Eulogy for Black Caesar

James Brown, 1933–2006

Eeeeeeyow. Gud gaad. Aintit fonkeenah? James Brown knew how to freak the tribal speak and the tribal feet alike—the tribal neckbone and irrepressible tribal hambone too. Being a poet, a boxer, and a onetime Pentecostal supplicant, the Godfather knew a thing or two about being hit with the spirit and hit with the quickness; he also knew how to hit back, how to respond in kind in a New York minute. Bold, Black, and Beautiful things just happened faster in the world according to Brown. Tempos, terpsichore, tantrums, tangents, even jail time. They didn't call him Mr. Dynamite for nothing. Word is that when the Hardest Working Man in Showbiz did his three-year bid, he stayed industrious, organized a choir, ran the kitchen and laundry detail. Sit-down time for Black Caesar? Fuhgeddaboudit. And unlike so many of our fallen fighters whom dust and base cocaine dropped to the mat in the '80s and '90s, JB came back up as superbaaad as ever. Lest we forget, he transitioned to another world tour by straight stealing Jesus' thunder on Xmas Day. He wasn't ever a puny human to begin with anyway, so don't act surprised.

The line for his people's wake at the Apollo Thursday—as great a day in Black ancestor worship as the world done seen since James Baldwin's 1987 going-away soiree at St. John the Divine—began at 1 p.m. and didn't end till nine that night, teeming multitudes still being turned away to the chilly neon darkness uptown. All kinds of reporters, I'm talking cats from here to Melbourne, spent all day asking about the significance of JB. Your reporter hit it and quit with one inquisitor, obliquely declaring Brown "the Alpha and the Omega of the Africanin African American." Say wha? Because JB is the embodiment of all the working-class African blood that got us through, all that African left in us beyond the Middle Passage. Because JB embodied all our collective love, joy, ingenuity, and indefatigability, all our spirited and spiritual survivalist complexity, all our freedom jazz dance. The power of King James rang true for continental Africans too—in Ghana, Nigeria, Mali, and Congo especially. He became the bridge, and the measure of how much New World African modernity they needed to keep their postcolonial cultures moving, grooving, and counting off like a sex machine too. In a nutshell, JB was our grand Black unifier. The universal Negro solvent with the feral eyes, flashwhite teeth, torrential sweaty brow, swinging crown of piled-up processed hair, and skintight pants, who made us understand nothing less than absolute soulfulness as our cultural prime directive.

Truth be told, JB remains the one Black truth we can all agree to agree on as a life-giving essential. Just ask Sly, Jimi, Miles, Fela, and Marley, because by the time the '70s rolled around they were all convinced James was the Answer. You can hear that for yourself in Fresh, Band of Gypsys, Jack Johnson, Africa 70, Exodus, and everything that flowed from those funk-saturated templates. All the way to heaven, all the way to Parliament-Funkadelic, all the way to hiphop. No surprise that everybody attributes the way hiphop music sounds to JB—the Godfather, Jimmy Nolen, Clyde Stubblefield, and Maceo Parker knew they had built a rhythmcentric beast, a perpetual-motion-making machine whose gifts couldn't help but keep on giving. But dig, if you will, this picture: The streetwise poesy of hiphop lyrics is all his inspiration too. JB's every economical, anthropological utterance legitimized and laid bare the thought process of the 'hood's hardknockschooled philosophers, those organic Black intellectual Bamm-Bamms whose only book might be the Bible, but whose chiseled, charismatic bullet-point language was their bloodsoaked own. Point-blank, the vernacular priesthood of the MC begins with Mr. Brown, a man whose savior-like social vision, bottomless erotic optimism, and boundless capitalist ambition all found expression in his dolla-bill raps, his gangsta raps, his love raps, his protest raps, and his party raps for damn sure.

James Brown funeral procession
photo: Cary Conover
James Brown funeral procession

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See also:
Photo gallery from the Apollo wake

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High Bias: The James Brown special
Skinny white bands who owe the Godfather




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This man could sum up the modern Black condition and modern Black gender relations in two or three declarative sentences: "I don't care about your past/I just want our love to last. . . . I don't care about your wants/I just want to tell you about the dos and don'ts. . . . When you kiss me and ya miss me/You hold me tight/Make everything alright/I break out—in a cold sweat." You could fish a whole August Wilson play out of those lines, with their naked, scary promise of unconditional love and inflexible control, their spooked response to a sexual charge, their punch-drunk fervor thrown down before his intended like damnation and salvation will be delivered by the same hand. Girl, you heard the man: Get up off that thang, dance to the music, and put your foot on the rock.

While we're on that subject, we'll also remind y'all that JB's footwork, legwork, and neckwork were damn near bionic in their velocity, violence, viscosity. Talking about that way he had of moving everything below his waist at fuming warp speed while his triangular pugilist's torso became hummingbird-still, more implacable than any mannequin. Talking about the way that famously unhinged slide so aptly contrasted with that almost "zombie" freeze. Talking about that voodoo thing he did with his visage midstroke, that look from somewhere between trance and terror, jokes and hallelujah, grimace and beatitude.

Something like that look was seen on his face at the Apollo last week, Mr. Brown's body driven there by two white horses and two dark horsemen in tails and top hats. Lying in state in a solid-gold casket on the very stage he'd rocked so often in days of yore, Mr. Dynamite, a/k/a the Godfather, a/k/a He's Soul Brother Number One in Tokyo was decked out in a dark-powder-blue silk suit, delicate white gloves, and sparkling silver ankle boots as his music burst like bombs around the solemn processional line and the Apollo's famous ushers did everything they could not to break in to the Funky Chicken. His face, his death mask, postmortem and post- mortician—yes, that carved granite face, first on Black Rushmore after King and X (and before Clinton and Pryor)—epitomized what the old folks mean when they say they made him look "natural." And maybe even too natural at that, as there was something etched in that famous ebony-grain skin whose cheeks now sagged under the weight of a suddenly tight mouth poised somewhere between smirk, surrender, and dissatisfaction. Something that said he wasn't too happy the way this final act had been sprung on him, and on us too, quiet as it's kept. Because truth be known, Mr. Brown was one of those iconic figures we all thought of as family first, and as with family, we took his every success and setback as our reflection, illumination, and humiliation too. If loud James said we were Black and proud, we instantly became all that in spades: louder, Blacker, prouder. If James liked the hot pants, we blindly followed suit. And if Brown went to the slammer, we did too: "Free James Brown!" Tell me you don't remember that! And we always knew, as he'd already so famously reminded us, that while money won't change you, time will take you out. Troubles, flaws, and all, Mr. Brown was one of our best, perhaps precisely because he was an object lesson in self-mastery and self-martyrdom, and took every licking as a spur to resurrection. Lawd, tell me: Now that James Brown is truly free, what's to become of the rest of us?

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