation’s wealth. King was distracted from the demonstration by a confrontation of sanitation workers with the power structure of Memphis, TN. resulting in a strike. King joined the protesters in a march that quickly turned violent, something that never happened to him before. “‘Maybe we have to admit that the day of violence is here…maybe we have to just give up and let violence take its course,’ he told his chief aide, Ralph Abernathy.”9
Days later, Lyndon Johnson withdrew from the presidential race. Seemingly hemmed in on both sides by Bobby Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy, he also wasn’t in the best of health. “What changed Johnson’s mind was the conclusion that it would require a dramatic gesture to bring the North Vietnamese to the bargaining table.”10 Ultimately Johnson’s presidency became a casualty of the war.
The Vietnam War peaked in 1968. In light of proclamations of imminent victory, Vietcong Communist guerillas struck in a series of attacks in South Vietnam that caught Americans by surprise. A request for more troops by General Westmoreland led to a debate within the Johnson administration; the outcome was a policy to gradually shift the burden of fighting to the South Vietnamese. The war would last another five years, but the number of American troops risking their lives would decrease.
Within two days of Johnson’s announcement, Martin Luther King, Jr. was gunned down on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, TN. Racial violence erupted within hours of King’s assassination in over 100 American cities.
“The apostle of peaceful change was honored by a holocaust that exceeded in fury and cost any of the previous ‘long, hot summers.’ Ironically, King had warned of this possibility in his last fundraising letter accusing the government of ‘playing Russian roulette with riots’ and ‘speculating in blood’ by doing too little about the ghettos’ problems.”11
Nonetheless, King’s death did not thwart the Poor People’s Campaign but it probably guaranteed its demise. Leadership became an issue; Abernathy did not have King’s charisma, and coupled with inclimate weather the Campaign literally became a washout. During the next few days the newspapers headlined the event as:
“CONFUSED GOALS, LEADERSHIP CRISIS PERILS POOR MARCH and DISSENT JEOPEARDIZES THE POOR PEOPLE’S CAMPAIGN.”12
Thus the civil rights movement metaphorically died along with King.
Within 24 hours of Dr. King’s assassination, center stage at the Boston Garden, an unlikely candidate emerged as a “dark horse” of civil rights. Already an icon in black communities, on April 5, 1968 James Brown gave a concert. Other cities were aflame; of the 14,000 seat theater only 2,000 seats were filled. Boston Mayor Kevin White was prepared for the worst and implored the audience to honor King’s memory by keeping the peace. Once Brown took the stage the fans rushed forward. As uniformed police closed in he called for them to back off and talked the fans back to their seats averting a riot. Brown requested that they air the concert on television “‘so that it would help curb some of the violence if everybody stayed home that night and watched him.’”13 He was able to engage the audience diffusing some of the anger that would lead to violence in the streets. Boston was the one city that had no violence that night.
Brown, a product of the Jim Crow South, born in a one-room shack in 1933, was no stranger to violence. Abandoned at the age of four by his parents he went to live with his Aunt Honey, a madam of a brothel in Augusta, GA. Tossed out of school for not having the “proper” attire, he did everything from picking cotton, shining shoes to dancing for money. By age 15 he was incarcerated for breaking into a car and sentenced to 8-16 years in jail. It was there that he began to use his church-grown talents leading a gospel choir. He eventually befriended Bobby Byrd, a local musician, who steered him into professional music.
Brown’s background provided him alacrity in business; he understood “the hustle” and, like any good hustler, he was sensitive to the needs of his public. The L.A. Times commented that, “Brown knows how to use his influence for psychological leverage.”14 He reached iconic proportions in the ghetto because “he chose, for many years, to communicate almost exclusively with black audiences, while other great black superstars trained their sights on Hollywood or Las Vegas.”15 He did not let his reform school experience and poverty cloud the message in his music. He challenged black people to be the best they could be.
At the same time, art was becoming more and more revolutionary. It reflected the new consciousness blacks were experiencing in the inner cities throughout the country. “There emerged a new ‘black’ school of drama, a self-styled revolutionary arts movement.”16
“Like the Negro revolution that spawned it, the black school of theater is young, brash, often undisciplined and always insisting that it makes its own rules. It is impatient with – and often scornful of – the traditional and therefore ‘white’ theater.” 17
The pathos behind it was functionality in terms of organizing and motivating the community through self-determination and a positive identity. It chronicled the times. Entertaining yet reflective, it was a living and breathing part of the revolution. Nationalistic in nature, it dismissed any of the “white” attitudes and/or virtues prevalent to the times. Likened to the Irish revolution of the 1920s led by Yeats and O’Casey, their motivation was to liberate themselves from oppression.
