During the late ’60s as the Civil Rights Movement continued to reverberate in the consciousness of young Black Americans looking for reasons to press on, one soul singer’s bold and funky style gave license and credence to a teenaged boy in New York who would become one of the most vocal proponents of Civil Rights living today. MSNBC television host and founder of the National Action Network Rev. Al Sharpton spoke with NewsOne and shared why he feels the “Godfather Of Soul” James Brown helped to shape him as a young man and remains an inspiration to him even to this day.
NewsOne: Could you tell us about one musical artist that’s inspired you and your life’s work?
Rev. Al Sharpton: Well, there’s no one close to James Brown. James Brown was like a Father to me personally, because I was around from when I was a teenager. I even styled my hair like his. But James Brown’s music was dominant even before I got to know him. “Say It Loud, I’m Black And I’m Proud” came out in ’68 when I was 13 years old, and it literally changed me and my contemporaries from Negros to Blacks, even though we were already in the Civil Rights Movement. His hard-driving style and his beat, which he called the “one,” and the kind of pulsating in-your-face Black authenticity defined how a lot of us, then, styled ourselves.
James Brown represented that powerful Black manhood a lot of us patterned our lives after. Unlike other artists, you can hear the first three chords of his records and know it was a James Brown song. It was identifiable, it was distinct, and it was all him. So by me having known him well, so much so that I preached at his funeral, his unique style was just who he was. He knew too that he was unique and he influenced me to never just join the crowd and instead do what’s right and that would resonate with people.
NewsOne: James Brown’s funk sound helped serve as a precursor to the revolutionary sounds of hip-hop. Do you think the Godfather Of Soul has any current contemporaries?
Rev. Al: I think he was one of a kind, but I think there will be others who have a similar impact in their own unique fashion. I don’t think anyone should imitate anyone ahead of them, they should instead learn from them and make their own way. I think that’s the height of an artist, their creativity. So just as I think of who’s like a James Brown today, I can’t think of anyone like him before his time. He brought it to another level, so anyone who’s around today should bring it to another level too.
I used to say to him in his later years if he thought Michael Jackson was the new James Brown or Prince and even Usher, and he said to me the only advice I can give to them is don’t be the next James Brown, be the first Michael, be the first Prince, the first Usher because I was the first James Brown. He even put it on me. He said don’t try to be the next Dr. [Martin L.] King or the next Jesse Jackson, even though I admired them. He said learn from Dr. King, learn from Jesse Jackson. If you do you, you can’t miss because can’t nobody do you like yourself, and I never forgot that.