Oscar Brown Jr. 1926-2005

Remembering Oscar

by Michael Slate

Revolution #005, June 12, 2005, posted at revcom.us

I think the planet sighed shortly before noon on Sunday, May 29 as Oscar Brown Jr., an extraordinary artist and a dear friend, drew his final breath surrounded by family and friends in a Chicago hospital.

Oscar had been sick for a month but his death came much quicker than anyone imagined it would. Oscar was 78 when he died and he had lived a rich, full life centered around his art, his commitment to fighting the oppression of Black people, and a ceaseless quest for a just world. And he managed to do all that with an ever-sharpening wit and a warm and deep humor.

I spoke with him shortly before he died. We had talked about dying before—with me arguing from a communist perspective that the universe was matter in motion, and Oscar arguing that there was some kind of governing force in the universe (his latest version was that gravity was a godlike, spiritual force that he could tap into for his creative vibe). He and I both knew he was going to die soon and after one of the most touching conversations I ever had with him, Oscar marshaled up all the strength he could to make one last joke: "Listen, Red, remember how I said that old age was like moving into a bad neighborhood that you can't move out of—well, there is a way to move out but it's a little problematic. Why don't you work on that for me. And if it turns out that you all are wrong, I'll give your best to Mao."


Oscar was a jazz vocalist and songwriter, a playwright, poet, and actor. He wrote more than a thousand songs and recorded at least a dozen albums. He toured with just about every great jazz musician you can name. He penned dozens of operas and plays. He wrote adaptations of Greek tragedies, including one based on the myth of Oedipus Rex where Oedipus was a freed slave who killed his slave-owning father. This play was never produced and Oscar used to like to joke that its title— Motherfucker— might have been a rock around its neck. And he wrote literally thousands of poems on every subject imaginable. And, as if that wasn't more than enough, Oscar also hosted and helped develop two television series centered on jazz.

Oscar Brown Jr. began his public life as an actor in a radio series called Secret City when he was 15. By the time he was 21 he was hosting a daily radio show called the Negro Newsfront. This show was one of the first radio shows dedicated to bringing out the stories of Black people in America. And this was a theme that he continued to mine in his art for the rest of his life.

Inspired by Paul Robeson, Oscar often talked about his work coming from and going back to the people. He talked about wanting to inspire people to do great and good things—and he wanted to do it with a smile, a joke, and a wink.

When he sang "Rags and Old Iron" or "Watermelon Man" you were right there with him in the alleys of 1930s Chicago. In "Bid 'Em In" he put you right in the middle of a South Carolina slave auction. "Work Song" told the story of how "the crime of being hungry and poor" put many a Black man on a Southern chain gang a hundred years later. But Oscar also sang about hope for a better world. "Brown Baby" was a song Oscar created while he was rocking his newborn son, and it was a song he sang to his babies at home for awhile before he recorded it. It's a song whose power and beauty was timeless, and any time he performed "Brown Baby" the song brought the audience to tears and then to their feet in wild applause.

As years go by I want you to go with your head up high
I want you to live by the justice code
And I want you to walk down freedom's road
You little brown baby

Oscar told me how the first time "Brown Baby" was played on the radio, the DJ was told to remove it from his rotation list and it was removed from the shelves of record stores along the East Coast. That was 1961!

Oscar wrote other similar songs for the musical he brought to Broadway, Big Time Buck White starring Muhammad Ali, shortly after the U.S. government took away Ali's championship belt. In that musical Oscar featured Ali singing the song "It's All Over Now Mighty Whitey"—a song where Ali declares he would rather die fighting for his people than die like so many Black men before him, "a grease spot on the highway."

Oscar once told me that the title and theme of this song was inspired by a conversation he had with a friend in L.A. shortly after the 1965 Watts Rebellion. As Oscar's friend described how people were taking care of one another and just going and taking what they needed from the stores and so on, Oscar asked how the police reacted. After his friend told him that the police were nowhere to be found, Oscar said he laughed out loud and said, "It's over now, mighty whitey!"

And there were plenty of other songs, poems and plays that brought Oscar's humor and wit to bear on all kinds of questions, from relations between men and women to physics and the law of gravity (inspired by watching little girls play Double Dutch). Broadly called the Father of Hip-Hop, Oscar was especially pleased to see the development and growth of rap with its love of the word and the melding of the word and the beats. And he was scathing whenever he got the opportunity to rip into the hypocrisy and lies of the government. His classic "40 Acres and a Mule" was a biting and hilarious exposure of how the U.S. government stabbed Black people in the back after the Civil War. After struggling for years against the record companies and theater establishment, which had turned a deaf ear and blind eye to his work, not to mention giving him a lot of grief, his recent television appearances on Russell Simmons, Def Poetry Jam brought his work out to millions from a whole new generation. And only months before he died, Oscar performed at the opening of Jazz Lincoln Center.


