Friday, January 12, 2007

Tired of Beating Our Heads Against The Wall and Working for Someone Else, Part I

Since I wrote my response to Jody Rosen's James Brown obit in Slate, I have had some time to reflect further on James Brown and his work and what he might have meant for American culture. I feel no need to modify or retract any of my previous observations, but I would like to flesh out some of the themes that were not fully developed and perhaps offer some additional thoughts.

Seth Sandronsky recently wrote a moving testament to Brown's music as a soundtrack to the civil rights revolution (on the ever-indispensable website), a tocsin of the "race, class, and gender struggle for a new society." A letter writer, Richard S, (who runs the promisingly-titled blog "commie curmudgeon") thoughtfully responded by pointing out that Brown "was a major advocate of 'black capitalism,' he was proud to be a big businessman, he supported Richard Nixon, he ran his bands in a strictly hierarchical manner and fined band members for any slip-ups, and he was an admitted wife beater." Taking issue with Sandronsky's reading of "Say It Loud I'm Black and I'm Proud" (from which the title to this post is taken) as a Tronti-esque workerist anthem, Richard S. admits that he finds it hard "to reconcile these facts with the idea that James Brown was a great opponent of the alienation of labor and played a major part in a 'race, class and gender struggle for a new society.'"

As far as I understand the historical record, both Sandronsky and Richard are right. For many African Americans in the Civil Rights and Black Power eras, Brown's music (along with that of many other R&B artists) did fuel aspirations for revolutionary social change. If he had done nothing else but oversee the recording of "Funky Drummer," Brown would have been an important figure in the intersection of black music and politics, since that song launched a thousand hip-hop tracks (although by that logic, Billy Squier and Kraftwerk would also be honorary Deacons for Defense).

Unlike Jody Rosen, Sandronsky does not overexaggerate the success of the movements that sought to acheive this change, or Brown's role in their limited successes. One reason that I was so annoyed by the James Brown obit in Slate was that it described his acheivement as "having made the world funky," thereby affirming the neocon interpretation of the Civil Rights movement as a successful fait accompli by 1966 or 1967. Blacks could vote; the world was funky; and just as Guess Who's Coming to Dinner's Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy would be moved to transcend their old-fashioned resistance to the interracial marriage of their daughter by encountering a group of free-spirited youths frugging in the street, so America could overcome its legacy of entrenched racism by trading James Crow for James Brown. The net effect of this kind of bad history is the rendering-absurd of more radical manfestations of the civil rights movement and contemporary claims regarding persisting (in many cases deepening) inequalities between blacks and whites in the United States.

Richard S. is correct, however, in cautioning against extending this interpretation to somehow mean that Brown's music articulated black workers' frustrations and aspirations to build a more meaningful and authentic existence. Leaving aside the unsavory details of Brown's personal life (which certainly make him an unattractive figure, but don't necessarily mitigate his political significance... the same accusations could certainly made against someone like Huey Newton, who is nevertheless considered a talented and influential, if deeply flawed and problematic, political leader by most historians), we should focus on the presence or absence of "work critique" in the music of Brown.

Like Richard S, I agree that Brown's treatment of his musical collaborators was loathsome. In fact, like many bandleader entrepreneurs of postwar pop music, from Buck Owens to Buddy Rich, Brown built his persona and performances (as well as his profit base) on control, public humiliation, and exploitation of the musicians who worked for him. However we interpret this (and I think one possibility is to read Brown's performance of control as parodic, and thus in certain ways radical), we should not proceed from one isolated set of lyrics to a wholesale appraisal of Brown's depiction of workers and work. Brian Ward reminds us that massive pressure was required on the part of civil rights leaders to convince Brown to lend his voice and resources to the movement.

In Just My Soul Responding: Rhythm and Blues, Black Consciousness, and Race Relations (another must-read recent American Studies-ish history of African American music), Ward writes that Roy Wilkins had to "virtually shame" Brown into endorsing the NAACP from the stage of the Apollo." Even after he tentatively accepted responsibility to support the civil rights movement, he mostly carried it out by penning toothless songs like "Don't Be A Dropout" and orchestrating publicity stunts like handing out free Christmas meals as a tie-in to his single "Santa Go Straight To The Ghetto.” Richard S. is right to point out as well that Brown's commitment to black capitalism, materialism, and a macho-essentialist vision of "blackness" was unwavering. From Amiri Baraka to Larry Neal, movement intellectuals frequently confessed feelings that ranged from mixed to hostile in regard to Brown.

As it happens, it was miserable to work for Brown. As Brian Ward and Cynthia Rose attest, Brown's employees were treated very badly. Cynthia Rose, author of Living in America: The Soul Saga of James Brown, one of the best mass-market pop music books ever written, recounts the litany of rumors that circulated about Brown as taskmaster:

"James took all the credit for the compositional triumphs of many associates. James enslaved his retinue by claiming that, if they left him, he'd see that they never worked again. During his second, late '80s spell in prison, many of Brown's most well-known ex-employees have underscroed his three decades of creativity with horror stories of financial extortion, woman-beatin, and--latterly-- drug abuse."

Fred Wesley's discussion with Rose of working for James Brown is frankly terrifying: "James was bossy and paranoid... I don't see why someone of his stature would be so defensive. I couldn't understand the way he treated his band, why he was so evil."

In American culture, overridden by several different "labor metaphysics," even suggesting that life might be more than beating one's head against the wall and working for someone else is nevertheless a radical gesture. For African Americans, caught between an internally contradictory racist ideology that depicts them as both shiftless loafers and superhuman workhorses, the critique of work and the work ethic is a powerful substrate of cultural resistance. If we know where to listen, we can hear this resistance in every instance that cultural workers push against the arbitrary power of their bosses... but we are not likely to hear it in the exhortations of those very bosses, no matter how much we might want to.

Come on, man. I just came home from watching JB's performance from 1968 24 hours after MLK was shot and fuckin' ruled!! The whole theater erupted when it ended.

Am I allowed to ignore the capitalism, the spousal abuse, the militarism? Probably not. Dammit.
Whoa, I wish I had seen that...
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