Saturday, December 30, 2006

Greatest Impact - President Ford or James Brown?

A Letter to the Editor of the San Francisco Chronicle lamented that President Ford’s death was more prominently featured on the front page than James Brown’s, and contained the sentiment that: “James Brown had more impact on this country and the world than Ford could ever imagine.”

That was news to me, since I hardly knew a thing about James Brown, his music, his politics, or his good and bad deeds. The person who wrote that James Brown had more impact than Ford probably knows less about President Ford than I know about James Brown. I’m sure he is ignorant of the fact that many of our most influential leaders today started as advisors or appointees of President Ford.

But I’ll bet he knows that James Brown had a strong influence on the development of rap music, something I also know little about, but which the writer probably considers the most important music form and cultural influence of the past century.

With more impact on this country and the world than we could ever imagine.

You get celebrity centered silliness in America endlessly, and it’s not surprising that most Americans can’t point to Iraq on a map but can tell you James Brown sang “Say it Loud - I’m Black and I’m Proud.” To some Americans, this may be a defining moment in their lives, but I’m at a loss to understand why.

If one of the defining moments of your life is a popular song, your life may not be very well defined.

This past week the Chronicle had an article about how many people, especially children, are affected by the murder of a parent, uncle, brother, or friend in murderous Oakland. I was struck by how the murder victims were almost all young black males. What moments in their short, violent lives did James Brown define? Did they learn from his drug abuse not to do drugs? Did they learn from his domestic abuse not to abuse women? Did they learn from his prison time not to commit crimes? What did they learn from James Brown? Dance moves?

“They’re black and they’re proud.”

Say it loud.

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