Here’s a clip of James Brown, the Godfather of Soul and one of the architects of funk, singing “Say it Loud (I’m black and I’m Proud)” in November 1968. The clip is from Hugh Hefner’s ‘Playboy After Dark’ TV program‘, which featured musical guests, comics, and other celebrity appearances on a set that looks like a bachelor’s pad.
This was an anthem of cultural pride, with not just a bit of the taste of unrest that existed in black communities at the time. The Watts riots had marked a sea change in August 1965, and the pop artists and songwriters of the time began to feel a sense of obligation to their audience to address it. Martha Reeves’ ‘Dancing in the Streets’, Sam & Dave’s ‘Soul Man’ (a title inspired by graffiti songwriter Issac Hayes had seen on the street), and even Aretha’s cover of “Respect” all had an undercurrent of political protest, fueled by the need to establish a social identity for a community that had been marginalized for hundreds of years. By the time James Brown had taped this appearance, both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were dead, both assassinated. Yet soul music as protest music was only to get more mainstream, and more overt, as the 60s faded into the 70s.
The one thing I noticed about James Brown’s appearance here, and his choice of song, is that his immediate audience sitting right there in the room with him are all white people (one of whom appears to be Sonny Bono!). I find it interesting that the smiling faces belie the message of the song. This is no party tune. It’s a song of defiance, as much as it is a song of pride in one’s identity. I wonder how many people there really understood the implications of what James was singing. And I wonder how many of the TV audience understood as well.