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Papa Didn't Take No Mess

RIP, James Brown

Spike Lee, in his 1989 masterpiece Do the Right Thing, managed to examine the whole of black thought on the race question. You had the stuttering savant Smiley, Sweet Dick Willie and his streetcorner sages, the drunken but wise and heroic Mayor, and Buggin' Out, the hotheaded intellectual with the soon-to-be-fatal propensity for fighting symbolic battles over matters of dubious importance -- in this case the lack of brothers on the wall of fame inside Sal's Pizzeria.

You also had Radio Raheem -- the embodiment of stoic black strength. The hulking Raheem wore two four-fingered rings -- one bearing the word "love," the other "hate." The very center of his existence was his giant boombox, on which he blasted Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" at top volume throughout that too-hot day. And the song itself is a character -- it appears in several scenes and acts differently in each of them to move the action along. Indeed, the song's death is the very climax of the movie -- when Sal seizes his Louisville Slugger and smashes Raheem's radio, it touches off the death of Raheem and the riot that changed life on that fictional Bed-Stuy corner forever.

"Fight the Power," the finest song of 1989, which just happened to appear in the year's best movie, was only about half a Public Enemy song. Though there are so many samples of the Bomb Squad's apocalyptic funk track that no one can remember what exactly was layered where, the music (if not the rage of some of the lyrics) sounded like nothing so much as the distillation of the very essence of James Brown. Raheem was black power, and that power was fueled in no small part by the music that James Brown created.

Brown's words seldom reached the poetic heights of other musicians in the Black Power movement -- he wasn't as articulate as Curtis Mayfield, Gil Scott-Heron or Marvin Gaye. But the Soul Brother Number One didn't have to be. It wasn't the way he phrased his words that mattered. It was, instead, what he said and the way he said it. He could express four hundred years of slavery and apartheid (and the intent to do something about it) with one wailed "Hyyyyeeeeaaaaah-oooo" or he could just simply, if revolutionarily, command people to "Say It Loud -- I'm Black and I'm Proud."

He wasn't as militant as some in the Black Power movement wanted him to be. Far from it. James Brown was never one to follow anybody's movement -- he only founded them. He was a big supporter of centrist Democrat Hubert Humphrey and later, like Sammy Davis Jr. and Jim Brown, went so far as to endorse Richard Nixon. (Like Elvis, whom Brown truly respected as an artist, Brown appreciated what Nixon told him he was doing about keeping people off drugs. Yes, I see the irony here, but both Brown and Presley were nothing if not sincere.)

And he also caught plenty of flak from more militant blacks for his explicitly patriotic 1968 spoken-word song "America Is My Home," which came out a few weeks after the assassination of Martin Luther King. At almost the exact same time, he had released the landmark funk jam "Licking Stick -- Licking Stick."

This was the year America burned. Riots raged across the country; King's death was followed quickly by that of RFK. The Tet Offensive had just shaken American confidence about the war in Vietnam to the core, and black soldiers were dying in numbers that were out of whack with their representation in the American population. And James Brown went and released a song about how much he loved America. The movement -- some of them the Buggin' Outs of their day -- was not happy.

As Brown wrote in his autobiography The Godfather of Soul, they'd ask him how he could do a song like that after what happened to Dr. King. Brown would try to explain that he "didn't mean the government was my home, I meant that land and the people. They didn't want to hear that."

And Brown's personality was too complicated for the lyrics of any one song to capture. Most of the time, you could hear what he was trying to say in the music. The year 1968 was no exception. To Brown, "America Is My Home" was only a fraction of what he was thinking. He unleashed all of what he was feeling on "Licking Stick." "Meanwhile, my music was getting funkier and funkier..." he wrote. "I took [my music] even further with 'Licking Stick -- Licking Stick.' Pee Wee Ellis, [Bobby] Byrd and I put it together, and I released it at the same time as 'America Is My Home.' It was another one-chord song like 'I Can't Stand Myself,' but it had even more of a funk groove. It was a rhythm section tune and exactly what the title said, a licking stick. If the people who were on me about 'America Is My Home' wanted to know who James Brown was, all they had to do was listen to 'Licking Stick.' My music said where I stood."

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