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James Brown’s Song “Say It Loud” and Its Impact

Introduction: “Say It Loud” — The Anthem of the Civil Rights Movement

Written in 1968, James Brown’s “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” became an unofficial anthem of the Civil Rights Movement. It asserted Black people’s rights, pride, and beauty.

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In the middle of the twentieth century, African Americans were actively engaged in a struggle for their rights. The activists of the Civil Rights Movement fought against racial discrimination and segregation. Their actions led to the adoption of several civil rights laws that somewhat improved the position of African Americans. However, it was also necessary to change the worldview of African Americans who were so accustomed to oppression and discrimination that they treated each other with scorn. James Brown’s song, “Say It Loud,” was aimed at meeting this goal. As Crossley points out, this song became an unofficial anthem of the Civil Rights Movement. It succeeded in improving African Americans’ attitudes toward themselves by asserting their rights, pride, and beauty.

Historical Context: Racial Discrimination and Segregation

The middle of the twentieth century in US history was marked by an intense struggle of African Americans for their rights. By 1968, many significant events, such as the Children’s Crusade in Birmingham and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, had contributed to the success of the Civil Rights Movement. Yet, centuries of oppression and racial discrimination took a toll on African Americans’ view of themselves. African Americans were used to the idea of white supremacism that was prevalent for centuries in American society. As Kennedy remembers, African Americans despised their blackness; they tried to get rid of their African American features, for example, by straightening their curly hair, and used the word “black” as an insult.

Historical Context: The Murder of Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King was the most prominent activist of the Civil Rights Movement, who not only strived to gain equal rights for African Americans but also wanted to change their negative attitudes toward themselves. In his final book called Where Do We Go from Here, he claimed that black people had to stop being ashamed of their skin color (qtd. in Kennedy). In 1968, King was shot dead when he was standing on the balcony of his hotel room. His assassination was followed by numerous riots caused by enraged African Americans, and it incited James Brown to write his famous song, “Say It Loud.”

James Brown’s Music Career

The next night after Dr. King’s assassination, James Brown had to perform in Boston. According to Irwin, Brown decided not to cancel the concert, despite the concerns of local authorities and financial losses. During the concert, Brown shared with the audience how he evolved from a shoe shiner into a great performer owning a radio station and called it a black power (Irwin). Earlier, he mentioned his story of success in his song “America is My Home,” in which he also claimed that the US “is still the best country / And that’s without a doubt” (qtd. in Kennedy). Overall, Brown tried to avoid politically charged lyrics. According to Kennedy, James Brown stayed away from protests and supported such racist politicians as Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Strom Thurmond. Therefore, it seems ironic that this man created a song that became the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement.

“Say It Loud” —A Call for Change

James Brown was not the only singer who addressed black people in his songs. According to Kennedy, in the 1960s, many musicians, such as Curtis Mayfield and Sam Cooke, called for African Americans’ autonomy and assertiveness. Despite his political attitudes and reluctance to involve in protests, James Brown could not ignore the oppression of African Americans. Therefore, he wrote “Say It Loud,” which was meant to encourage black people to accept and be proud of their skin color.

“Say It Loud”: The Story of Creation

The riots that followed the murder of Dr. King spurred Brown to write the lyrics of “Say It Loud.” His bandleader, Alfred Ellis, composed the music for the song. A distinctive feature of the song is a choir of about thirty children, which responds to Brown’s call to “say it loud.” According to Sexton, Brown’s manager got these children from poor areas of Los Angeles and brought them to the studio. After the recording was done, he gave each of them $10 and James Brown’s album (Sexton). The song was released in the September of 1968, four months after Dr. King’s assassination.

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“Say It Loud”: The Meaning of the Lyrics

Uh! Your bad self!

Say it loud! I’m black and I’m proud!

Say it louder! I’m black and I’m proud!” (Brown, qtd. in Warren)

The lyrics of the song powerfully convey Brown’s message to the African-American audience. In the first line of the song, Brown uses the word “bad” while referring to black people. Warren argues that Brown does so to convince black people that, no matter how bad society can see them, they should know who they actually are. The next two lines are repeated throughout the song and contain Brown’s main message. This refrain is performed in the form of a dialogue. Children’s choir answers to Brown’s call to say it loud by singing, “I’m black and I’m proud.” Warren points out that such a song structure implies that Brown does not want to preach to people; instead, he wants them to make their own decision.

Some people say we got a lot of malice, some say it’s a lotta nerve

But I say we won’t quit movin’ until we get what we deserve

We’ve been buked and we’ve been scourned

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We’ve been treated bad, talked about as sure as you’re born

But just as sure as it take two eyes to make a pair, huh!

Brother we can’t quit until we get our share” (Brown, qtd. in Warren)

In this verse, Brown refers to the history of the oppression of African Americans. However, he encourages his listeners to continue fighting for their rights until they get what they deserve, that is, equal rights and the elimination of racial discrimination.

