James Brown -- the Meaning of Soul

James Brown died on Christmas day, unfortunately overshadowed by the execution of Saddam Hussein and the death of Gerald Ford soon after. However, it's James Brown's death and life that stands out for me. He was one of America's most important and creative influences over the past 60 years. He is one of my own personal heroes of the last 40 years -- I can name a few that have had significant influences on my life, work, ideas, and writing: Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Cesar Chavez, Ruben Salazar, Pablo Neruda, Tupac Shakur, among others.

James Brown singularly changed the tone and tenor of US music. He was not only the Godfather of Soul ("the king of them all, you'all") in the 1960s, but the mainstay of 70s funk, 80s disco, through early and modern Hip Hop. Much of what we consider the hippest music and performers of today would not exist if it weren't for James Brown.

I understand in his later years personal problems overwhelmed most news about Mr. Brown. That's unfortunate. But in my mind, and not to excuse some rather tired acts and mis-acts on his part, these stories never diminished what his music has meant to people like me -- growing in up in urban LA, in the streets, in gangs, among the pushed out and forgotten, then spending 15 years in Chicago. That's why urban music was always important for me -- including Jazz, Rhythm & Blues, Soul, Funk, and Hip Hop (James Brown was key through most of this).

While the commercialization of music destroyed much of what was vital and significant of the music of the 1960s and 1970s, it still somehow breaks through and re-ignites the soul-spring of dance, harmonies, and unifying rhythms. As George Clinton said, "one nation under a groove."

I was part of that nation. I still am. All the divisions of the streets -- due to competition for meager and exploitative work, for survival, for drugs, for street turf -- somehow vanished when you heard the bass, the drums, the horns, and that wail and grunt. James Brown. The dancing, the voice, the words.

Soul means that kind of unity, that kind of community. Something essential had to be tapped, refined, confined, and let loose. Color, language, religion, and other barriers vanished in the face of the sweep and scope and deep-self penetration that James Brown and the urban music of US streets brought to the world. Yes, the heart of this was African American, but Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, and other urbanized people of color and the working class contributed, picking up the rhythms and sounds, and even taking it to new levels. Ask my friend Ernie Perez, the Mexican Soul Man, who fronts bands like the Boxing Ghandis and is the driving spirit behind Rock-A-Mole Music, Films & Festivals.

It's another way the South with its core culture and central status in US history and expression continues to remake who we are.

Ask anyone making vital music today. James Brown is the epitome, the source, the past and future. Deep-self penetration. Deep Africa in us all. Soul.


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