JAMES BROWN
SAYS IT LOUD

James Brown started funking it up in 1956 with “Please, Please, Please.” He’d continue to write and record countless funky soul landmarks until his death in 2006. Brown’s colossal influence on music and African-American culture is impossible to detail here, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention his landmark “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud).”

Brown’s patriotic 1968 single, “America Is My Home,” coupled with his friendship with Vice President/Democratic presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey, had alienated many of his followers. Brown was feeling the pressure to make another dynamic social statement, as he’d done with “Don’t Be a Drop Out.” On Aug. 7, 1968, Brown and his band, including saxophonist and co-writer “Pee Wee” Ellis, entered the studio to record “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud).” Released just a few months after MLK’s assassination, with the bitterness of that tragedy still fresh, the song struck a chord, providing a much-needed shot of black pride across the nation.

Only nine days later, on Aug. 16, the record was distributed to radio stations; it became available in stores in September—flying to #1 on the R&B charts, where it remained for six weeks, and #10 on the Pop charts. Its impact, during that anguished summer, cannot be overestimated. For a sense of the song’s reverberation as well as a snapshot of Brown’s legendary stage act, one could do no better than to seek out the 1998 album James Brown Say It Live and Loud: Live in Dallas 08.26.68. Captured just 10 days after the song’s first airplay, the live recording sat in the vaults for 30 years. The cover reflects the summer of ’68: an image of Brown superimposed over a drawing (based on the famous photo) of athletes giving the Black Power salute at the Mexico City Olympics.

Before performing “Say It Loud,” Brown tells the audience, “You know, one way of solving a lot of problems that we’ve got in this country is letting a person feel that they’re important, feel that they’re somebody. And a man can’t get himself together until he knows who he is and be proud of what and who he is and where he comes from.” He then utters the song’s title, evoking a roar from the crowd—with less than two weeks of spins, and though it’s not yet in stores, they already know it well.

Brown encourages his black audience to sing along to the phrase “I’m Black” and says that everyone (including whites) should chime in with “I’m Proud.” The audience erupts, as Brown’s slogan was already becoming part of the African American vernacular. In the live set’s liner notes, Public Enemy’s Chuck D writes that in 1968, he was an second-grader and that “‘Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud’ was a phrase that prepared me for the third grade, 1969, and the rest of my life.” The song’s impact was immense. It helped usher in “black” as the favored term for African Americans, pushing “Negro” out the door. It blazed a path for The Temptations’ “Message From a Black Man” and Sly Stone’s “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey,” released the following year.

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