Unh! With your bad self!
That's the world-famous sound of "Soul Brother Number One" getting down with his bad self.
This line is classic James Brown. The single, opening guttural noise—"Unh!"—may not have any concrete meaning; it's not a real word, after all, but the sound alone shows Brown getting into the funk right from the song's first note.
That energetic force never lets up through the entire track. And be sure to notice the way Brown delivers these words—in short, staccato notes. Brown creates a space in between the delivery of each word to build up a sense of tension, inviting the listener to pay attention to the message that follows.
This line is also responsible for giving James Brown one of his many nicknames, "His Bad Self."
Say it loud: I'm Black and I'm proud
Surprisingly enough, this chorus—about 30 kids yelling "I'm Black and I'm proud"—was actually sung by a group of mostly white and Asian schoolchildren.
Didn't see that one coming, did you? For obvious reasons, you might assume those kids to be African-American. But reality is more complicated.
Brown recorded "Say It Loud" at a frantic pace. He was inspired to write this song while touring in Los Angeles; while in his hotel room after a show, Brown was disgusted to see a TV news report detailing another incident of Black-on-Black crime. He quickly scribbled down a couple lyrics on two napkins in his hotel room, and within 40 hours, not only had the song been recorded, but it had already hit the airwaves, becoming an instant hit.
When you compose and record a song so quickly, you can't spend too much time worrying about the race of the kids singing, "I'm Black and I'm proud." In this case, Brown's manager found a group of schoolchildren outside the recording studio in Van Nuys, California—most of whom happened to be white or Asian.
Some people say we've got a lot of malice
Some say it's a lot of nerve
This line refers to the urban rioting that erupted in many American inner cities following Martin Luther King's assassination.
At the time Brown wrote "Say It Loud" in September of 1968, rioting and violence had gripped practically every city throughout America. Before his death, Martin Luther King Jr. had predicted that the summer of 1968 might take a violent turn if nothing was done to "raise ghetto hope."
But unfortunately this ghetto hope would only diminish on April 4th, 1968, turning to sadness, anger, and frustration when King was assassinated in Memphis. Following his death, embittered Black youth took to the streets in many cities, looting shops, breaking windows, and starting fires. These violent acts led some white people to consider Blacks "malicious," as Brown contends in the lyric.
But I say we won't quit moving until we get what we deserve
In the wake of the 1968 riots, Brown issued a new call to action for Black Americans still looking for a way to move forward.
Here Brown expresses a determination for Black Americans to keep pushing for greater equality. The landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 had delivered real change in the realm of political rights, but by the late 1960s, most African Americans still didn't have the same access to economic opportunities as whites.
In the context of all the urban rioting in 1968, this line could be interpreted as Brown condoning further violence. In fact, the opposite is true. Brown was disgusted by the growing Black violence he saw on television news reports. One day after King's murder, Brown was scheduled to perform in Boston—one of the country's most racially divided cities—at the Boston Garden. Kevin White, then mayor of the city, had the show televised locally in an effort to keep people off the streets and in their own homes.
The tactic worked: no mass violence erupted in Boston, as all eyes and ears were fixed on "The Godfather of Soul."
Now we demand a chance to do things for ourselves
Here Brown calls for Black economic self-empowerment.
In this line, Brown echoes Black leaders like Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael. In a 1963 speech, Malcolm X declared that "a better job in the white man's factory, or a better job in the white man's business or economy, is, at best, only a temporary solution" (source).
Malcolm X borrowed this concept of Black economic self-sufficiency largely from Marcus Garvey, an important Black nationalist leader of the early 20th century. In a similar vein, Stokely Carmichael, in his famous "Black Power" speech delivered in 1966 at UC Berkeley, argued, "This country told us that if we worked hard we would succeed…[yet] it is we who are the hardest workers and the lowest paid" (source).
To many Blacks in 1968 America, there existed little room for upward mobility in an economic and political structure still dominated by white men. This line delivered by James Brown speaks to this feeling of helplessness, and calls on Black Americans to detach themselves from a white society that had continually shut them off from opportunity.
We'd rather die on our feet
Than be livin' on our knees
Many white Americans in 1968 interpreted this line as a message of Black militancy, costing Brown some of his crossover audience.
By 1968, James Brown had secured his place in American popular music as a Black musician who could claim a large fanbase among all races. Tracks like "Out of Sight" (1964), "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" (1965), and "I Got You (I Feel Good)" (1965), all achieved mainstream success, broadening Brown's appeal far beyond just a Black audience.
But Brown effectively turned off some of his white audience with "Say It Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud)." This line in particular—"we'd rather die on our feet than be livin' on our knees"—was viewed by many white Americans in 1968 as a sign that Brown was condoning violence as the Civil Rights Movement moved into its "Black Power" phase.
Brown was by no means excusing violence in this track, and insisted that his line had been misinterpreted. Regardless, Brown would later say that he had no regrets about including this line in the song.