When people talk about traveling or living abroad, they often talk of the opportunity to get to know a different culture. What’s harder to describe in that scenario is how you become more aware of your own culture, either in its absence or through the perceptions of people who grew up in another one. I’ve heard this called “the fish-out-of-water” effect.
Since Sept. 11 and the subsequent War on Terror and invasion of Iraq, America has gone through a wide range of sometimes tortured, convoluted assertions about itself and its role as the last remaining superpower. I witnessed much of this while living abroad for two years in the Czech Republic, which made the process even more difficult since I saw my country’s identity scrutinized with thoughtful criticism by people who were now my hosts.
As much as we like to believe the photos from Abu Ghraib and Donald Rumsfeld’s Pollyanna-ish response to the initial looting in Baghdad are “not like us,” when experienced overseas they looked like “smoking guns” found in the hands of our country. How could I explain this? Guilty as charged.
What does this have to do with James Brown?
Well, the evening before the flight that would return me to the United States and Louisville in September 2004, James Brown performed in Prague, to the astonishment and pleasure of thousands of Czechs — and myself. I had seen him twice before in the States, but in this context it was a revelation.
For nearly two years, in the political context of the Iraq War, being an American in Europe was humbling, but for one final glorious evening, James Brown, without intending to, laid out the best case for the American Dream I had seen in years. An African American whose childhood would not be considered a recipe for success does not, at first, seem a likely icon for American identity abroad. But James Brown was a better national emblem that night than most presidents could ever hope to be.
Conservatives like to believe Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher deserve all of the credit for ending the Cold War. What shocked me during my life in Prague, a city that endured Communist rule from 1948 until the Velvet Revolution of 1989, was how many people I met who were involved in that Revolution and spoke of an “underground” culture of rock music, and who expressed a strong anti-authoritarian ethos. What intrigued them about America was not Ronald Reagan, but the Velvet Underground, punk rock and a culture that allowed subversive sentiments to be openly expressed.
It’s hard to imagine hard-line Cold Warriors like Joseph McCarthy embracing the likes of James Brown, Jimi Hendrix or the Rolling Stones. But these were the kinds of figures who intrigued many people on the other side of the Iron Curtain and encouraged them to believe Western and American values were not only different but better.
James Brown was a hard worker and a disciplined performer, and he emanated an infectious, and seemingly never-ending, flow of energy — in short, he was “like a sex machine.” His show was a compendium of 20th century American popular music with shades of gospel, R & B, soul and rock — all pulled together by his signature “funk” syncopation and an accent on the “ones,” or the first beat of the measure. His stage show had elements of Cab Calloway, Motown, Las Vegas, revival meetings and much more; he was a major influence on and inspiration for many performers.
James Brown and the musical stream he swam in are among some of the most highly valued and admired cultural assets this country has given to the world. In a world prone to ancient ethnic and tribal tensions and strife, triumphant musical forms originating from an oppressed minority — African Americans — tell a powerful story: that transcendence and creative expression are the most pleasurable forms of liberty, and no one is powerless if they have “soul.” And, yes, it is an inspiring emblem of a place that defines itself more by the promise of the future than the grievances of the past.
When I first saw James Brown at the Louisville Palace in the mid-’80s, I was used to going to a mixed race church in the West End. Before the show started, surrounded by middle-aged couples both black and white, many dressed up for the occasion, the decorum seemed similar to my church experiences. But as soon as the performance began, the place was transformed.
As people began to stand up and dance, their faces dropped the burdened expressions of middle age, and they seemed transported back to the expressions of their youth. Laughter spread as “the rust was knocked off” hips and limbs that began to move and gyrate in both energetic and sensual ways, carried by pulsating waves of rhythm. And one could feel a sense of kinship that we often hope for in public but rarely feel, especially across racial, class and generational divides.
The same thing seemed to happen that last night in Prague. Given the choice between this feeling of kinship and a world of ancient and ideological divisions, James Brown offered something many desire but few experience in a sustained way: a more universal sense of community.
As performer and composer, his achievements are well chronicled. But I’d like to give my personal thanks, for helping me feel better about returning home to the United States — it’s hard to imagine a similar performer emerging in Belgium or Switzerland or Japan. And I’ll join the chorus in singing: “Please, please, please, don’t go!”
Bruce Linn is an artist, musician and contributing arts writer to LEO. Contact him at [email protected]