I’ve always loved James Brown. Or to be more precise, his music. I’m still thinking about the wild in art and life and he was a great example of someone whose electric performances on stage embodied a powerful energy. And yet what appeared as spontaneous exuberance, “YEEOWWW! I feel good!!” was that wild energy tempered and condensed into killer grooves crafted through hard, hard work and musicianship. Indeed, his reputation as “the hardest working man in show business” came partly from his insistence on frequent and tightly-disciplined rehearsals.
All of this brought up by the movie “Get On Up,” a great reminder of the power of his music and dance and yet sobering look at the flaws in the man himself. (“Never confuse the person and their art,” the hard, hard lesson I’ve been learning all my life.) When he was on stage, you were uplifted by his presence. When you peeked behind the scenes (at least as depicted by the movie), you realize you wouldn’t want him to marry your daughter— or even be in his band. His documented domestic violence and ill-treatment of band members is not a pretty picture. Nor is his support of Richard Nixon and close relationship with Strom Thurmond. (James, what were you thinking?!)
But the thing that struck me in the movie was his constant intoning of “I’m James Brown,” both to himself to boost his sense of destiny and to others around him to justify his condescending treatment of them. He was indeed chosen to channel an undeniable spiritual force, but mistook the gift as his power, let it feed and inflate his personal ego rather than flow out wholly to the world. Especially offstage.
Joseph Campbell coined this marvelous phrase—“transparent to transcendence.” Whether you’re a soul singer or a spiritual master or a powerful political leader, you are well-advised to let that power come through you, knowing it didn’t come from you and doesn’t stop with you. Instead of blocking the energy with an opaque ego, you let it pass through and don’t claim too much credit.
We are all mesmerized by soul-power and though I believe that we all have it, there is no question that it comes in different doses and we want to be around those who radiate it with a greater intensity and charisma. But at the same time that we need it to feel just a bit more alive, it is dangerous for everyone. Dangerous for us to give too much of our own power to the celebrity, superstar, hero or convincing charlatan and dangerous for the people who channel it to claim too much for themselves. Given James Brown’s childhood and the absence of any spiritual mentor, it’s not surprising that he got lost in that maze. And at the end, it’s clear that it created a sadness in him as well as in the people he hurt.
But dang, he sure sang some great music.