James Brown died on Christmas day 2006. He revolutionized music but he was also a living symbol of Black power. His music and style inspired cultural pride but on a deeper level, the Godfather of Soul was a revolutionary in business. At at time when “colored” performers were merely expected to sing and dance, James Brown was making money moves and doing so in direct defiance to white power structures that thought him less than human. Let’s not forget that when James Brown died so many Christmases ago, a Black business pioneer went to the grave.
In 1956 James Brown and the Famous Flames recorded their first hit single, “Please, Please, Please.” Even so, national fame didn’t come until a full 7 years later, when the band released their “Live at the Apollo” album. The album unquestionably changed the trajectory of Brown’s career and consequently, world history; it was also an album that Brown’s record label wanted no part of. The label saw no value in spending money to record a live album of the band’s old hits. Brown, as a businessman, had a broader vision and decided to fund the project himself — it stayed on the charts for well over a year. That experience captures the essence of Browns defiance, vision and yes, relentless pursuit of self determination: Black Power.
James Brown promoted his own shows, at a time when Black entertainers were simply expected to show up and collect a small check. Over his lifetime he owned and operated a few record labels, including Try Me, Brownstone and People. Brown used those record labels to release his own productions, while using the radio stations he owned or operated to further his reach; Brown owned or operated stations in Augusta, Atlanta, Knoxville and Baltimore. Brown had an easier time checking on his stations and touring because he actually purchased his own Learjet; he is said to be the first Black man to own a private jet in America. Brown purchased the jet back in the 1966, a time when many Black people were still getting adjusted to sitting in the front of the bus.
As you listen to James Brown’s Funky Christmas album, perhaps it should serve as a reminder that self determination is the goal. Whether Christmas, March 1 or mid-September, the pursuit for Black people is the same — power. James Brown exercised power in his sphere, we should all reflect and make plans to do the same, as we start a new year.