Musically James Brown was, simply put, an innovator. It was in James Brown's hands that funk was born. "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," recorded in 1965, is generally considered to be the genesis of funk, and Brown continues to lay down the funk with a heady bass and swagger in "Say It Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud)," recorded three years later.
Right from the start of this track, Brown's band creates a polyrhythmic attack with every instrument. First it's the drums that come in (along with Brown's shout of "Unh!"), followed by the trumpet, then the bass, and finally, the guitar. In Brown's words, the musicians "give the drummer some," showcasing the percussive aspects of every instrument in his band. The guitar, bass, and horns are not playing a conventional melody here, rather they are playing short riffs of sound, stopping, then playing short riffs again. There is a hard whomp on the first and third beats rather than the typical two/four cadence.
Each part the musicians play is misleading in its simplicity. Sure, the individual parts are simple little riffs, but when these parts are combined into one sonic whole, things get a bit more complicated. It really is all in the timing, and Brown's band had an impeccable sense of rhythm. Every note is played precisely in time, yet nothing sounds overly calculated. This music has SOUL. This is no easy feat, but Brown's band makes it look easy here. The band employs an all-out polyrhythmic attack here that borrows heavily, if indirectly, from the polyrhythmic musical tradition of West Africa. It seems only fitting that this sound, derived from Africa, should be showcased in a song that calls on black Americans to take pride in their African roots.
Brown's delivery of the chorus and verse resembles that of a Baptist minister on a Sunday morning. It is almost as if he is talking. Though of course he is not simply talking; he's delivering his words with incredible soul and emotion and power. In the chorus, Brown borrows from his vernacular roots in blues and gospel music, using a call and response format. He starts the call with "say it loud," and the children reply, "I'm black and I'm proud." It's in the bridge that Brown really gets in the groove, letting his words and noises follow wherever his soul takes him. He lets out a screech here, an "ooh wee!" there, and countless other impulsive, improvised sounds. These noises may not mean anything, but at the same time, they say it all.
Yes, the man has SOUL.
James Brown's calling card could be any number of things. It could be his funk, his soul, his rhythm, or…even his hairdo. But above all else, Brown's calling card has got to be his showmanship. The man could put on a show like no other.
Performing around 300 shows a year at his peak, Brown undeniably earned his title as "The Hardest Working Man in Show Business." And Brown's performances were nothing like those put on today by some rock bands who are content to just go through the motions during their live shows. No, Brown's shows were something else entirely. He was not just a musician; he was an entertainer. Between all his shrieks and screams, whoops and hollers, Brown would shimmy, shuffle, and shake all over the dance floor, throwing in the splits here and there just for good measure. His performance style fused a raw emotive power styled after the black church with the glamour and glitz of pure show business. Over the course of every performance, Brown would shave off anywhere between seven and ten pounds of his body weight. Talk about a workout!
In 1968, Amiri Baraka, an important poet and intellectual in the Black Arts Movement, declared James Brown "our number one black poet." As a lyricist in this track, James Brown clearly accepts this mantle. While he may use relatively straightforward rhyming couplets, he effectively creates a tone and a feeling with his words, just as any great poet does. Aspects of Brown's songwriting are reminiscent to that of bluesman Robert Johnson or old N**** spirituals. His lyrics address not only people's fears and frustrations, but above all else, their hopes. This is very essence of singing the blues. Lines like "we've been 'buked and we've been scorned," or "we're tired of beating our head against the wall and working for someone else," would have really resonated with working class blacks in 1968. And as this anger builds up in the song, Brown lets out a resounding scream, allowing for one collective, therapeutic release. As Brown once stated, "I represent the spirits that are in the cage." And indeed, in this song, he most certainly does, allowing those spirits to be released.