Just Heard: Say It Loud (I’m Black And I’m Proud)

I can’t remember how old I was when I first heard ‘Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)’, but I was fairly young, maybe about ten, if not younger. And think I would not be wrong in saying that it was the first James Brown song I had heard. Or maybe that was ‘Get Up I Feel Like Being A Sex Machine’? Either way, James Brown was to me this wonderfully subversive and outspoken singer, a rebel if you will, who was willing and able to say the things that others perhaps wouldn’t.

At the time of the song’s release in 1968, America was riven with racial tensions, rioting in the streets and in the aftermath the murder of Dr Martin Luther King, Brown wrote the lyrics to the most politically charged song of his career. Addressing racism against African Americans and the need for Black empowerment and self-reliance, Say It Loud became an unofficial anthem of the Black Power/civil rights movement.

Although the song itself is synonymous with Black pride, power and civil rights, up until this point in his career, James Brown wasn’t necessarily so. For years he had pretty much shied away from politics in his music, preferring instead to focus on songs about romance and celebration. He also didn’t want to alienate his white fans, saying years later about Say It Loud, “The song cost me a lot of my crossover audience. The racial makeup at my concerts was mostly black after that. I don’t regret it, though, even if it was misunderstood.”

A rallying cry and statement of pride

But as the civil rights movements gained momentum, encouraged by other leaders and activists in the Black community, Brown saw a responsibility in highlighting and reflecting the important issues affecting Black Americans. Say It Loud did just that, with Brown’s reflection:

We’ve been ‘buked and we have been scorned
We’ve been treated bad, talked about
As sure as you’re born

In later verses, he goes further to proclaim:

And now we demands a chance
To do things for ourselves
We’re tired of beating our head against the wall
And working for someone else

Brown himself was a proponent of self-reliance and empowerment; he bought a number of radio stations during the late 1960s into the early 1970s, including WRDW in his hometown of Augusta, where he shined shoes as a boy. He ends the last verse with the rather sobering thought:

We’d rather die on on feet
Than be living on our knees

Though some chose to interpret this as a call to violence, but it wasn’t that at all, rather it was a statement of freedom of choice to be who you want to be, to succeed or fail, rather than live a life of subservience. With these boldly political lyrics, it was and still is, hard not not to sit up, get up and pump your fist in the air with a loud ‘hell yeah’. This song is more than a bop, a tune to shake your tailfeather at. As James Brown himself noted, “This was the real thing, a wake-up call, a rallying cry, a statement of pride.”

An interesting fact I discovered when researching about this song, was that the backing vocal were by a group of young children from the Watts and Compton neighbourhood of Los Angeles. I’d always assumed it Brown’s female backing vocalists, but Brown said he had children in the song so that other children who heard it “could grow up feeling pride”.

Ironically, the children singing backing vocals were also mostly white and Asian, only a few were Black, which is probably not that surprising given his crossover appeal at the time. But it was because Brown wrote and recorded the song at breakneck speed while on tour, and his manager found a group of schoolchildren who happened to be outside the recording studio and recruited them for the job. Given the urgency, there wasn’t the time to interrogate the race of the kids singing. Within 40 hours, the song was recorded, released and was an instant hit.

Me discovering the children weren’t all Black!

Despite the song’s popularity, Brown only performed the song sporadically following its initial release. He also seemed to have mixed feelings about the song, stating he had regrets about recording it. In 1984 he said, “‘Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)’ has done more for the Black race than any other record, but if I had my choice, I wouldn’t have done it, because I don’t like defining anyone by race. To teach race is to teach separatism”. He also believed the track’s message lost its power over the years, yet still he expressed pride in its historical impact. “The song is obsolete now,” he said. “But it was necessary to teach pride then, and I think the song did a lot of good for a lot of people”.

That all said, after ‘Say It Loud’, James Brown’s music did take on an increased social consciousness and commentary, which he saw as a natural evolution of his music, with tracks like ‘King Heroin’ and ‘Public Enemy’. He of this, “Soul is when a man has to struggle all his life to be equal to another man,” the singer declared. “Soul is when a man plays taxes and still he comes up second. Soul is when a man is judged not for what they do, but what color they are.”

Listen to Say It Loud (I’m Black And I’m Proud)

Sources:
 How James Brown Delivered His ‘Rallying Cry,’ ‘Say It Loud’ 
Genius: Say It Loud I’m Black and I’m Proud
Shmoop: Say It Loud I’m Black and I’m Proud
Wikipedia: James Brown
Wikipedia: Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud

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