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The Odd Couple: James Brown and Jay-Z

CounterPunch: 2013


James Brown and Jay-Z have much in common. Jay-Z grew up in the Marcy Projects in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant ghetto. Brown was often dismissed from school for "insufficient clothes" and was sent to prison at fifteen for stealing a coat. 


James Brown’s music was massively sampled on hip-hop records as the new musical genre made its way out of the South Bronx on its way to a dominant position in world culture. One beneficiary of that process was Jay-Z, the best-selling hip-hop artist of the 21st century.


Both had problems with the music industry. When no label would sign him to a record deal, Jay-Z created his own record company, Roc-A-Fella Records. Although James Brown did have a record deal, in 1959 he had to go to Dade Records when his label, King Records, wouldn't allow him to record instrumentals. The result was "Do The Mashed Potatoes, Parts 1 and 2," a Top 10 R&B hit issued under the name of Nat Kendrick and the Swans. Brown had to pay for the recording of his 1962 album Live at the Apollo because his record company said it wouldn't sell. It went to number one on the charts. Ultimately Brown, like Jay-Z, started his own label. People Records put out a torrent of albums by sidemen and singers alike.


Both could be far from generous in the role of employer. In 1970 James Brown’s entire band quit in a pay dispute (Brown also fined band members for musical or sartorial mistakes).  Jay-Z’s 40/40 Club in New York City was sued by wait staff who said they were paid below minimum wage. After reviewing the earning reports of several employees, a federal judge ruled that the club owners were violating New York labor laws.


James Brown rehearsed and punished his band members to the point of mutiny. "If I had to fight James Brown, right away I would have a gun," Brown's former bandleader Fred Wesley said. "Because his determination to win is…just more powerful than anyone else's I've ever seen." In Empire State of Mind: How Jay-Z Went From Street Corner to Corner Office, Zack O’Malley Greenburg writes of Jay-Z’s similar focus and drive: “He has a habit of casting aside his teachers once he’s mastered their lessons…he isn’t on the long list of entertainers who’ve been taken advantage of by opportunistic friends and family members.”


Although it took him longer than the Motown or Stax artists, James Brown crossed over on his own terms and brought his hard Southern-derived music to all, symbolized by the fact that on "Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud" the children's chorus was made up entirely of whites and Asians. Country stars such as Barbara Mandrell and Porter Wagoner waged a lengthy and ultimately successful campaign to bring James Brown to the Grand Ole Opry.  James got up on that hallowed stage and sang a couple of country songs and spoke about the impact of the Grand Ole Opry on his work. He received a warm greeting, a precursor to the current wave of country/rap duets.


Similarly, Jay-Z has helped to greatly expand the hip-hop audience, which he explains as due to “This generation right now, they… are a bit removed from those racist feelings because again, it's hard to teach racism when your child is out [at] clubs. It's integrated and the music we listen to is the same."


James Brown did time in prison as a juvenile and as an adult. Jay-Z reluctantly gave up his life as a drug dealer to pursue a rap career, ultimately because he knew he could easily wind up incarcerated. After all, since Ronald Reagan began the “drug war” in 1982 at the same time that industrial jobs began to disappear in the United States, 31 million Americans have been arrested on drug charges.


Both men have backed politicians. James Brown endorsed Hubert Humphrey in the 1968 Presidential election and Richard Nixon in 1972.  In 2012 Jay-Z raised $4 million for Obama in one night by co-hosting a fundraiser with his wife Beyonce, charging $40,000 for entry to his 40/40 club. Obama once quoted Jay-Z’s song “Dirt Off My Shoulder” at a press conference and last year said that Jay-Z exemplifies “what Made in America means.”


Despite the many similarities, there are also fundamental differences between the Southern soul man and the Northern urban rapper.  While James Brown was a fairly wealthy man, Jay-Z’s worth is estimated at half a billion dollars. Jay-Z isn’t just living well, he’s certified member of the bourgeoisie. He sold his Rocawear clothing company a few years ago for $204 million and, in 2010, he made more money than all but seven CEOs in America.


Apart from his support for Obama, Jay-Z is studiously apolitical and, in fact, his support for Obama is itself apolitical. “Whether [Obama] does anything,” Jay-Z says, “the hope that he provides for a nation, and outside of America, is enough.  Just being who he is.  You’re the first black president. If he speaks on any issue or anything he should be left alone.” This get out of jail free card is the ideological cover for Jay-Z’s rap: “I feel like a Black Republican, money I got comin’ in.”


