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The Spirit of James Brown’s Soul

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This article is part of a series in celebration of a new, dynamic voice in Black America: the NUBIANO Exchange. Brace yourself for the NUBIANO experience. 

  by Shayna Rudd

When I hear funk music, there is a certain type of homage paid to our ancestors. It’s the kind that links the Middle Passage to blues and blues to jazz: a musical mosaic. The “spirit of life” can be found in the downbeat of funk-infused songs by Prince (“I’m a Star”), Michael Jackson (“Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough”) and Usher (“Yeah!”). This ever-present “soul,” however, can be found in every song by the legendary James Brown, the Godfather of Soul and Originator of Funk. The spirit of Brown’s soul is found not only when he is singing (or giving cues to his band), but in the lively responses received in front of a live audience.

For several decades, Brown’s influence extended beyond himself — touching the lives of people across the nation. Didn’t it? I ask this because on December 25, 2006 the world was not just awakened by the joy of the holiday spirit, but the lament that one of America’s most renowned musicians had died. It came as a shock to hear of James Brown’s death, especially since we knew that he had participated in his annual turkey giveaway that Friday in his hometown of Augusta, Georgia. Brown, although extremely ill, was also preparing for a tour. It is unbelievable how dedicated this man was to entertaining the world despite his own personal issues. Issues that didn’t just stop with illness, but began with a companion suffering from substances abuse and a family who disliked her. At the time of Brown’s passing, his “wife,” Tomi Rae Hynie was away in rehab. She returned to a padlocked house leaving her homeless and without any money, she claimed. This was the beginning of a dramatic and classless end for the life of the man with the famous feet that inspired so many, including the Reverend Al Sharpton, to get some soul.

I know that in this day, the value of true art has depreciated. I see it in every music video, I read it in magazines, and hear it in every song. Nonetheless, I was hoping that Brown’s death would be one that screamed “Wake Up!” like Lawrence Fishburne did in School Daze. Unfortunately, the events that followed our somber Christmas morning only embarrassed the legacy that Brown left behind.

Brown’s body was prepared for a public viewing at the Apollo Theater. He was dressed in a silver, sequined costume, layered with tons of make-up and matching boots; an outfit that only he would be excused to wear. However the preparation, including the packing of at least two additional outfits for a costume change, caused the late singer to miss his flight to New York. Therefore, he was loaded into a van and drove hours to appease those waiting in mourning. I was disappointed not only with their tardiness, but the fact that out of all the songs that today’s bling’d out artist have sampled from Brown, not one would put up there private jets or even a few dollars to secure his arrival into Harlem. This only confirms that we live in an age with short-sighted vision. We see the present, strain to see the future, and the past is the past and we think it's owed nothing. However, this wasn’t the last of Brown’s shameful departure.

After returning to Augusta for another public viewing and having a private service with his family and close friends, the war began. A war that was done in darkness, and would eventually, in my opinion, drown out years of Brown’s philanthropy, political activism, undying support for people of African descent and undeniable contribution to the history of American music. His legacy would soon be covered with dysfunction and stereotypical responses to that dysfunction — quickly becoming a hood tale that left the body of a giant among giants in his home for weeks.

In the midst of this battle that was ultimately about money and “baby mama drama,” another celebrity, Anna Nicole Smith, passed on February 8, 2007, more than a month after Brown. Despite this time gap, I couldn’t watch any television, for almost a month, without being smothered by the reports of a woman who contributed nothing to society but a reality television show and a Marilyn Monroe obsession. In contrast, to my dismay, I struggled to find out where Brown's body was almost 50 days after his demise.  While Smith’s death was not as shocking as Brown’s to me, I was saddened to watch another petty, inconsiderate battle lead to a fantasy funeral in which Smith’s decaying body was draped in a designer gown and rolled over a red carpet. Whether we wanted to or not, the world was at a stand still watching a women whose thirst for love left her dead. Yet, I still wondered where the love was for Brown. Was it in a cooled room that held his body months after his death? Or was it tucked away, deep down in our hearts being overpowered by our dedication to popular culture? Perhaps it would have shown up had he been, like Smith, white and reckless.

On Day 85, Brown was temporarily buried in a crypt near his daughter’s home, and will be permanently buried as soon as his mausoleum is built. I guess even in death he is moving around, not settled, nor given the credit that is due. But somehow I know that his soul is dancing free — leading an orchestra of the ones we so often forget, unbound by the world perceptions, and saying loud that he is black and proud. In the end, that is all that matters.

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES:

"James Brown, the 'Godfather of Soul,' Dies at 73." CNN. 25 December 2006.

"James Brown's Death Leaves Documentary Unfinished." NME. 6 February 2007.

Goggins, Katrina. "James Brown Placed in Daughter's Crypt, for Now." Washington Post. 11 March 2007.

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