James Brown- “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)
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 beating our heads against the wall
And working for someone else
Say it loud,
I'm black and I'm proud
Say it loud,
I'm black and I'm proud
Say it loud,
I'm black and I'm proud
Say it loud,
I'm black and I'm proud
In 2008, Mary E. Weems and Michael Oatman called for poetry submissions which were dedicated to The Godfather of Soul, James Brown.
This is what Mary and Michael wrote: “We grew up on James Brown’s Hit Me! When he danced every young Black man wanted to move, groove and look like him. Mr. Brown wasn’t called the hardest workingman in show business because he wasn’t. Experiencing a James Brown show was like getting your favorite soul food twice, plus dessert. His songs, like black power fists you could be proud of and move to at the same time. When Mr. Brown sang Make It Funky we sweated even in the wintertime. Losing him was like losing somebody in our family. This is a shout out for poems about the impact James Brown had on our lives. Poems that will help people remember, honor, and celebrate his legacy. Don’t be left in a cold sweat, send us your old and new James Brown poems today.”
Say it Loud: Poems about James Brown is the book that came from this shout out. I sat down with the two editors for an interview.
TIM EINENKEL: Say it Loud: Poems: Poems About James Brown is “a shout out for poems about the impact James Brown had on our lives,” could you explain further why did you choose James Brown?
MARY WEEMS: I’m a spiritual person and my creativity operates on what I call the ‘vibe’ or feeling I get at certain moments. After James Brown’s death, I received an original photo from Thomas Sayers Ellis of the marquee at the Apollo honoring JB’s passing. I was immediately struck by how much this Black man meant to my life beginning with the pride I felt the first time and every time I heard Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud. During that time to call someone Black was not a ‘positive’ and could result in a beat down. I remember one friend in particular who was a beautiful ebony color. She hated being called Black ‘blackie’ or anything like that and would wait in the playground ready to fight if one of our peers teased her. Also, following the assassination of Dr. King it was his pride in being Black, his music and his message of pride, justice and love we’d rather die on our feet than keep livin’ on our knees, that helped convince the mayor of Boston and others in power to move forward with a live concert they were planning to cancel for fear violence would break out as Black people all over this country grieved the loss of one of our heroes.
MICHAEL OATMAN: James is a cultural touch stone that serves as a through-line within the African American experience. James managed to be funky and yet profound. Few musicians have been able to navigate this cultural divide. James was as beloved by the political savvy black power crowd as the party-goer or the banker or the Chinese monk. Few artists reach this level of universality.
TIM EINENKEL: How did the book come together? You have poems from contributors such as: Askhari, Amiri Baraka, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Tim Joyce, Patricia Smith, and many more. How did you decide which contributors to use? How did you decide which poems made the final version of the book?
MARY WEEMS: Slowly. In my introduction I reference 2+ years but on reflection, the anthology started right after he passed away. For about a year I worked alone, getting the ‘call’ for poems out electronically through Michael Salinger’s clevepeotics website, Kalamu’s e-drum, Rudy Lewis’s Chickenbones, and by individual invitations to some of the many poets I know around the country who contacted poets they know and asked them to submit. I invited Michael Oatman to work with me approximately 2 years into the process and we spent numerous hours reading the poems individually. We also met several times at my home to discuss poems each of us thought should be either rejected or included, my edits of individual poems and the importance of making certain each poet approved the changes. We received numerous elegy poems, and numerous poems about James Brown in concert. It was important to shape an anthology with variety in terms of subject, voice, and form and in the end we culled the best of what we received ‘loosely’ centered around the three themes of elegy, witnessing James Brown in concert and the impact of James Brown’s music on various aspects of the poets lives.
MICHAEL OATMAN: Close pains-taking deliberation with my co-editor and collaborator, Mary Weems. There was not magic to it, just close scrutiny of the text in front of us and trying to deliver the strongest product possible.
TIM EINENKEL: Where you surprised with the amount of poems, which were submitted for the book?
MARY WEEMS: Yes. I thought based upon the impact of James Brown on my life and the Movement, that I’d be flooded with poems about him, but after the initial receipt of several elegy poems—nothing. In fact, I had to extend the call several times and repeatedly contact the folks in my circle and beyond to continue to beat the bushes for work. My grandmother used to say that anything worth doing is worth taking the time to do well though and the quality of the work made the wait more than worth it.
MICHAEL OATMAN: Yes and no. On one hand, the volume of work we received was humbling, but on the other hand, we are talking about James Brown.
TIM EINENKEL: What impact did James Brown’s “Say it Loud” have on you? What did that song do to/do for you?
MARY WEEMS: I responded to this in question ‘1’ of this interview ‘but’ it’s important I add that not only does James Brown’s music contain important, timeless and relevant messages, it’s also a lot of fun to dance to. When I was growing up damn near every young Black man I knew was either doing the James Brown or trying his best to make it look like he was. Local talent shows always had one or more JB impersonators JB’ing across the floor, doing splits, dropping to knees waiting for makeshift capes. James Brown’s music is strong, rhythmic and specific to Black folks and Black culture. In fact the music is so powerful, I think it would have been popular even ‘without’ lyrics—thank God I wasn’t around to give James Brown that bad advice.
MICHAEL OATMAN: That song is a forever anthem of claiming your heritage at the top of your lungs and not being afraid of the consequences of such an action. It’s a rally cry that still resonates through the years.
