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James Brown's daughters reveal who the Godfather of Soul really was: He 'was Daddy'

James Brown waving in front of a crowd
James Brown visits Harlem in New York to meet fans on May 3, 1979.Richard E. Aaron/Getty Images
  • James Brown's daughters, Deanna Brown Thomas and Yamma Brown, discussed their father's life and legacy.

  • The sisters reflected on Brown's struggle with poverty, his musical career, and influence on funk and hip-hop.

  • The interview is in anticipation of the A&E limited series, "James Brown: Say It Loud," premiering Monday night.

James Brown was the Godfather of Soul. An emphatic dancer, an unrelenting band leader, an astute businessman, and a Black capitalist—but to his daughters, Deanna Brown Thomas and Yamma Brown—he was just Daddy.

The prolific musician was a defining voice of funk—a musical genre that melded the sounds of R&B, jazz, soul, and gospel music—and, in many circles, is regarded as a musical genius, even in death.

Brown’s influence is vast. The luminary is also known to have impacted many of the “greats,” such as Michael Jackson, Mick Jagger, and Public Enemy, among others, and remains the most sampled artist to this day. Indeed, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer changed American music from its soundscape to its performance.

“He felt God had a calling on his life. Music really was his purpose," Brown’s daughter, Yamma Brown, told Business Insider when describing her dad’s driving force.

But the icon’s life wasn’t without its challenges, as detailed in the forthcoming A&E limited series, "James Brown: Say It Loud," a deep dive into the iconic singer's life and career told through never-before-seen performances and interviews with some of his closest personal and professional collaborations.

Brown was born into poverty in the Jim Crow South and dropped out of school in the seventh grade, according to the series. As a youth, he danced and shined shoes for money. But at times, the series detailed, Brown looked to more unscrupulous ways to make ends meet and was arrested in connection to breaking into a car as a teen. The performer also grew up in an abusive household, and as an adult, the series noted that abuse manifested itself in the celebrity's personal and professional relationships. This violence riddled the performer’s life.

Ahead of the series premiere, Business Insider spoke with Brown’s daughters, Yamma Brown and Deanna Brown Thomas, about the life and legacy of a man they’ve known so intimately.

This interview was edited for brevity and clarity. 

Business Insider: Who was James Brown?

Yamma Brown: James Brown was daddy. He wasn't James Brown to us. We didn't go around the house calling him 'James Brown.'

Deanna Brown Thomas: He was two things to me: He became my boss when I had to work for him, which probably was harder than just saying, ‘Daddy.’

What was the experience of having a larger-than-life celebrity dad?

DBT: It was one thing to have a larger-than-life celebrity parent, but our dad was James Brown. I can tell you that Paris [Jackson] might have had a spectacular life [with] her daddy being Michael Jackson, but James Brown? It's a different get-down.

He would always tell me and Yama, “Y'all will never know what it was like for me when I was growing up because you're born in[to] royalty. You have everything for you. I didn't have running water, food, clothes, and education; a nurturing home.

YB: He … was also a celebrity’s celebrity. And so it's interesting being in those spaces where people like Denzel Washington are coming to Dad's concert because they want to meet him. That puts things more into perspective of who he is and who he always will be.

As kids, I imagine that you are in your own bubble. What was the point when it clicked that your dad was an icon?

YB: It definitely didn't click for me until high school and even more so when I was able to travel with him outside of the country. I was 21 and in Paris and experiencing the paparazzi. It just puts you in a whole different space. …You're just like, "I can't believe this is his life."

DBT: I was a sophomore in college, and for me that was around 19-20. I was in the library doing a research paper and I said, "Let me check out what they’ve got on Dad in the encyclopedias." And as I'm reading, I see our names. That freaked me out because I expected to see his name, but they knew who we were. This is something.

James Brown standing in front of an American flag.
James Brown performs during United We Stand Concert - Show at RFK Stadium in Washington DC, United States.KMazur/WireImage

Your father once said, "I was born dead, so I had to make a life for myself." Indeed, he made a life for himself. He owned multiple radio stations, owned his masters, and was very much a businessman. Your father had an immensely strong business acumen. What did that teach you?

DBT: I was able to travel around the world with Dad, and work under him, and watch him before he got to the stage. And seeing a man who went as far as seventh grade be able to do what he did—I mean, he's a conglomerate. But just think of where he came from and to have the acumen like you speak of, with no education.

He did an interview one time. They asked him, “Where does all of this come from?” His answer was God. He said, “God gave me everything I had.”

One thing that the documentary really spoke to was how your dad kept a tight ship during performances. Members of his band got fined for missing notes during rehearsal. Did that tough approach translate into his parenting? 

YB: He was tired by the time he came home (laughs). But let me tell you something: there were no jeans—no jeans going out because he was going to look through you. He would say, "I don't know who you think you're going with, but you're not riding with me looking like that." He was impeccable with the dressing.

DBT: He was also very strict with education. Of course us going to school was very important and he always wanted you to be "nice young ladies." The thumb was on you and you couldn't move sideways.

Yamma Brown, Deanna Brown Thomas, and Rev. Al Sharpton speak onstage during A&E's "James Brown: Say It Loud" NYC Premiere Event at The Apollo's Victoria Theatre on February 13, 2024 in New York City.
Yamma Brown, Deanna Brown Thomas, and Rev. Al Sharpton speak onstage during A&E's "James Brown: Say It Loud" NYC Premiere Event at The Apollo's Victoria Theatre on February 13, 2024 in New York City.Bryan Bedder/Getty Images

I remember one time when Dad was released from prison and we went to New York. Time Magazine had a huge party for him in the Hilton’s penthouse. My friends and I wanted to go to a nightclub called Bentley's. Dad let us take the limousine and go, but we could only stay for one hour. He was very, very protective.

YB: He was a control freak…He lost a son very early and was not completely convinced that it was an accident. He knew that he had to protect us because there were so many other people out there who might want to do him harm. Dad told me, "You can't lose your life at an after-party." Not saying I haven't gone to an after-party since then, but it definitely made me think about things differently.

Editor's note: Yamma Brown is referring to Brown's son, Teddy, who died in a car accident in 1973, according to the New York Post.

The title of the series is “Say it Loud,” after his iconic 1968 track, "Say it Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud."  How would you say that your dad helped shape Black people's social consciousness during the Civil Rights movement?

DBT: When he first started out, he would put conk grease in his hair so it could be wavy. But he went to the Afro when he made "Say it Loud," so that he could identify with his people.

YB: He was also into Black capitalism and had the James Brown food stamps. Most people don't know about those. The whole purpose behind it was to be able to use them in the Black community, empowering the next person to say, “You can do this.”

Through his life and actions, Dad said, “I'm going to create this restaurant. And I came from nothing. I'm creating these radio stations. We're doing enterprise things. I'm showing you what you need to do.” Even down to the artists owning your own masters. So in that respect, he was teaching [that] not only are you going to be proud, [but] you can shop in your own communities. We can lift each other up. We can do this.

“James Brown: Say it Loud,” executive produced by Mick Jagger and Questlove, premieres Monday, February 19 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on A&E.

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