Saturday, July 18, 2020

Revisiting James Brown’s “Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud” In the Black Lives Matter Era

The civil unrest and mass demonstrations that have rocked the U.S. in recent weeks compelled me to revisit James Brown’s landmark song “Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud.” Its strong message of black pride and empowerment couldn’t be more relevant in the racially charged Black Lives Matter era. And it’s fitting that one of the greatest black-pride anthems ever recorded is by the Godfather of Soul. In addition to being a world-renowned artist and performer, the funk pioneer was a revered and influential figure in the black community, particularly during the late 1960s and early ‘70s—the peak years of the Black Power Movement. It was important that he make a powerful musical statement to show his solidarity with his black audience during that period. Brown even cut his famous process and wore his hair in a short chemical-free Afro to further display his commitment to the cause and show pride in his African heritage.

“Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud” was released in August of 1968, just four months after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The song was met enthusiastically by radio listeners and record buyers and quickly shot to the top of the U.S. R&B singles chart, where it remained for six weeks; and it peaked at #10 on the U.S. pop singles chart. The song was also embraced by the Black Power Movement and became its unofficial anthem.

“Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud” was written by Brown and his bandleader Alfred “Pee Wee” Ellis. Brown also produced the track, which was released on King Records. As with many James Brown singles, it has a Part 1 and Part  2, with Pt. 2 on the B-side. The song is a rallying cry for black Americans to proudly embrace and celebrate their blackness. It also strongly condemns anti-black racism and discrimination in the United States; and it encourages black people to become more self-reliant and to empower themselves financially and politically: “Now we demand a chance to do things for ourselves/We’re tired of beating our head against the wall/And working for someone else.”

What separated this track from other songs that touched on black pride and equality is that it wasn't simply asking for fairer treatment of black Americans—it was demanding it. It was no doubt the song's blunt, unapologetic tone that Black Power activists found particularly appealing.

And the funk level on this track is off the charts; it’s funkier than three-day-old chitlins. The groove is anchored by “Sweet” Charles Sherrell's powerhouse bass line. And Clyde Stubblefield’s super-tight drumming keeps the groove sizzling and deep in-the-pocket. Jimmy Nolen serves up huge helpings of funk with some nasty guitar licks and brings a taste of down-home country flavor to the mix on the bridge. And the horn section rains down pure fire with some explosive funk volleys. The dynamic horn section consisted of Maceo Parker (tenor saxophone), Richard "Kush" Griffith (trumpet), Alfred “Pee Wee” Ellis (alto saxophone), Waymond Reed (trumpet), St. Clair Pinckney (baritone saxophone) and Fred Wesley (trombone).

The track also boasts a rousing call-and-response chorus, which features a group of Los Angeles-area kids. The chorus is what took the song over the top and gave it an exhilarating anthemic feel.

It's interesting to note that Brown spoke the lyrics and only sang on the bridge and chorus. Perhaps he felt that the message was so important that the lyrics needed to be clearly spoken rather than sung—ensuring that listeners heard every word loud and clear. Plus, it gives the song a more personal and immediate feel. It sounds like Brown’s right there with his people in the black community; he’s not speaking from the perspective of a rich, world-famous recording artist but as someone who’s experienced much of the same racism and discrimination that others in the black community have. Growing up in the South in the 1930s and ‘40s, Brown experienced firsthand some of the worst racial discrimination imaginable, and he no doubt continued to experience it—though to a lesser degree—after he became famous in the late ‘50s. Celebrity and money didn’t make him any less of a “nigger” to racists; and they had much more latitude to openly show it without fear of repercussions in those days, and they had Jim Crow segregation laws to back them up.

There were tons of documented incidents where big-name black celebrities (including actors, music artists and athletes) were turned away from restaurants, hotels, clubs, casinos etc. due to their race. In fact, black entertainers often couldn't stay at the very same hotels where they performed. This practice continued up until the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed racial discrimination by private business owners.

Another reason why this song is so important is that it played a significant role in helping the word “black” become the preferred term among black Americans in describing themselves. At the time when Brown released “Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud” most black people in the U.S. still preferred being called Negro. However, many black activist groups had already begun using the term “black” to describes themselves as they felt the word Negro was demeaning and implied inferiority due its historical association with slavery, discrimination and the treatment of black people as second-class citizens.

Additionally, “Negro” was pushed on black people by whites, but the term “black” was what black people had chosen to call themselves. And that act in itself was liberating and empowering.“Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud” successfully helped remove the negative stigma that many had associated with being called black. Black Americans were able to see the word in a new light, and they realized that it wasn’t a bad thing to be called black, but something positive and beautiful.

In an interview with Mojo magazine, Chuck D, leader of the influential rap group Public Enemy, discussed how the song personally impacted him as a young kid growing up in the '60s: “I'm Black and I'm Proud' was a record that really convinced me to say I was black instead of a Negro. Back then black folks were called Negroes, but James said you can say it loud: that being black is a great thing instead of something you have to apologize for.”

The push to replace “Negro” with “black” really started to pick up steam in the late ‘60s, thanks in no small part to Brown’s smash. Well-known black publications such as Ebony had dropped the use of "Negro" during that period; and the Associated Press and the the New York Times soon followed suit. And by 1974, “black” had become the preferred term of self-identification among the majority of black Americans. Nowadays, black and African American are both acceptable terms when referring to black people. “Negro,” on the other hand, is now considered an obsolete term and even offensive by many people. On the rare occasions that black people do use the term, it’s among themselves and generally in a joking, sarcastic manner.

“Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud” had a huge cultural impact and is one of the most important civil rights anthems of the 20th century. It’s among The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll. And it’s ranked at number 305 in Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

The track has also gotten a lot of love in the rap world. It has been sampled on 235 songs,  including “Insane in the Brain” (Cypress Hill), “100 Miles and Runnin’” (N.W.A.), “Nitro” (LL Cool J) and “Jackin’ for Beats” (Ice Cube).

“Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud” (Pts. 1 & 2) was included among the tracks on Brown’s A Soulful Christmas album, released in December 1968. And both parts were also featured on his album Say It Loud – I'm Black and I'm Proud, which hit records stores in March of 1969.

“Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud” (Pts. 1 & 2) available at Amazon

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