I got out of the way to wait for my drink and continued to jam to James Brown’s 1968 hit, “Say It Loud - I’m Black and I’m Proud.” I wondered what Brown would think if he were to walk into a downtown DC Starbucks, where 90 percent of the customers were white and his black power anthem was playing in the background for ambiance.
Brown’s initial release of the song was an exciting but risky move. White fans stopped buying tickets to his concerts and he said the song “cost me a lot of my cross overaudience.” He also noted that some people felt the song was too militant and angry,particularly the lines that say “we’d rather die on our feet/Than keep a’living on ourknees.” But for many of his black fans, the song was a joyful expression of dignity and promise.
Good songs resonate on some level with the listener. But really great songs – any great piece of art – preserve a moment in time and inspire action or a new way of thinking. “Say It Loud” was the kind of song that captured the pain, perseverance, and passion of black folk and helped catalyze a change in perception. Reverend Al Sharpton, a Brown protégé, wrote last year in The New York Times: “James not only made us black and proud, but he made America start to accept and be proud of all that we had to offer. The hardest-working man in showbiz epitomized entertainment, but he also possessed a soul rooted deeply in equalityand justice for his people. And he carried that mantra with him every time he stepped onstage, every time he created a new song and all throughout his astonishing career.”
The ability to create art that is a reflection of a people and part of a social movement puts pop artists in a very powerful position. But, today, this influence seems to be largely spent on product and lifestyle promotion. Very little of the mainstream music I hear on the radio or see on YouTube that is performed by black artists has a direct message about social consciousness.
Want to rap about the cocaine-white seats in your Rolls Royce Corniche? Or how you paid a thousand dollars for your sneakers? Fine, Jay-Z and 2 Chainz – after all, there’s power in being effective at marketing, too. But can we get some balance? If a musician can convince millions of people to spend their money on a particular fragrance, brand of clothing, or vehicle, imagine what would happen if she or he wrote lyrics about income and opportunity inequality, mass incarceration, or family planning.
James Brown was willing to back up his values with his actions and his art. He used his considerable influence to help a cause even though his participation cost him sales. I suppose that the non-reaction to “Say It Loud” that I noted at Starbucks is a sign of success. In five decades, it went from being a revolutionary anthem to ambiance – not even raising an eyebrow. And for those contemporary artists who are looking for their own shot at musical immortality, please see the end of the first verse of “Say It Loud:”
“But just as sure as it take/Two eyes to make a pair, huh/ Brother, we can’t quit until we get our share.”