After 9/11 Oscar was proud to be one of the signers of the Not In Our Name Statement of Conscience and he turned in a wicked performance of his tune "Bullshit," in the Evening of Conscience in New York City in October of 2002, just before the first big nationwide anti-war demonstrations. And only a year ago I got a 2 a.m. phone call from Oscar telling me that he hadn't been able to sleep very much for about a week. He said that some kind of muse had taken over, and over the course of a week he had written 200 Shakespearean sonnets all around the question, "When they opened up the cage door after the Civil War how come Black people didn't leave?" This was a question Oscar chewed on for most of his life. Oscar used to rant about the Dred Scott decision—that a Black man has no rights that a white person is required to honor—and would talk passionately about how Black people didn't come to this country voluntarily, were not considered citizens for most of the time they have been here, and were never even asked if they wanted to become citizens, yet they were supposed to have allegiance to and pay taxes to the U.S. government. Oscar not only refused to do this but he periodically would call the IRS up and try to provoke them into taking him to court. He used to tell them that he was prepared to fight this out in open court but they always refused.

Oscar was always ready and eager to fight the injustice brought down by U.S. imperialism and he always hoped to be part of a broad community aiming to do that and bring into being a better world. That— and a love of the word and writing—was one of the strong bonds between us. But within that, man, did we have our differences on how we looked at the world, the ways to change it and what kind of society would really liberate all of humanity.

I can't even guess how many nights we walked on the beach or sat in hotel rooms arguing for hours about our different views on women and the relationships between men and women. Sometimes I'd make a critical comment about a song he had performed or recorded. And it never failed, we'd argue and Oscar would always get to the point of telling me I was a puritanical, commie writer blind to the reality of the "war between the sexes" and me telling him that if he didn't watch out somebody might send him a pair of pajamas, monogrammed "Osc" and invite him to hang out at the Playboy mansion. I can still hear him laughing.

Yeah, we had our differences but we never failed to talk about them; we loved and respected each other too much to do that. We would roll around the floor for hours on end arguing about spirituality, Malcolm vs. MLK or what kind of work revolutionaries need to be doing among the people today if they are serious about getting to revolution. And revolution itself was a big subject because as much as Oscar wanted to see a revolution, he just couldn't see how it could succeed up against a monster like America.

Oscar had been a member of the old revisionist Communist Party up until the mid-1950s. He got thrown out—and as he liked to put it, it was at the same time as he quit—for being a troublemaker, especially around the question of how to end the oppression of Black people. Oscar found the reformism of the old Communist Party deadening but he never really knew what a real communist was all about. He was intrigued by Mao and revolutionary China and liked the idea of socialism and communism in theory but he had a lot of questions about artistic creativity in a socialist society—like "would he be able to do his Adam and Eve songs?"—and we wrestled for hours about how we needed a new kind of revolutionary socialist state and a new revolutionary morality or we would never get to communism.

When Oscar left the old Communist Party he took up a "cool, always cool" meld of 1960s hipster-ism and Black nationalism. In 2000 Oscar traveled to Cuba, hoping to find some semblance of a liberated society. He was bitterly disappointed—spent a week in a Miami hotel room crying—and came home to write songs and poems about the experience. But Oscar was a man who never stopped looking for answers. His mind never quit probing or provoking. When the Revolutionary Communist Party came out with the new Draft Programme, Oscar read it from cover to cover and offered up his comments. Just before he got sick he was especially intrigued by Bob Avakian's re-envisioning of socialism. He had just gotten Avakian's memoir From Ike to Mao and Beyond—My Journey from Mainstream America to Revolutionary Communist, and was really anxious to sit down and read the talk Dictatorship and Democracy, and the Socialist Transition to Communism. And I was really looking forward to this conversation cuz I was confident that this talk would open up Oscar's eyes to a whole new way of looking at the possibilities of a world he would want to live in.


When Oscar died there was a huge hole in my chest. It was like losing a father, an older brother, a best friend and a comrade. I'm gonna miss Oscar a terrible amount, probably more than I've missed anybody for a long time. I'll probably write some more about him and his work. I'll do a special on my radio show. But, as I sat listening to some of the hours and hours of interviews I've done with Oscar, I knew that the hole would heal and then I'd be left with the memories of the laughter, the arguments, the long crazy talks, the music and the writing and most of all the utter defiance and the refusal to give up that made Oscar so dear to so many people. I think I'll end this here with his poem I Apologize that he first performed on Def Poetry Jam and then again on my radio show. There's a whole lot of Oscar in this poem and that's the Oscar I'll always hold dear.

I Apologize

I apologize
for being black
For all I am
Plus all I lack
Please, sir, please ma'am
Give me some slack
Cause I apologize

I apologize
For being poor
For being sick
And tired and sore
Since I ain't slick
Don't know the score
I must apologize

I apologize
Because I bear
Resemblance mos'
Black people share
Thick lips, flat nose
And nappy hair
So I apologize

I apologize
For how I look
For all the lows
And blows I took
On those, Lord knows
I'd close the book
As I apologize

I apologize
For all I gave
For letting you
Make me your slave
And going to
My early grave
I do apologize

I apologize
For all I've done
For all my toil
Out in the sun
Don't want to spoil
Your righteous fun
So I apologize
I apologize

For being caught
For being sold
For being bought
While being told
I count for naught

I apologize
And curse my kind
For being fooled
For being blind
For being ruled
And in your bind
Why not apologize

I apologize
And curse my fate
For being slow
For being late
Because I know
It's me you hate
I must apologize

I apologize
And tip my hat
'Cause you're so rich
And free, and fat
Son of a bitch
That's where it's at