The Meaning of “Soul”


(This is my favorite James Brown performance) Sometime – James Brown – On James Brown’s album Superbad

Approximately two years ago, I saw the James Brown documentary: Mr. Dynamite. In the documentary, the godfather of soul was asked the familiar question posed to many R&B and soul singers. Which is: What is soul?

Jame Brown said to the interviewer, “Soul…is being told no – over and over and over again. Soul is being told you can’t go inside the same restaurants as white people, can’t go to the same bathroom as a white person, can’t date a white woman, and no, you can’t be  doctor or a lawyer even if you tried.”

The emotion of soul music comes from this rejection. It manifests from the tension and the friction that inevitably develops from wanting something and never getting it; from all of the frustration and mental and physical pain that inevitably develops from being told you won’t ever get something as long as you live. From repeated humiliation in the slums dancing for quarters in the deep south, and from seeing your mother leaving your alcoholic father and you together.


james brown


Soul music was created from the ghettoes of America. It comes from the blues, which was the African-American slave’s only chance to express how he felt, in an unfamiliar land, in an unfamiliar situation with unfamiliar people treating him like a non-human.

The beautiful thing about music is it is an outlet for release. Spiritual, primordial release of this raw and furious passion. And it signifies everything. When a singer feels sad, he sings about why he is sad. When a singer feels angry, she sings to calm herself down. And when a singer is cornered like a dog and feels he has no where to go, like a drowning man struggling to free himself from the water that will kill him, he will scream to the gods in order to appeal to the Lord to free him from his predicament.

I’ve always loved soul music. This is mainly because my family exposed me to this type of music-I can’t say that I was predetermined to like it. The energy of boogie-woogie, the repetitive nature of doo-wop and low-rider oldies had a special quality to it that I eventually learned to love. The music is sincere and does not hold back. It is desperate. It is of men and women playing and singing music not to please the royal court of Vienna or to please the critics – it was for the masses, for their families, for their communities, and for themselves.

The reverend Al Sharpton, formerly a news anchor for MSNBC, said in the film, ‘Soul Survivor’: “James Brown’s moan, his groan… all of that was ‘I want to release this feeling,’ even if you’re not comfortable with it. And when he released it, he released a scream in all of us that had so much scream built up in it, but never had the nerve to let it go.”

This kind of audacity has its own virtue to it, don’t you think? It serves the public in a psychological, spiritual way. This is what musicians are meant for, after all. Not only entertainment, but for this too. To express what cannot be articulated, only felt.

Not that any other kind of art music and even pop music has no appeal to the masses or exists for its own artistic sake. R&B and rap today has its own merits, of course. I would argue that the image and the ego of the artists are emphasized so much, that the sincere emotion and expression is being lost, slowly but surely, or rather, the emotion and expression of the musician is being enveloped -like a white blood cell enveloping a necessary cellular ingredient in the body – by the profit-motive. By the record company, by the corporate sponsors, by the masses themselves. Not to mention the hyper-sexual element of today’s music in general – and I want to talk about this. This also sells, of course. Now before these days, R&B used sexual themes in their music, but I would argue that those artists in the 60’s and 70’s did so with some purpose in mind, and did not use sex for its own sake. Music videos such as Nicki Minaj’s “Feeling Myself” and “Anaconda” and other hit singles are being played on the internet and all of the T.V.’s of the cities, and anyone could see them. This is what our children are seeing, day in and day out. We are what we eat. If we are exposing our children to these soulless, mindless, and hyper-sexual songs, whether we like it or not, these children will grow up to become what they have seen, in one way or another.

Anyways, back to soul music. It’s got feeling! Feeling not from the genitalia, but from the heart! Love, altruism, sadness, joy, grace, and justice are all words I associate with good soul music.

Here is a link to one of my favorite soul songs by Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions (the first link). It is one of my favorite because it is deeply personal to Curtis, yet has a quality of universality to it. Also, the groove is killing. It is as beautiful as a Tchaikovsky melody, in my opinion.

-(And since I love Curtis so much, here is another for the ear candy cornucopia! You may recognize it from the movie: Superbad)

The Impressions – I Loved and I Lost

Curtis Mayfield – P.S. I love you






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