Eight years after his wake overflowed the Apollo Theater, “the Godfather of Soul” has found his way back to Harlem.
Local politicians, spiritual leaders, and Harlemites gathered on Saturday afternoon on the corner of 126th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard to celebrate the dedication of James Brown Way—appropriately located behind the Apollo Theater, where Brown performed frequently.
“Many have performed at the Apollo, but no one like the Godfather of Soul,” city council member Inez Dickens said at the dedication. “So it is fitting that we gather here today to dedicate the street behind the Apollo James Brown Way.”
Brown first performed in 1959 at the Apollo, where he would later record one of his most famous albums, “Live at the Apollo,” in 1962.
“Even when he didn’t feel well, he’d walk through those doors and perform,” the Rev. Al Sharpton told the audience on Saturday. “He came through the back door of society. He came through the back door of segregation. James Brown represented those who came from the guttermost to the uttermost. He was our star. He didn’t make it because someone put him there.”
Brown came from extreme poverty, spending time in prison before venturing to the top of the funk and R&B charts.
“Many black artists crossed over to mainstream,” Sharpton added. “James Brown was the first artist who made mainstream cross over. Now, for every artist, the only way to come to the stage of the Apollo is to go down James Brown Way.”
Assemblyman Keith Wright and Rep. Charles Rangel both spoke to show their support of the street’s co-naming.
“In terms of individual pride, no one gave us more than James Brown,” Rangel said.
The crowd replied with cheers of “Say it Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud,” the title and refrain of one of his most famous songs.
Many people at Saturday’s event emphasized Brown’s commitment to education. “He was not just a musical legend,” Thomas Hart, the producer and CEO of On the Potomac Productions, said. “He created educational opportunities.”
After leaving school at age 12, Brown encouraged young people to get an education—a plea he sung to the world in his song, “Don't Be a Dropout.” His daughter, Deanna Brown, echoed the value her father put on education. She started a music school, the James Brown Academy of Music Performers, in honor of her father and his commitment to education for young people.
“Get your education,” she told the crowd on Saturday. “Without an education, you might as well be dead.”
Charles Campbell, a resident of Jamaica, Queens, said it was Brown who inspired him to go to college.
“Years ago I started to work here as a child,” Campbell said. “At seven years old, I was running errands for the entertainers, and I met James Brown. He patted me on the head, said ‘Get a good education.’’’
Jacob Morris, the director of the Harlem Historical Society, talked about the importance of these street renamings in Harlem and throughout the city. Morris has worked to get a number of streets renamed, including one after W.E.B. Dubois and another after A. Philip Randolph.
“I’m humbled to serve Harlem and serve our city by helping to make this happen,” Morris said. “This street renaming starts the principle in New York to connect the history with the place. When we walk down this street, we walk down the same street that James Brown walked down.”
Brown is seen as an influence on other musicians—including Michael Jackson, Mick Jagger, and Jay Z—but for a many at the at the dedication, he was more than a musician.
“If you’re doing it the James Brown way, you’re doing it the American way,” Campbell said. “He gave us hope. After the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., James Brown was all we had.”