James Brown performing in Germany in 1973 Credit: <a href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:James-Brown_1973.jpg">Heinrich Klaffs</a>, <a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0">CC BY-SA 2.0</a>, via Wikimedia Commons

Presidents’ Day is among the most dubious of national holidays. Every president’s legacy is a mixed bag, and with the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to argue that some of them have done more harm than good. The federal holiday is called Washington’s Birthday (it’s “Presidents’ Day” or some variant thereof in 22 states), and Illinois is one of six states to follow suit—perhaps so no one gets off-message and throws a parade for genocidal maniac Andrew Jackson. Federal buildings, schools, and banks all close for the occasion, but I’m pretty sure Americans mostly associate the holiday with furniture sales.

Presidents’ Day 2021, however, is loaded with bitter irony. An outgoing president was just acquitted by the Senate on a technicality after inciting a deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, while the current president attempts to clean up a mountain of messes made by his twice-impeached predecessor. There’s a lot here that’s unprecedented, but a song already exists that feels perfect for today: James Brown’s “Funky President (People It’s Bad).”

Brown recorded the track just weeks after Richard Nixon, facing his own impeachment, resigned from office on August 9, 1974, leaving Vice President Gerald Ford to succeed him. Brown had alienated many of his fans by performing at Nixon’s 1969 inauguration and endorsing his reelection in 1972 (which he did in part to try to persuade Nixon to declare a national holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr.). But a listen to the song makes it clear that by 1974 there was no love lost between Mr. Dynamite and Tricky Dick.

Against a hypnotic dance groove, Brown responds to Ford’s ascent to the White House and pardon of Nixon (“We just changed, got a brand-new funky president!”), vents his frustration and disillusionment at a system that serves only the ruling class, and urges Americans, especially Black Americans, to empower themselves and work together toward a better future. By the end of the tune he entertains the thought of running for office himself—and if he had, we might be looking at a different kind of political discourse today.

“Funky President,” which appears on Brown’s 1974 album Reality, isn’t one of his biggest hits (though it reached number four in the Billboard R&B chart), but it remains one of his most frequently sampled cuts. It’s been incorporated into several politically charged hip-hop classics, including Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” and N.W.A’s “Fuck tha Police.” I have no illusions that our current political disaster will be resolved (or even untangled) anytime soon, but “Funky President” gives me a little more faith that we the people will be all right despite our leadership.  v


The Listener is a weekly sampling of music Reader staffers love. Absolutely anything goes, and you can reach us at thelistener@chicagoreader.com.