TIM EINENKEL: As you were reading the submitted poems, did you learn anything new about James Brown? If so, what did you learn?
MARY WEEMS: I learned from an eyewitness account, that he had to change his clothes in parking lots during segregation in good and bad weather and that ‘some’ believe he started using a cape in his act because he was forced to use one while dressing to protect his body from the elements. I got a sense of what it was like during his memorial service at the Apollo because one of the poets was there and wrote a poem about the many, many people who waited patiently in line for hours. People from many walks of life who just wanted to see JB one more time before his body was put to rest. I learned that the effort we put into this book was all worth it, because James Brown was and is loved, respected and admired for devoting his life to making music and making a difference in the lives of Black people.
MICHAEL OATMAN: Let’s just say, doing this book helped me to imagine James Brown in less iconic, and in a more human way. This book not only deals with the heights, but the valleys from which this powerful voice emerged.
TIM EINENKEL: Are there artists out there today which might have the same impact James Brown had? Can there be another James Brown?
MARY WEEMS: No. There are many artists doing important creative work ‘and’ working to make a difference in the world at the same time, but James Brown came along during a time Black men were being lynched in this country like it was a competitive ‘sport.’ It would have been much ‘safer’ for him and many other artists (Nina Simone, etc.) to ‘not’ speak out, to ‘not’ demand their Civil rights. But he took the risk and never wavered. James Brown only attended school for a few years as a child, but he was one of the smartest men of his day.
MICHAEL OATMAN: Not to be self-serving but for me, Chuck D was that guy. Chuck D gave my anger a face and a place to exist. He made me realize that my heroes don’t have to be the ones spoon-fed to me.
TIM EINENKEL: If someone should buy one James Brown album, which one would you start with? Why?
MARY WEEMS: Even though I ‘never’ had the opportunity to see James Brown live, I’ve experienced his live concerts on album, CD and film and I’ve spoken with more people than I can count who’ve had the privilege of seeing the hardest workin’ man in show business do his thang. That said I recommend ‘any’ of his live concert albums beginning with “Say It Loud.”
MICHAEL OATMAN: Any one will do.
TIM EINENKEL: In which poem(s) best represent what you were trying to accomplish with this book?
MARY WEEMS: Baraka’s “In the Funk World,” because of what it says in a few lines about the power of his soul music, Patricia Smith’s “Hex Machine Part 2,” because it is one of the best poems about JB in concert, Lamont B. Steptoe’s “Is James Brown Still Around? because of the way it honors Brown’s as an ancestor ,” Ashkari’s “Definition of a Star,” because of the way she defines the complex layers of his life, and my poem “This I believe,” because I think it reflects a universal love for the brother.
MICHAEL OATMAN: They all do, that is why they made the cut. There is no fat in this book. We loved every poem, in its own way.
TIM EINENKEL: Which one word best describes James Brown?
MARY WEEMS: There isn’t ‘one.’ I have to use two, Black/Proud connected by the slash because his race and sense of pride encapsulates the man, his music, his effect on the lives of every day Black people, as well as the reason I made the commitment to do my best with Michael’s help to make this anthology happen.
MICHAEL OATMAN: So many to choose from. I will go with Iconoclast – which literally translated means image destroyer. This brother broke all the molds . . . shattered them to pieces.
TIM EINENKEL: In Say it Loud: Poems: Poems About James Brown , Amiri Baraka writes “If Elvis Presley is King/Who is James Brown, God?” (Poem-In the Funk World) how would you answer this?
MARY WEEMS: Anyone familiar with Elvis Presley’s life is aware of his gospel music background. They know he learned a ‘lot’ about his style of music and the way he moved on stage from Black people and artists. Yes, Elvis Presley was very talented but, the idea that he’s the King of anything connected to music is dismissive of the ‘fact’ that Black artists had been performing Rock N Roll, the kind of music he became famous for with little to no recognition. For example, “You ain’t nothin’ but a Hound Dog” was made famous by Presley in 1956, but it was recorded first by Willie Mae “Big Mama Thornton” in 1952. James Brown on the other hand, is and was the original Godfather of ‘soul’ music and is responsible for inspiring some of the best musical artists of the 20th and 21st centuries across several genres including Michael Jackson, Prince and Usher.
MICHAEL OATMAN: I would not answer it. Baraka’s question is so perfectly succinct, concise and meaningful, it answers itself.
TIM EINENKEL: So, now that the book is published, what's next? What future projects are you guys working on?
MARY WEEMS: Thanks, for asking. I'm working on a play titled "Say It." Right now it's in the final stages of completion and is shaping into an interesting mix of moments in James Brown's life coupled with my imagination. After spending so much time immersed in JB through both the poetry, a documentary about his life and other resources I got this image of James Brown offstage right after a concert and started to write.
MICHAEL OATMAN: I have recently received notice that i have been granted funding on a project I have long since yearned to complete. In 2011 i will start work on THE LEAD BELLY PROJECT, which will include a play, a book of poems and a short documentary about the life, times and music of Huddie William Ledbetter, better known as blues legend, Lead Belly. I will visit Lead Belly's grave, place of birth, places he was imprisoned and interview scholars all over the country. The project will take me from Texas, to New York, Louisiana, Tennessee and many places in between.
- Tim Einenkel for RAPstation.com