A certain kind of homage is paid to our ancestors in funk music. It’s the kind that links the Middle Passage to blues and blues to jazz. It’s a mosaic. It can be heard in the downbeat of any song by James Brown, the Godfather of Soul and originator of funk. The beauty of it is that I don’t just hear it when Brown is singing, or when his band is taking cues from him as if he were Duke Ellington. I can hear it in Prince’s songs “I’m a Star” or “Kiss.” I can hear it in Michael Jackson’s songs “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough” or The Jackson 5’s version of “I Got a Feeling.” It can be heard in songs by P. Diddy, Kanye West, and Justin Timberlake. Brown’s influence touched the lives of people across the nation, or did it?
I ask this because on December 25, 2006, the world was not just awakened by the joy of the holiday spirit, but the news that James Brown had died. His death came two days after his annual turkey giveaway in Augusta, Ga., his hometown.
Sick as he was, Brown, was preparing for a tour and dealing with some messiness. His family didn’t like his companion Tomi Rae Hynie, and Hynie was away in rehab when Brown died. She returned to a padlocked house and claimed that she homeless and broke.
This was the beginning of an unseemly last chapter for the man with the famous feet who had inspired so many, including the Rev. Al Sharpton, to get some soul.
I know the value of true art has depreciated. I see it in music videos. I read it in magazines. Nonetheless, I was hoping that Brown’s death would be one that screamed “Wake Up!” like Lawrence Fishburne did in School Daze. Unfortunately, the events that came after that Christmas morning only sullied James Brown’s legacy.
Brown’s body was prepared for a public viewing at the Apollo Theater. He was layered with tons of make-up, dressed in a silver sequined costume and matching boots. However the preparation, including the packing of at least two additional outfits for a costume change, led to a missed flight to New York. Brown’s body was loaded into a van and driven through the night hours to appease those waiting in mourning.
I was disappointed for all the songs that today’s bling’d out artist have sampled from Brown, not one would put up their private jet or even a few dollars to secure his arrival in Harlem. This only confirms that we live in an age with short-sighted vision. We see the present, strain to see the future. The past is the past and we think it’s owed nothing.
This wasn’t the last shameful act of Brown’s departure. After returning to Augusta for another public viewing and having a private service with his family and close friends, the war began. A war that was done in darkness, yet for me it still demeaned the years of Brown’s philanthropy, political activism, undying support for people of African descent, and undeniable contribution to the history of American music. It covered all the good he did in life with dysfunction, and stereotypical responses to that dysfunction. It turned into a hood tale that left the body of a giant among giants unburied for weeks.
In the midst of this battle that was ultimately about babies mamas and money, another death occurred that was not as shocking as Browns to me, that of Anna Nicole Smith. For reasons that remain gray, Smith died on Feb.8th, more than a month after Brown. For almost a month I couldn’t watch any television without being smothered by the reports of a woman who contributed nothing to society but a reality television show, and a Marilyn Monroe obsession.
I struggled to find out where Brown was almost 50 days after his demise. I watched after another petty inconsiderate battle led to a fantasy funeral in which Smith’s decaying body was draped in a designer gown and rolled over a red carpet. I wondered where the love was for Brown. Was it in that cooled room that held his body months after his death? Or was it tucked away, deep down in our hearts?
On day 85 Brown was temporarily buried in a crypt near his daughter’s home, and will be permanently buried as soon as his mausoleum is built. I guess even in death he is moving around, not settled, nor given the credit that is due. Somehow I know that his soul is dancing free, leading an orchestra of the ones we so often forget, not bound by the world’s perceptions and saying loud that he is black and proud. In the end, that is all that matters.