Academics, critics explore James Brown's influence

Heads bobbed and feet tapped to the sounds of soul and funk in Richardson Auditorium Nov. 29 and 30 as scholars and critics gathered for a symposium called “Ain’t That a Groove: The Genius of James Brown.” Recordings of Brown’s music were woven into and between panel discussions, usually to illustrate a specific point but sometimes just to set the mood.

Brown, the soul legend who died in December 2006, “transformed the sonic texture of American life,” according to associate professor Daphne Brooks, the event’s organizer. He influenced a range of artists, from rockers like the Rolling Stones to Afrobeat creator Fela Kuti, and his pioneering funk sounds provided a foundation for hip-hop music. But in pop music studies, Brown’s work tends to be overlooked, Brooks said. A half-dozen colleges have devoted conferences to Bob Dylan. Princeton was the first to do the same for Brown.

Panelists included academics like UCLA musicologist Robert Fink, who dissected the rhythms of Brown’s song “Soul Power” alongside Stokely Carmichael’s “black power” chant; music critics, such as author Rickey Vincent, who drew on personal interviews with Brown; and a contemporary artist, drummer Ahmir Thompson of The Roots, better known as “?uestlove,” who tapped beats on the table to explain Brown’s impact on hip-hop.

In addition to reflecting on Brown’s musical influence, the symposium examined his on-stage persona, which blended breathtaking dance moves, sweat-drenched emotion, and trademark theatrics. Some panelists mentioned the charges of domestic violence and other brushes with the law that at times overshadowed Brown’s artistic work, but most of the day focused on positive contributions, including the singer’s black activism in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

A handful of people who worked with Brown attended the symposium, including longtime tour manager Alan Leeds, saxophonist Alfred “Pee Wee” Ellis, and bandleader Fred Wesley, who sat in the front row as Duke University professor Mark Anthony Neal deconstructed the lyrics of “Papa Don’t Take No Mess,” a song Wesley helped to write.