As the title suggests, this song is about black pride. Brown was a leader in the black community, and encouraged his people to stand up for their rights. The '60s was a tumultuous time for race relations in America, and this song became an anthem for the black power movement.
Brown recorded this live with a group of children from the Los Angeles area answering Brown's "Say It Loud" with "I'm Black And I'm Proud." This call-and-response style was a fixture at Brown's shows and inspired a generation of funk.
Suggestion credit: Bertrand - Paris, France
According to Brown's close friend Al Sharpton, the song came about when Brown witnessed infighting among blacks in Los Angeles. "We've lost our pride," he thought. He went to his hotel room and wrote the lyrics on a napkin.
James Brown got politically active in 1968, endorsing the Democrat Hubert Humphrey for president. He had enormous sway in the black community, which overwhelmingly supported Humphrey, but it was not enough to defeat Richard Nixon, who was elected.
Brown didn't identify as a Democrat though, and quickly switch his allegiance to Nixon, performing this song (along with "Please Please Please" and "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag") at the inauguration. Brown got more politically conservative over the next few years, espousing individualism (do it for yourself) over systematic change. In 1972 he supported Nixon's re-election campaign, which put him at odds with most of his audience.
Despite becoming a highlight of his concerts, within a year of the release of the studio recording this had largely disappeared from Brown's set list, as he was concerned with how its message was being interpreted. Brown wrote in his autobiography: "The song is obsolete now... But it was necessary to teach pride then, and I think the song did a lot of good for a lot of people."
He added: "People called 'Black and Proud' militant and angry - maybe because of the line about dying on your feet instead of living on your knees. But really, if you listen to it, it sounds like a children's song. That's why I had children in it, so children who heard it could grow up feeling pride... The song cost me a lot of my crossover audience. The racial makeup at my concerts was mostly black after that. I don't regret it, though, even if it was misunderstood."
The song's percussive, pounding rhythm and verbal attacks provided a blueprint for hip-hop. Eric B and Rakim sampled it on "Move The Crowd" in 1987 and Big Daddy Kane, LL Cool J and 2 Live Crew have all also borrowed from the tune.
This was Brown's first recording to feature trombonist Fred Wesley, who was to be a pivotal member of the Godfather of Soul's bands for several years. After leaving Brown's band in 1975, Wesley spent the remainder of the decade playing with George Clinton's various Parliament-Funkadelic projects.
Wesley recalled to Uncut magazine in 2017: "It wasn't as hard musically as jazz, but playing James Brown music was a challenge - you had to play it right on the beat, right on time, and you had to play long vamps, so it was different. It wasn't the same as jazz but it was just as hard. Jazz and funk have come together as one now but back in those days rhythm and blues were mainly (swung beats) but the James Brown thing was tight."
The song was recorded at the spacious Vox Studios in Van Nuys, California on August 7, 1968. With lots of room, the band set up like a live show and watched Brown for cues, capturing the live energy and spontaneity that energized their music.
Brown was getting entrepreneurial around this time, buying the radio station WRDW in his hometown of Augusta, Georgia and launching a chain of restaurants called the Gold Platter in urban areas. This synchs with what he sings in the second verse:
We're tired of beatin' our head against the wall And workin' for someone else
Brown was a shrewd (and ruthless) businessman when it came to music, but his non-musical ventures were a drain - the Gold Platter restaurants soon closed.
Brown made a visual statement as well, going natural with his hair instead of filling it with product for a stiff, shiny look. This was part of a trend in the black community that accelerated when Brown did it.
Among the many this song impacted was Chuck D of Public Enemy, who was eight years old when it was released. "I remember defining myself as these American terms of negro to colored to black," he said in the documentary Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown. "Because of that one song, black was beautiful. It was the beginning of being beautiful.
This song could be a bit awkward for listeners at Brown's concerts who were not black. Brown would sometimes give instructions before performing it, telling black audience members to repeat the "I'm black" line, and everyone else to come in on "I'm proud," giving everyone a chance to participate.