The Moral Conscience of James Brown

I have listened to NPR long enough to know whenever they lead with a speech or song by a famous individual at the top of the hour, most likely that person has just died. Such was the case when at 5:00 AM on Christmas morning I awoke to the sound of one of James Brown's signature songs: "Papa's got a Brand New Bag," I knew prior to any confirmation that Brown had died.

Brown's death marks an end to an extraordinary five-decade career that influenced other music icons such as Michael Jackson, Prince, and Mick Jagger. Moreover, his records of the 60's and 70's were more heavily sampled by rap and hip-hop acts than those of any other artist.

I had the pleasure of seeing Brown perform live on several occasions. The format deviated little over years, but it didn't have to because it worked. The band would get things started by playing for roughly 20 minutes that unmistakable James Brown beat that emphasized the saxophone of Maceo Parker.

The emcee would then ask us were we ready for "Mr. Dynamite," "The Hardest Working Man in Show Business," "Soul Brother No. 1," "The King of Soul" and the "Godfather of Soul?"

With everyone already out of the seats Brown would slide across the stage, grab the microphone, release it, pull it back, and give us a "uh, good god." We were ready to go wherever Brown was willing to take us.

At one of these performances, I had the pleasure of "singing with the Godfather of Soul"--at least that's how I tell the story. It was Brown's last song of the evening, I was dancing in close proximity of Brown, who would say a line and then give me the microphone to repeat whatever he had just said. It was truly one of my concert highlights.

James Brown, along with Muhammad Ali, was the most important iconic figure of my youth. For me, Brown was far more than an entertainer; he was an entrepreneur as well as a moral conscience for black people.

He understood the magnitude of his influence and the responsibility that went along with it. Brown consistently preached the virtues of staying in school to the black community. In 1966 he released the top 10 single, "Don't be a Dropout." But his social conscience did not end with education.

In 1968, Martin Luther King had been assassinated, the political influence of the Civil Rights Movement was diminishing, and Black Power began to rise in its place. Cultural influences were dividing the black community. Were we going to self-identify as Negro or black? Were we going to be a people focused on assimilating or self-determination?

Brown told Jet Magazine that he had decided to forgo his traditional processed hair opting instead for the "natural" look. Shortly after he released "Say it Loud--I'm Black and I'm Proud." And he followed that up the next year with "I don't want Nobody to Give me Nothing (Open up the door I'll get it myself)."

Brown would later admit these songs "cost me a lot of my crossover audience," but there is no denying that it also caught the rising spirit of black nationalism and "Say it Loud," in particular, became the unifying anthem of the period.

To avoid the violence that had besieged other urban cities immediately following the King assassination, Boston Mayor Kevin White decided to televise Brown's Boston concert, understanding that Brown's influence could keep people at home.

When former Oakland Raider receiver Art Powell formed the Black and Brown Trading stamp Corporation during the late 1960's to assist black businesses in Oakland to provide incentives to local patrons, the stamp featured the image of James Brown. Powell understood the profound impact and credibility that came with having an association with Brown.

For some, Brown may be known more for his cameo appearances in movies like the Blues Brothers and Rock IV and his legal struggles than for the way he dominated music in the 60's and 70's. But James Brown was a musical as well as a cultural revolutionary that used his influence to promote black pride and self-determination.

Byron Williams is an Oakland pastor and syndicated columnist. E-mail him at byron@byronspeaks.com or leave a message at (510) 208-6417. Send a letter to the editor to soundoff@angnewspapers.com.