Looked at as the father of this new militant movement in poetry and drama, Leroi Jones was what Countee Cullen and Claude McKay were to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. He stressed the function of poetry as the contribution to the growth of black people. Jones birthed a new interest in black drama through the Harlem-based Black Arts Theater subsidized by Project Uplift, a $3.2 million dollar, 10-week program believed to be the by-product of the riots of 1964, designed to quell. Regardless, Jones and young student playwrights produced a series of short plays “that were produced on street corners, tenement stoops and in parks, Jones brought a living theater to Harlem.”18 Criticized as being anti-white and too profane, Jones disbanded the Black Arts Theater and founded Spirit House in Newark, giving that city their first repertory theater. However, he achieved what he considered to be his concept of theater: “‘If the beautiful see themselves, they will love themselves.’”19
The term “Soul” was etched out of the black experience. Derived from the church, it was jazz and blues that brought it to the forefront. It encompassed music, literature, art, drama, poetry and food. Indigenous to America, it gave meaning to the homegrown blackness that gave life to a new culture. Unable to claim African culture, and separate from whites, it defined the “journey” blacks took and endured in America and the innovations that were the result. With a vernacular all its own; varied in content, it evokes a distinct feeling that’s articulation coalesced with the movement of the day. According to James Brown “‘…soul became the perfect marching music for the civil rights era, a way to choreograph the burgeoning pride that could be found everywhere.’”20
In August of 1968, James Brown, aka the Godfather of Soul, released the single Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud. “He intended for the song to be a rallying cry for some kind of ‘peaceful’ self-pride.”21 Proud of his nonviolent stance, the public perceived the song as a cry for resistance becoming an anthem of militancy and revolution. With lyrics like (see attached) “… but we’d rather die on our feet, than keep a’living on our knees” combined with the volatile condition of the country, the song “channeled the righteousness of an oppressed people into a three-minute declaration of independence.”22 Chuck D of Public Enemy best summed up the social impact of the song when he stated “James Brown single-handedly took a lost and confused nation of people and bonded them with a fix of words, music and attitude.”23 The impact was so far-reaching that Komia Gbedemah of the National Alliance of Liberals party of the West African country Ghana adopted the song as a slogan for the 1969 election, although Kofi Busia defeated him.
Ironically, the song was recorded in a Los Angeles area suburb; most of the children that Brown recruited for the call and response during the session were actually white and Asian, with only a few black children included. He walked a fine line between spokesperson, militant and peacekeeper. It was difficult for the black public to comprehend that the same man that incited them to “die on our feet, than keep a’living on our knees” would accept an invitation to the White House from Lyndon Johnson followed by a government sponsored stint performing for the troops in the extremely unpopular Vietnam War where blacks were disproportionately engaged. Adding insult to injury, he performed and supported the election of Richard Nixon and performed at the inauguration celebration.
It makes you wonder what internal dialogue a man would have trying to balance business with the role of messenger to his people. There are parallels between Brown and Booker T. Washington. Both of them came from hopeless situations in the South, pulled themselves up advocating the uplift of the race while pandering to politicians and philanthropists in a manner that bordered on blind ambition. Did his climb from a dismal beginning compromise the validity of his commitment to his message and/or his commitment to his business? Or was he playing two sides of the same coin? Like Washington, you must consider what he had to lose. The Chicago Daily Defender states that “Success and leadership is reflected in his ownership of 500 suits, 300 pairs of shoes, a jet, 2 radio stations and a moated drawbridge castle in Queens,”24 praising Brown’s immersion in capitalism while poverty plagued the ghettos across America.
Although Brown said the song “cost me a lot of my crossover audience,”25 he made a shrewd move prior by releasing the patriotic single America Is My Home and supporting Hubert Humphrey’s candidacy. These moves assured his white audience that he was still “in their corner,” made even more evident by the contradiction of releasing Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud that played into the sentiment of the cause, simultaneously becoming the mouthpiece for the government which resulted in the 1969 Look magazine cover story titled: Is this the Most Important Black Man in America?
Many arguments can be presented to explain James Brown’s intention behind the release of Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud. Some of the greatest art presented to the public came about as the result of a series of events that created a mass sentiment that could not be ignored. As James Baldwin put it, “It is only ‘the so-called American Negro’ who remains trapped, disinherited, and despised, in a nation that has kept him in bondage for nearly four hundred years and is still unable to recognize him as a human being.”26 The message far outweighs the intent of the messenger. What motivates the production of the message (in this case the events of 1968) can render the messenger superfluous.