I’ve worked on jobs with my feet and my hands

But all the work I did was for the other man

And now we demands a chance to do things for ourselves

We tired of beatin’ our head against the wall

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An’ workin’ for someone else” (Brown, qtd. in Warren)

Here, Brown refers to the history of slavery and claims that African Americans should stop working for white people. The singer calls for African Americans’ autonomy and motivates them to work for themselves.

There’s one thing more I got to say right here

Now, now we’re people, we’re like the birds and the bees

We rather die on our feet than keep livin’ on our knees” (Brown, qtd. in Warren)

In the final verse, Brown sums up the message of his song. Brown calls on African Americans to realize that they are people, which, according to Warren, seems obvious nowadays but needed clarification in the 1960s.

Public Response to “Say It Loud”

When the song was released, it became popular at once and was met with much social feedback. “Say It Loud” was number one on the R&B singles chart for six weeks and number ten on the Billboard Hot 100. According to Crossley, it is also one of the “500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll” in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and one of the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time.” The song resonated with many African Americans, but there was also negative feedback. According to Irwin, some people called the song “militant and angry,” probably because of the line in which Brown says about dying on one’s feet. Yet, Brown did not mean his song to be angry or hostile to white people; instead, it was written for black people to realize their value and dignity.

The Importance of the Song

In 1986, James Brown wrote in his autobiography: “The song is obsolete now. … But it was necessary to teach pride then, and I think the song did a lot of good for a lot of people” (qtd. in Irwin).

“Say It Loud” was important for African Americans’ self-awareness and identity. American society in the 1960s was struggling to eliminate the association between blackness and contempt, hatred, and fear, and Brown’s song became a hymn of this struggle. James Brown believed that it was necessary to teach pride at that time, and since he was a well-known musician able to reach a large audience, he decided to take on this challenge. His attempt may be considered successful because his song caused several changes in African Americans’ individual and collective consciousness.

The Impact of the Song on African-American People’s Self-Identity

At the individual level, the impact of the song manifested itself in African Americans’ greater self-acceptance. For example, as Kennedy points out, the word “black” stopped being derogatory, and African Americans began to call themselves “black” instead of “Negro” or “colored.” Furthermore, before the 1960s, African Americans tried to correct their natural appearance. For instance, Mitchell and Chakrabart report that African Americans used various creams to lighten their skin or tried not to expose their skin to the sun. They also used to straighten their curly hair, and even James Brown did so to create his stage image. However, after the release of “Say It Loud,” African Americans accepted their natural beauty and began to value their dark skin, thick lips, and kinky hair.

The Impact of the Song on Society

At the societal level, some changes also were made. Since the word “black” became free from a negative connotation, it was not perceived as offensive anymore. On the contrary, as Kennedy says, it became widely used both in the spoken language and in the names of publications and events. For example, Negro Digest became Black World, and Negro History Week was turned into Black History Month. McCann argues that James Brown’s song was not revolutionary. Although it might be so, this song conveyed the message that needed to be uttered. Black people heard the message and responded to it by changing their attitudes to their African-American identity.

The Relevance of the Song in Today’s America

Although five decades passed after the release of “Say It Loud,” there is still much to be done about African Americans’ equal rights and positive self-identity. According to Kennedy, research shows that African Americans still have lower levels of income, education, and job status as compared to their white counterparts. The struggle for equality between blacks and whites goes on, and African Americans continue to assert their self-identity by such movements as Black Lives Matter (BLM). As Mitchell and Chakrabart report, the BLM movement does not claim that black lives matter more than white ones. Just like “Say It Loud,” it claims that all hues of skin matter, including those that have been wrongly denigrated for centuries.

Conclusion

“Say It Loud” by James Brown was released in the time when African Americans were fighting for their rights and were disturbed by the death of their leader, Dr. King. In those tough times, the song stated the message that African Americans needed to hear. It asserted that they should be proud of themselves regardless of what society thought of them. “Say It Loud” had a noticeable impact on African Americans because they stopped being ashamed of being called “black” and began to value their natural beauty.

Works Cited

  1. Crossley, Callie. “Honoring the Legacy of James Brown’s ‘Say It Loud’.” GBH News. 2018. Web.
  2. Irwin, Corey. “How James Brown Delivered His ‘Rallying Cry,’ ‘Say It Loud’.” Ultimate Classic Rock. 2020. Web.
  3. Kennedy, Randall. “How James Brown Made Black Pride a Hit.The New York Times. 2018. Web.
  4. McCann, Ian. “Say It Loud – I’m Black And I’m Proud: James Brown’s Necessary Anthem.” UDiscover Music. 2019. Web.
  5. Mitchell, Zoë, and Meghna Chakrabart. “‘Say It Loud’: 50 Years Ago, James Brown Redefined Black Pride.WBUR. 2018. Web.
  6. Sexton, Paul. “‘Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud’: James Brown Speaks Volumes.” UDiscover Music. 2020. Web.
  7. Warren, Lowell. “Say It Loud: I’m Black And I’m Proud! (1968).” The Black Arts Movement. 2018. Web.

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