James Brown had many nicknames, and he earned each and every one of them: "Soul Brother Number One," "The Hardest Working Man in Show Business," "The Godfather of Soul," "Minister of Super Heavy Funk," and "Mr. Dynamite." And still others referred to him affectionately as "that crazy man jumping around and screaming on stage." According to family legend, James Brown "was born dead," or a stillborn, only to be resuscitated by his aunt. As he came back to life, James let out a loud shriek reminiscent to the scream that he would later make famous as a soul icon. Brown had a tough childhood, growing up in utter poverty in Georgia, where his aunt, a brothel owner, raised him. Incarcerated by the age of sixteen, Brown overcame great adversity to gain fame and fortune. According to Brown himself, "My story is a Horatio Alger story. It's an American story. It's the kind that America can be proud of."
Today, the line "Say it loud: I'm black and I'm proud" may seem like a relatively straightforward message, but together these eight words conveyed a new self-confidence and assertiveness among the black community in 1968 America. This one powerful line conveys the central message of the song, pushing the music forward. James Brown tells the children to "say it loud" and with feeling that they are proud of being black. This is not a message to be whispered, but to be proclaimed with confidence, even a bit of swagger. During this period in his career, Brown began rocking a big afro instead of his more famous chemically straightened hairdo. According to Brown, giving up his famed 'do "was like giving something up for Lent. But I would cut it off for the Movement." The afro represented a growing pride among blacks in the late sixties, an embrace of their African heritage and rejection of white norms of physical beauty. Being black in America, which had for centuries defined many as second-class citizens, was now something to embrace and take pride in. As many African-American leaders exhorted at the time, "Black is beautiful."
In some respects, James Brown's "Say It Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud)" is a musical version of Stokely Carmichael's "Black Power" speech of October 1966. Some of the very same ideas are there, only Brown's message is more concise, less intellectualized and, well, easier to dance to. Brown's song and Carmichael's speech largely revolve around defining what it means to identify oneself as black. Brown and Carmichael seek to define black culture and society on their own terms "without white people giving their sanction to it." In Carmichael's words, "it is the word 'black' that bothers people in this country, and that's their problem, not mine." Brown's song embraced this same idea, fighting white bigotry with soul power. As Brown explained in 2003, "I clearly remember we were calling ourselves colored, and after the song, we were calling ourselves black. The song showed even people to that day that lyrics and music and a song can change society." The use of the word "black" rather than "N****" or "colored" represented a change in consciousness. Brown noted the critical difference between these terms, explaining that "a colored is a very frightened-to-death Afro-American. A N**** is one that makes it in the system, and he wants to be white. A black man has pride. He wants to build, he wants to make his race mean something. Wants to have a culture and art forms. And he's not prejudiced. I am a black American man." Together, the "Black Power" speech and Brown's song created an important shift in black consciousness in America.
Brown utilizes a call-and-response format here that is rooted in the black spiritual and gospel tradition, something he would have been familiar with having grown up in the 1930s Jim Crow South. Brown starts the call with "say it loud," and a large chorus of children responds with "I'm black and I'm proud." Oddly enough, however, the actual kids shouting out "I'm black and I'm proud" on the track were… white and Asian. While recording the track in Los Angeles, Brown found a group of schoolchildren hanging around outside the recording studio, and decided to use their voices in the chorus. You might see the fact that those kids happened to be white or Asian as ironic, or you might see it as emblematic of a larger truth: Brown's funky rhythms and soulful vocals exude a self-confidence that transcends racial boundaries, making it possible for people of all backgrounds to scream "I'm black and I'm proud."
This song came out at a time when the Civil Rights Movement was undergoing some major changes. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were landmarks in ensuring the political franchise for blacks in America, but now the attention shifted to economic equality. This new focus was something that both Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, for all their differences, came to see eye-to-eye on towards the end of their lives. Brown's line, "we'd rather die on our feet/ than be living on our knees," refers to a new realization that voting rights alone wouldn't create true equality when so many blacks still lived in poverty. The song calls for blacks to become more economically self-sufficient (an idea often attributed to earlier black leaders like Marcus Garvey that was later borrowed by groups like the Nation of Islam and the Black Panthers).
Martin Luther King Jr.'s death on April 4, 1968 greatly changed the complexion of the Movement. Even before King's death, the Civil Rights Movement was beginning to change as it moved its focus from the South to the North. More radical, militant leaders like Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael advocated the idea of "Black Power." These leaders questioned King's approach of nonviolent resistance. Was King demanding his people to exercise too much restraint? How could blacks be expected to turn the other cheek while they were scorned by whites during sit-ins, attacked by police dogs and sprayed by fire hoses during peaceful protest marches? For some blacks, this seemed too great of a sacrifice.
King's murder was the last straw. For a man who spent his life preaching peace to die such a shocking and violent death seemed, to many African-Americans, to justify more aggressive actions. During the summer of 1968, following King's death, the American urban landscape exploded in a spate of violence and rioting. Blacks were forcefully calling into question white authority. James Brown's line, "We'd rather die on our feet/ than be living on our knees," is an aggressive statement calling on black Americans to demand their full rights as citizens of the United States, rather than accept things as they were. This assertiveness in Brown's lyrics made the song an anthem for the Black Power Movement, while also costing Brown some of his crossover appeal for white audiences.
Who knew such a funky track could carry so much political weight?