Thursday, October 16, 2008

James Brown: Portal of Possibility

I first presented this paper at the James Brown symposium that was hosted by Princeton earlier this year. I later tweaked it a bit, and it's been published in the last issue of Flaunt magazine. I'm gonna build on it some more for another writing project I have coming down the road. I hope you enjoy the excerpt. (Folks who are in LA and who show up at the club I'm co-hosting tonight, October 17th, at Club Fais Do Do will get a free copy of the current issue of Flaunt as long as we have it in stock. Supplies are limited. For more info on the club, click here.)

      I was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1966; lived there until I was fourteen. James Brown recorded and released “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” in 1968. In the world into which I was born, James Brown already loomed large. Godlike. In some part because of him, his influence and what he unleashed, I grew up in world of dashikis and dress pants, black power fists and high-heeled pimps. I also grew up surrounded by female family members with afros, perms, hot combed locks and assorted styles of wigs. I don’t recall there ever being familial tension or debate over styles of hair or the depth of one’s blackness based on how hair was worn.
      For summer vacations, my sister and I traveled north to visit my mother’s side of the family in Detroit. Often when we visited we’d attend the summer school classes taught by my aunt. One year, when I was about 6 and my sister was 5, my aunt’s school put on an end-of-summer-session program. I’ll never forget being in her classroom, which was at least half full of white kids (Detroit’s crippling white exodus was in full effect but not yet complete), and having her turn on the record player to teach her class the song they’d be performing during the assembly: James Brown’s “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.”
      My sister and I, young Negro Southerners already deep-fried in awareness of racial divides, looked at each other with wide eyes and open mouths. We already knew that the thrill we felt fizz in our bellies as we sang along to Brown’s anthem was directly related to us saying something daring, culturally verboten. Even a child knew the song was transgressive. Seeing those white kids yell the words in unison with their black schoolmates (many of whom would throw up the black power fist, jack-in-the-box style) simply fucked us up. It would be years before I connected the dots and saw how brilliant, layered and radical that school performance really was. (It would also be many more years before I learned that the racial make-up of the kids singing along on Brown’s actual recording was largely white and Asian.)
      Fast-forward to my teen years, and the seeds of hip-hop that were planted when I was in junior high school are now starting to sprout all over the country, throughout black American culture and the white mainstream. By the time I’m in college, hip-hop’s music – rap – has grown well beyond its party anthem origins to become an expression of black pride, black resistance, searing black consciousness. It seemed directly sprung from the root known as Mr. Brown. Even the work that didn’t sample him was clearly spawned by him – his music and musicians, his lyrics, his staggering bravado and swaggering black masculinity. Hetero masculinity.
      But I noted another connection between the work of James Brown and the rap of the mid ‘80s to early ‘90s. For the young me, Mr. Brown and his music had slowly become synonymous with a certain black maleness – and, by extension, a certain realm of blackness itself – that mocked and excluded me. Exiled me to the margins of my own people. Black folk exile other black folk all the time for a host of reasons; some of us go into self-exile for a host of reasons. At the root of both those actions is often the specter of the disapproving father. As a baby Negro faggot growing up in the American south, I began to recoil from the man and his music due to the sexist and homophobic politics, vibes and personas for which his music seemed to be or become a soundtrack. Icons are metaphors whose meaning is not static. What swings one man toward freedom hangs another man from a noose. I chose not to swing that way.
      With the rise of politicized, nationalistic rap music, I felt an uncomfortable déjà vu with the homophobia and misogyny of both so much of the music, and with the strain of black maleness that employed it as a soundtrack. My younger self had protected my psyche by eventually sidestepping James Brown’s music without consciously knowing why, without fully being able to articulate or even fully understand why I was distancing myself from something that I had once so deeply loved, that had moved me and spoken to me. But with a lot of the rap I heard in my late teens and early twenties, I was immediately able to name the source of my discomfort and disgust. I held the music and much of hip-hop culture at arm’s length, fully knowing why.
      Still, it took years for me to even really acknowledge the distance between James Brown and myself. I own thousands of CDs and almost no James Brown. Male artists who were his contemporaries in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s claim ample space on my shelves: Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, the Temptations and Four Tops, Otis Redding, Stevie Wonder, Sly Stone, Marvin Gaye. These men, for me, were portals of possibility. In their elegance, their grit, their cool black maleness, I could not only see something of myself (or the self I hoped to one day be), but I could also still feel myself part of the larger black community when immersed in their work. Their music forged connection between me and mine. It was shared. The pride they stoked in me and the men around me didn’t so obviously dovetail into notions of blackness from which I was exempt. James Brown, by contrast, had become the voice of black patriarchy, the disapproving father.


Leslie (Graham) Andrews said...

Brilliant...simply brilliant.

bL-AKtivist said...

Damn. I love the part about the white kids singin' "I'm Black and I'm Proud!" even if, by your analogy, he signifies black patriarchy. I need to find a copy of Flaunt.