1968 proved to be one of the most pivotal points in American history. The future of the country hinged on an outcome that still reverberates as far as the sociopolitical landscape of the country is concerned today. The assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, riots in major cities across the nation, sit-ins and subsequent riots at Columbia University and Berkeley, the Black Panther Movement, Black Power, the Vietnam war, the resignation of Lyndon B. Johnson and the ultimate demise of the civil rights movement; all in one year, provided the ingredients to create a song that, in 2004, ranked 305 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest songs of all time.
Irwin Unger and Debi Unger, Turning Point: 1968 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons 1988), 134-135.
Darlene Clark Hine, William C. Hine and Stanley Harrold, The African-American Odyssey, 3rd ed. (New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc. 2006), 58.
Whitney M. Young, Jr., “Is America A Civilized Nation?” Amsterdam News, 27 July 1968, 12.
James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (New York: Vintage International 1993), 59.
Charles Kaiser, 1968 in America (New York: Grove Press 1988), 140.
Consulate General of the United States, Munich, Germany, Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud, January 2007, <usa.usembassy.de> (January 2007).
Leonard Feather, “James Brown Makes Waves in Jazz,” Los Angeles Times, 7 December 1969, C58.
Thomas A. Johnson, “Renaissance in Black Poetry Expresses Anger,” New York Times, 25 April 1969, 49.
Johnson, “Renaissance,” 49.
Thomas A. Johnson, “Black Drama Gains as Way to Teach, Unite – – and Amuse,” New York Times, 1 October 1968, 49.
Johnson, “Black,” 49.
Joe Veale, “The Ironic Legacy of James Brown,” Revolution Newspaper (14 January 2007), <http://rwor.org/a/076/jamesbroen-en.html> (22 February 2007).
Veale, “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.”
Robert Hilburn, “Say It Loud: He Gave Music Some New Moves,” Los Angeles Times, Latimes.com, 26 December 2006, <http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/music/la-me-hilburn26dec26,1,7090849.story…> (22 February 2007).
Joann D. Ball, “James Brown, Say It Live and Loud – Live in Dallas 08/26/98/ I’m Back, 26 August 1998, <http://www.westnet.com/consumable/1998/12.07/revbrown.html > (22 February 2007).
Creig Lewis, “Brown’s Show Was Explosive With Talent,” Chicago Daily Defender, 4 June 1969, 15.
James Maycock, “James Brown: Soul Survivor,” American Masters. James Brown/PBS, 27 February 2007, <http:www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/database/brown_j.html > (27 February 2007).
Baldwin, James. The Fire Next Time. New York: Vintage International, 1993.
Ball, Joann D. “James Brown, Say It Live and Loud – Live in Dallas 08/26/98/ I’m Back, 26 August 1998. <http://www.westnet.com/consumable/1998/12.07/revbrown.html > (22 February 2007).
Consulate General of the United States, Munich, Germany, Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud. January 2007. <usa.usembassy.de> (January 2007).
Feather, Leonard. “James Brown Makes Waves in Jazz.” Los Angeles Times, 7 December 1969, C58.
Hilburn, Robert. “Say It Loud: He Gave Music Some New Moves.” Los Angeles Times, Latimes.com, 26 December 2006. <http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/music/la-me-hilburn26dec26,1,7090849.story…> (22 February 2007).
Hine, Darlene Clark, William C. Hine and Stanley Harrold. The African-American Odyssey. 3rd edition Vol. Two. New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc., 2006.
Johnson, Thomas A. “Black Drama Gains as Way to Teach, Unite – – and Amuse.” New York Times, 1 October 1968, 49.
Johnson, Thomas A. “Renaissance in Black Poetry Expresses Anger.” New York Times, 25 April 1969, 49.
Kaiser, Charles. 1968 in America. New York: Grove Press, 1988.
Lewis, Creig. “Brown’s Show Was Explosive With Talent.” Chicago Daily Defender, 4 June 1969, 15.
Maycock, James. “James Brown: Soul Survivor.” American Masters. James Brown/PBS, 27 February 2007. <http:www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/database/brown_j.html > (27 February 2007).
Unger, Irwin and Debi Unger. Turning Point: 1968. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1988.
Veala, Joe. “The Ironic Legacy of James Brown.” Revolution Newspaper (14 January 2007). <http://rwor.org/a/076/jamesbroen-en.html> (22 February 2007).
Young, Whitney M., Jr. “Is America A Civilized Nation?” Amsterdam News, 27 July 1968, 12.