Wednesday, February 01, 2006

The Soul of the Movement: Say It Loud!

Today is the first day of Black History Month and to commemorate it I'm going to do a series of posts entitled "The Soul of the Movement." As the Civil Rights Movement moved into the 1960s, a new soundtrack arose among the youth of black America. The despair of the blues was replaced with the beat, energy and optimism of soul. Artists such as Curtis Mayfield and James Brown had the biggest commercial success with their straight-talking assessments of black life, but many others contributed also. The songs served many purposes: some encouraged black people to keep on striving for equality; some celebrated black people and black culture; some praised black public figures; some challenged mainstream America to face the racial problems of the times; some challenged black people to be more involved in the movement; some advocated militant approaches to the struggle; some were a mixture of any of the above. Whatever the message, however, the music was a vital part of the culture, and I hope to present the many facets in this month's posts. I dedicate this series to Coretta Scott King, who passed away yesterday at age 78. May she rest in peace.

James Brown - Say It Loud - I'm Black and I'm Proud

Today's selection was recorded at a time when James Brown's moniker "Soul Brother Number One" was most appropriate. By 1968 James Brown was a consistent hit-maker and the most successful soul artist in America. Brown's success was evidenced by his ownership of two radio stations, other business enterprises, and a private jet. Brown, ever cognizant of his humble origins, took great pains to be a role model to black youth, stressing education in songs such as "Don't Be a Dropout" and in many public appearances. Brown's televised Boston concert the night of Martin Luther King's assassination perhaps prevented the city from going up in flames. Brown even cut off his famous process and wore an afro from the next several years.

From the "UNHHH ... witcha' bad self" intro of "Say It Loud" it's clear that Brown meant business with the song. "Say It Loud" was both an anthem of black pride and a message to America that black people were tired of the status quo ("we'd rather die on our feet / than keep living on our knees"). Although much sport is made of the fact that the children shouting "I'm black and I'm proud" were mostly white and Asian, the song struck a major nerve with black listeners, turning the famous call-and-response chorus into a black catchphrase and giving James another R&B #1 hit. The sheer strength of the song made it a pop hit also (#10). Such directness, however, made "Say It Loud" Brown's last top ten pop hit until "Living in America" broke through in the '80s. Presented today is the full-length version of the song, in all of its power and funkiness.

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