James Brown was highly political.  On songs such as “Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved” or “Soul Power,” Brown advocates for the environment and for increased spending on education. James Brown was anti-nuke. When he was doing six years in prison for traffic violations, more time than William Calley did for the My Lai massacre, Brown told The New York Times: "I think there's a lot of money spent on housing people away from home that should be spent on building them a home so they won't ever have to leave."


Brown’s massive hit "Say It Loud” featured the key line: "We'd rather die on our feet than be livin' on our knees."  "Say It Loud" is actually an even more powerful statement today, now that the more or less automatic racial unity of 1968 has been replaced with the hatred of poor blacks expressed by Bill Cosby, Chris Rock, and many others. On 1972's "Funky President," Brown was an early proponent of reparations ("Let's get together, get some land") and even called for workers to own their own factories.


Jay-Z looks at factories differently. He used sweatshops to produce hip-hop gear for his Rocawear clothing lines. The New York Times reported that “According to Charles Kernaghan, Director of the National Labor Committee, most urban consumers would be appalled if they knew of the horrendous conditions garment workers were forced to endure inside sweatshops to make hip-hop apparel…twenty workers who attempted to form a union said they were immediately fired, and subsequently smuggled Rocawear and Sean John labels out of the sweatshop as evidence.”


Jay-Z does occasionally give a shout out to the poor and the imprisoned but even on a song like “Hard Knock Life” he focuses mainly on himself and how much money he makes. He is all about “I” in contrast to James Brown who, in public and in private, was all about “we.” How are we going to be free?


A 1960s meeting that Brown described as "cordial but direct" took place with SNCC's H. Rap Brown to discuss strategies for black liberation. They disagreed over the use of violence and, when Rap Brown accused him of being a big star who was out of touch with the masses, James took exception, pointing out: "I probably come from a much poorer background than you do." James Brown went on to do benefits for both SNCC and the NAACP and, after James Meredith was shot in Mississippi in 1966, Brown flew to his side.


Jay-Z’s response to the Occupy movement was quite different. He sold “Occupy All Streets” T-shirts for $22 and kept all the money.


Another difference between the two is that Jay-Z glamorizes the drug trade, tirelessly rapping about his history as a drug dealer. James Brown was a drug addict, a victim of the drug trade. On “Blue Magic,” Jay-Z raps:


Blame Reagan for making me into a monster

Blame Oliver North and Iran-Contra

I ran contraband that they sponsored

Before this rhyming stuff we was in concert


The end result of that scenario was reflected in James Brown’s hit song “King Heroin,” which provided a terrifying look at the destruction caused by drugs.


Although a major star, James Brown never lost his connection to his predominantly poor audience, holding court and espousing his liberation agenda in rib joints, barber shops, and private homes. Today, Jay-Z glories in his own personal escape, detailing the ways his life has nothing to do with poverty and castigating his audience for not having the personal drive to join him in the one per cent.


One million, two million, three million, four

In 18 months, $80 million more

Put me anywhere on God’s green earth

I triple my worth


“U Don’t Know,” Jay-Z


Compare that to the 1973 Maceo Parker track "The Soul of a Black Man," which was produced by James Brown, who added lyrics such as "It's so hard! It's so baaaaaaaad…When you got three meals a day: oatmeal, no meal, and missed meal!"


All that said, how can we account for the fact that Jay-Z has established the Shawn Carter Scholarship Foundation to help underprivileged kids attend college, donated $1 million to Katrina relief, and joined forces with the UN and MTV to launch a documentary series called Diary of Jay-Z: Water for Life, which chronicled his journey to Africa to raise awareness of the world water crisis.


It’s not really possible to see into a celebrity’s mind and determine with certainty if their motives are sincere or if their actions come from the desire for publicity or tax deductions. Water for Life suggests that charity and the right business moves can solve the problem of a lack of access to water. But charity isn’t change--Jay-Z praised his long-time sponsor Coca-Cola for providing money for water pumps in Southern Africa even though, as Robin D.G. Kelley noted in the September CounterPunch: “At the time, Coke was targeted by protestors in India and Colombia for depleting scarce local water sources for its bottling plants, and releasing toxic waste water into the ground.” Although Jay-Z made an entire movie about clean water, the drinking water in the Honduran factories which made his Rocawear clothing was found to be contaminated with fecal matter. 


Any famous artist who becomes part of the charity machine will inevitably encounter Bono. Jay-Z did just that, meeting with the self-styled liberator of Africa at Bono’s fancy digs in the south of France. They may have talked about who they’d had power lunches with or maybe they just discussed tax avoidance strategies. Jay-Z joined Bono for a duet at the infamous U2 concert at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin where a metal wall was erected to prevent the thousands of people gathered outside the concert site from seeing the show. Protesters noted the irony of erecting a wall to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall. In his songs, Jay-Z has praised three different articles in Forbes, the right-wing business magazine owned by Bono, most notably “I Get Money: The Forbes 1-2-3 Remix.” The fawning Jay-Z biography Empire State of Mind was written by a Forbes reporter.


