50 Years Ago Today, James Brown Healed Hearts With Soul Power (Video)
There may have never been a Hip-Hop Generation if not for James Brown. His music serves as a blueprint for Funk as well as the building blocks of Hip-Hop. Beyond music, Brown proved that the Black community in America is not monolithic in its political affiliation.
The timeline of Brown’s mercurial political stances began in 1966 when he performed at the March Against Fear. There, he was the only musician present to support Civil Rights leaders Stokely Carmichael and Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This rally came after student James Meredith, the first African-American accepted to the University of Mississippi, was shot after he led a voting rights march from Memphis to Jackson.
In Brown’s 1986 autobiography, he explained why Black Power became a focal point of his message in 1966: “Martin was trying to keep things going in a nonviolent way, and Stokely and them were starting to talk about Black Power—and upsetting a whole lot of people with it, too… Black Power meant different things to different people, see. To some people it meant Black pride and Black people owning businesses and having a voice in politics. That’s what it meant to me…I wanted to see people free, but I didn’t see any reason for us to kill each other.”
On April 4, 1968, Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. Immediately after, a wave of riots occurred known as the Holy Week Uprising took place in America. It was the most widespread civil disturbances in the country since the Civil War. The riots spanned several major U.S. cities, including Baltimore, Chicago, Cincinnati, Detroit, Kansas City, Los Angeles, New York City, Pittsburgh, and Washington D.C.
The day after King was murdered, 50 years ago today (April 5), James Brown was scheduled to perform at the Boston Garden. There was speculation from Brown and his business manager that the city was going to cancel the concert, fearing riots. The city officials exercised concern that fans from the racially segregated city would riot in the merchant area of North Station, near the Garden.
Brown and his management received word of the possible show cancellation, which would compromise the $60,000 performance fee. Boston Mayor Kevin White and his staff eventually negotiated that Brown would dedicate his concert to Dr. King’s memory, and the show would go on. Still, the Boston Police Department and city government urged many concert ticket holders to stay home and watch Soul Brother #1 on local station WGBH, the first live televised concert broadcast in Boston’s history.
The Funk forefather became a peacemaker for the city by default for his electrifying performance with 2,000 fans in attendance (at the 14,000-seat arena) and accepted a reduced $11,000 fee for his services.
Midway through the show, as he performed his hit “I Can’t Stand Myself,” Brown momentarily stopped the concert to be single-handled buffer who stifled a brief scrum between police officers and Black show-goers who rushed the stage in support of the performer. “Wait a minute! We are Black! Don’t make us all look bad. I demand some respect from my own people!” Brown told the crowd.
Brown’s involvement in the political realm had been viewed as heroic by many of his Black peers. His 1968 hit “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)” was a hallmark statement in popular culture. Later that year, that perception of Brown drastically changed in the African-American community when Brown recorded the pro-education song “Don’t Be A Drop Out.” J.B. then surprisingly backed conservative-leaning Democratic Presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey. James even took the first copy of the record to the candidate as part of his campaign. In response, the Black Panthers subsequently re-branded Brown as “Sold’ Brother #1,” as well as dubbing him an “Uncle Tom.” Brown’s politics continued to veer Right. He publicly supported Republican President Richard Nixon’s re-election four years later.
Supporting Nixon (who was condemned by R&B contemporaries Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, and others) did not sit well with much of the Black community. Boycotts and protests occurred at his performances, including one at Brown’s beloved venue, The Apollo Theater. There, signs read “James Brown — Nixon’s Clown” and “Get This Clown Out of Town.”
James Brown’s political views for his support of Nixon were in the same vein as the Black Nationalist movement regarding ownership and social mobility. It wasn’t necessarily just for the Democratic approach to reap the benefits of one’s newfound wealth. He stated in an interview his philosophy of Black Power, which was a variation of the Black Panthers’ philosophy for the progression and protection of Black citizens, along with circulating dollars within their community. “You know, in Augusta, Georgia I used to shine shoes on the steps of a radio station… I think we started at three cents; then we went to five and six. Never did get to a dime. But today, I own that radio station. You know what that is? That’s Black Power… It’s in knowing what you’re talking about, being ready,” Brown later stated.
Regardless of James Brown’s polarizing politics, he used Soul Power to unify the mourning masses one night in Boston.