Longhair hippies and Afro Blacks, they all get together across the tracks...

Yesterday afternoon, I spent four hours standing outside the Apollo Theater waiting to pay my respects to James Brown. It was time well spent.

I always knew that James Brown was a cultural phenomenon as much as a musical one, but until yesterday, I knew it intellectually. I don’t think I ever really felt how much he meant to communities like Harlem. But on that line, nostalgia for James Brown quickly became nostalgia for what Mr. Brown brought to the lives of Harlemites (many of my fellow line-standers remarked on how many times in the past they had stood on this exact sidewalk waiting to see James at the Apollo) which quickly shifted into remembering what it was like to be young in Harlem in the early seventies. It was as much a class reunion as a memorial, and I was honored to be able to listen in.

Shortly after I arrived, one of the four middle-aged childhood friends standing behind me asked the others, "What was the song where he said "Clap your hands! Stomp your feet"? When no one answered, I couldn’t help looking over my shoulder and responding "Give It Up Or Turn It Loose", thus beginning four hours of hilarious and, to me, priceless reminiscence and perspective, the vast majority of which is unprintable here. OK, one example: "Smooth Jazz is for people who can’t handle real Jazz! It’s like calling checkers ‘Smooth Chess’!"
Imagine four hours of that kind of thing. Which made it all the more poignant when, later, after we had walked across the Apollo stage together past the Godfather’s lifeless body, we just looked at each other in sad silence for a moment, before one of the friends quietly asked, "Is it real now?"

Across the street at Bobby’s Happy House, the record store owned by Harlem stalwart Bobby Robinson, they were blasting peak-era James jams, and passers-by were taking moments out from their day to get down. And I mean get down – like drawing-a-crowd-on-125th-street-level getting down. A James Brown impersonator quickly gathered an entourage…or maybe they were entourage impersonators.

Oddly, there were quite a few people showing off James Brown memorabilia that they had collected over the years. They weren’t selling it; they were just walking along the line and explaining to everyone what the item was and how they had gotten it. I still don’t completely understand what that was about, but it was obviously deep. It was like they were getting the community to verify their connection to James Brown. "Can I get a witness" indeed.

Groups of people would just spontaneously start singing James Brown songs, which is weird if you think about what it means to "sing" a James Brown song…they were basically just hollering out slogans. By far the most popular was ‘Say it Loud - I’m Black and I’m Proud". Now that could be because of its call-and-response form – it was designed to be chanted by crowd, after all - but you could tell they meant it. Like really meant it.

But the main thing I saw was a love for something that’s dying in Harlem: its role as a haven for Black people. Harlem as a place where the downtown rules didn’t apply, where you could be yourself and relax and say what you really thought. It was obvious that James Brown and the seventies and Black Power and individual self-realization and Harlem were all part of one big thing that never did (and never really could) have a name. And it was equally obvious that that’s what people were really mourning yesterday.

In midtown, if an elegantly dressed seventy-year-old Black woman felt annoyed at the many news cameras documenting an event, she would probably keep it to herself, or at most let out an exasperated sigh. The woman standing next to me on 125th street, by contrast, chose to express herself as follows:

"I wish these crackers would stop taking my picture!"

As far as I’m concerned, that’s the best tribute James Brown could ask for.

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