What can possibly be said about the loss of James Brown? A career spanning half a century, and an influence without which pop music would not be what it is today. Soul, R&B, rock, disco, hip-hop, all feel the void that Mr. Brown left. His contribution to music was iconic and revolutionary.
His songs represented something pivotal in music. It was no coincidence that while the civil rights movement gathered steam on the streets of Birmingham and Montgomery, a very new and youthful record industry was giving birth to legendary artists (both black and white) who pulled heavily from black music. Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, all became household names among houses in segregated America. It was significant that Sam Phillips once said during this era that if he could find a white boy who could sing like a black man he would be worth a million dollars (Phillips later found that performer in Elvis).
But Brown was the real deal. His music and performances were drenched with raw passion. Jonathan Lethem wrote in Rolling Stone: "For to see James Brown dance and sing, to see him lead his mighty band with the merest glances and tiny flickers of signal from his hands; to see him offer himself to his audience to be adored and enraptured and ravished; to watch him tremble and suffer as he tears his screams and moans of lust, glory and regret from his sweat-drenched body . . . is not to see: It is to behold."
And it was these passionate screams that would resonate through all music to come. Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Cornel West described his massive influence as such: "Mr. Brown, as he likes to be known, rapped and crooned before his time, used vibrant horn, raunchy rock and roll guitar, and driving bass overlaid with a grunting, familiar voice like the sound of a moving train." And he was one of the first, too; imitated but never duplicated. Elvis studied his choreography on film. Jagger and Prince imitated his moves and attitude in their music and performances, and hip-hop acts from Ice-T to Public Enemy would sample his beats for years to come.
His was exactly the kind of acts that the bible beaters tried to censor when they spoke of rock n' roll as degenerate music. Of course, it was also no coincidence that they were all white, while the music was proudly black. Mr. Brown's music carried that kind of iconoclastic pride throughout his whole life. How incendiary was it to see a black man do the things he did in those days? To sing about love, sex, and passion, to admit that he, a black man, was a whole human being. To entertain without denigrating himself. Mr. Brown was no Bojangles. That is what made his music profoundly influential. And it was fitting that "Say It Loud: I'm Black and I'm Proud," would serve as an anthem of the civil rights movement.
And now he's gone, but the music is still here. And while newspapers can write all they want about the contradiction that was James Brown, there is little question that he revolutionized the way we look at music and popular culture. Farewell, Mr. Brown. You shall be missed.
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