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July 22, 2024 8:24 pm

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James Brown ‘taught us about our Blackness.’ A new TV documentary examines complex Godfather of Soul

Credit: Look Magazine Collection/Library of Congress

Pamela Kirkland, GPB News

A new documentary series debuting tonight on A+E delves into the legendary life of musician James Brown. Despite being known as an international superstar, Brown proudly called Augusta, Ga., his home.

James Brown: Say It Loud, the four-part broadcast airing Feb. 19 and 20 at 8 p.m. ET on, follows his life from humble beginnings as a seventh-grade dropout to becoming the ‘Godfather of Soul,’ whose influence still touches the music we hear today.

GPB’s Morning Edition host Pamela Kirkland spoke with the director of Say It Loud, Deborah Riley Draper.


Pamela Kirkland: Deborah, thank you so much for being here.

Deborah Riley Draper: It is a pleasure to be here and talk about James Brown. I was born in Georgia — Savannah, Ga. — so it’s nice to be able to write and direct a docuseries about our very own James Brown.

Pamela Kirkland: This documentary features interviews with artists like Questlove, Mick Jagger, Bootsy Collins, and they’re all talking about James Brown’s influence on all of these different musical genres. Can you talk about the impact that he had on the evolution of American music?

Deborah Riley Draper: It’s rather incredible, because from the middle of the 1950s until 2006, when James Brown passed away, every bit of his soul he put into the music. So he influenced soul, jazz, hip-hop, of course. And he created funk. So, this man literally changed how we listen to music, how we hear music. He had 15,000 songs sampled. I thought it was really incredible to listen to Mick Jagger in particular, speak about being in the U.K., searching for that Live at the Apollo album, like, you know, finding it — and it was a rare-to-get — and passing it among all of his friends, then eventually being able to be on The Tammy Show with James Brown himself and admitting James Brown mopped the floor up with everyone. So it was priceless. It’s incredible.

Pamela Kirkland: And I think it’s fair to say we all know that scream. We know the music. But the documentary also reminds viewers that James Brown is a very complicated person. 

Deborah Riley Draper: 100%. When I was, preparing to do this docuseries, I spent time with some professors at Morehouse [College] understanding Black trauma, understanding generational trauma and how it impacts people. So James Brown is quite complicated. He’s a creative genius and he’s flawed. He knows how to entertain. He knows how to be the “hardest working man in show business.” But at the same time, he has trauma that was not healed. 

Pamela Kirkland: From his upbringing in the Jim Crow South to his role in the civil rights movement, can you talk about the — how the documentary places Black culture at the center of his story?

Deborah Riley Draper: James Brown was born during the Depression. He grew up through Jim Crow. He experienced the music business as a Black man from the South. He found his footing that day [in 1966] at the James Meredith rally when he was standing there with Stokely Carmichael, Martin Luther King, Sammy Davis Jr., Dick Gregory, as they had this March Against Fear. This was what I believe to be his awakening. What James Brown taught us about our Blackness was to “Say it loud: I’m Black, and I’m proud.” 

It is a lesson on how to motivate yourself. But it’s also a lesson about perseverance. Because he had high highs and low lows, but he fought through and he pushed through to become this icon. 

James Brown: Say It Loud examines Brown’s legacy through exclusive interviews, never-before-seen archival footage and his beloved music catalog.

This story comes to The Augusta-Richmond Herald through a reporting partnership with GPB News, a non-profit newsroom covering the state of Georgia.