Book of the Month: James McBride’s Kill ‘Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul
Our Book recommendation for this month is James McBride’s Kill ‘Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul, a book that anyone with an interest in the United States should read, James Brown devotees and all. As a soul music fan, I bought it in search of an entertaining read only to find a text that is very much a journey into America’s unresolved issues of racism, inequality, poverty, and class division. As such, Kill ‘Em and Leave is an illuminating work on the social fabric of the US which might be easily adopted in any American Studies syllabus.
James McBride weaves a life of James Brown approaching those who were near the singer throughout significant moments of his life. In sparse order, the author reconstructs the childhood, the career and the personal life of an iconic man, avoiding anecdotal writing and celebratory descriptions. Each chapter is built around the biography of one or two persons: a musician, a family member, a lawyer, a preacher, and so on. Through the interaction between these persons and Brown, McBride was able to reconstruct crucial passages in the musician’s life in a continuing effort to extrapolate a universal meaning for anyone who grows up in America as a black person. This choral story suggests one great truth about anyone’s life: no man is an island. Without detracting anything from a person who changed the course of American music and culture at large, this storyline enables us to appreciate that the music of James Brown came “from many someones. Not just one. And not just James Brown” (137). This is the book’s strong message that is a counter-narrative to today’s solipsistic exaltation of the individual. Current mainstream media thrive on personal stories of success or failure, on “reality-show” accounts of one person’s life, as if we were all detached from one another, firmly believing Margaret Thatcher’s lie that there is no such thing as society, only individual men and women. McBride demonstrates that the British Prime Minister was wrong. Even the life of great geniuses is indeed determined by and steeped into all layers of a society, from its micro familial realities to the nation as a whole.
The portrait of James Brown that emerges from the many life stories in the book is that of a black man who feared the white man, and of an old-school southerner who was always suspicious of the progressive northerner (whom he believed subtly more racist than the people of the South). And, ultimately, it is the story of a dedicated artist and a ruthless band leader, far beyond the superstar idol.
In the background of this intricate canvass of intersecting lives is a country with its contradictions and injustices. We read about poor neighbourhood schools that cannot afford to buy paper and pencils for their students; corruption creeping into every profession from lawyers to disc jockeys, priests and politicians; impoverished black musicians in a white dominated music industry; struggling small-town journalists and paper media, unable to cover relevant news in the age of digital media; and the demonic power of money that dominates every aspect of life. Moreover, we are always reminded of the overarching presence of religion and its many manifestations in the country that once represented the beacon of Enlightenment and modern reasoning.
Beyond the social and political arguments, another strong point of the book worth mentioning here is the ability of the author to write about music. A musician himself, McBride conveys with simple words “the sweat involved in making music” (18), the complexity of song arrangement and dynamics in soul and funk of which Brown’s music was the pinnacle.
Reconstructing the America that James Brown lived in, Kill ‘Em and Leave offers an invaluable look into a problematic society, its tangled political and judicial systems and the ongoing exploitation of its working people and minorities. More importantly for the readers of this blog, it provides a template for American Studies scholars to revitalise the discipline as an inquiry into the character of the United States through the analysis of popular culture texts.
McBride, James. 2016. Kill ‘Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul. New York: Spiegel & Grau.