Yet the divergence between James Brown and Jay-Z is more the story of two different eras than the story of two different individuals. The essence of it can be seen in two very different Southern California uprisings. The Watts Rebellion in Los Angeles in 1965, which took place just three weeks after James Brown released his epochal single “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” saw a city explode because blacks were denied jobs or any meaningful place in society even though the economy was expanding and had room for them.


The Los Angeles Rebellion of 1992 took place in a collapsing post-industrial economy that had no room for a large section of the city’s residents. Nor was this rebellion limited only to blacks as Watts had been. Of the thousands of people who were arrested—many for simply taking items like food and diapers from stores—51% were Latino, 36% were black, and 11% were white.


At the time of the Watts rebellion, segregation was near total in the United States and the black elite lived in the same areas as the black poor. Under pressure from a sweeping, all-class civil rights movement, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Then, as Numan Bartley wrote in The New South 1945-1980: “The open-housing provisions of the 1968 Fair Housing Act maintained established federal policy by easing the escape of affluent African-Americans from ghettos.”


Since that time the polarization of wealth in America has increased dramatically among all races.  Today there are scores of black generals, admirals and CEOs of Fortune 500 corporations. There are hundreds of black millionaires and below them a growing layer of black professionals who have little if any connection to the mass of African-Americans.


James Brown came on the scene at a time when none of this had happened and could not be foreseen, so he was a part of an intense national debate about the way forward. Jay-Z came on the scene when the issue had been decided (his wife Beyonce grew up in Houston with a maid). What little debate remained was marginalized and focused on the way forward for who?


Jay-Z’s answer to that question can be found on his song “The Ruler’s Back”:


I’m representin’ for the seat where Rosa Parks sat

Where Malcolm X was shot

Where Martin Luther was popped


What does that mean? Jay-Z’s entire career ignores the challenge Martin Luther King laid down at the SCLC convention in 1967, a year before he was assassinated. In one of his most moving speeches, King said: “One day we must ask the question ‘Why are there 40 million poor people in America?’ When you ask that question, you’re raising a question about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy.”


There is little discussion of “the capitalistic economy” in popular culture today despite the fact that polls indicate that millions of Americans want answers to exactly the questions King posed. That’s because the limits of current discussion are set by celebrities like Oprah and Jay-Z who, not surprisingly, are numbers one and seven on Forbes’ list of the richest African-Americans. One result of the narrow national dialogue was reflected recently in a Pew Research Center study which found that “a majority of black Americans blame individual failings—not racial prejudice—for the lack of economic progress by lower-income African Americans.”


Alongside the growing inequality of wealth in America goes a growing equality of poverty which continues to spread out in new directions. More and more, lower class whites have more in common with lower-class blacks than they do with upper-class whites. This has become so obvious that even Jay-Z sees it. He recently told Rap Radar's Elliott Wilson that "All our feelings and anxieties and all that thing are more similar now.” The accepted wisdom that suburban whites now constitute the biggest market for hip-hop is, even if true, merely confirmation of the generally ignored fact that the suburbs, not the ghettos, are now the place where poverty in the U.S. is growing most rapidly.


Jay-Z also says that “Hip-hop has done more than any leader, politician, or anyone to improve race relations.” That is at best an effect and not a cause of the change. Working underneath are more fundamental processes, especially the polarization of wealth in a post-industrial world, which set the conditions for the emergence of hip-hop in the first place. According to a recent report, half of the combined net worth of the world’s 250 richest individuals could be used to double the annual income of the world’s poorest three billion people. The painfully obvious need for a massive redistribution of wealth puts Jay-Z’s mantra of “Get that money!” into its true selfish context.


Jay-Z has shown no interest in movements such as Occupy (which emerged just across the Brooklyn Bridge from Jay-Z’s first home in the Marcy Projects), Moral Mondays (which this past summer swept across North Carolina, just a few hours drive from James Brown’s Georgia birthplace), or 100,000 Poets and Musicians for Change, now present in almost as many countries as hip-hop.


With the help of the many musical genres impacted by the earthshaking career of James Brown, these movements have the potential to challenge the ongoing suffocation of open discourse. Our national dialogue is so severely diminished because it’s difficult for anyone other than the likes of Oprah, Bono, and Jay-Z to be heard.


Lee Ballinger:

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