Socialist Worker

Oscar Brown Junior's rich cultural legacy

by Martin Smith
Issue No. 1956

Oscar Brown Junior

Oscar Brown Junior

One of the sad things when someone dies, is that everyone says things about them they should have said when they were alive. This is certainly the case for Oscar Brown Junior, who died on 28 May.

For those who don’t know, Oscar was a singer, songwriter, playwright, actor and political activist all rolled into one. And for those young enough to care he was the grandad of hip-hop.

Born in Chicago in 1926, Oscar came from a relatively rich black family. His father was a lawyer and real estate owner.

Despite this background Oscar joined the American Communist Party in 1946.

One of his first jobs was as a union organiser for the radical United Packinghouse Workers Union. He stuck with the party throughout the Cold War. Then in 1956, he announced that he was leaving, stating that he was “just too black to be red”.

But as the jazz drummer Max Roach later claimed, “It had nothing to do with the politics of race it had everything to do with the Russian invasion of Hungary.”

In 1960 he released his first album Sin and Soul. A mixture of soul and jazz, it included the song Bid ’Em In, a haunting re-creation of an auction of a slave girl. It also contains the song Brown Baby, a lullaby for his infant son and an anthem of racial pride.

In the same year Oscar Brown collaborated with Max Roach to write We Insist! Freedom Now Suite. Not only was this one of the first jazz albums to support Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement, but it is also one of the most powerful albums of the era.

If you were lucky enough to see Oscar perform live, you could not help but be amazed at his ability to transform his stage persona. On one song he would be a convict breaking rocks the next a ghetto hustler. Dressed in loafers and cardigans he was the perfect combination of fun loving hipster and militant.

His vocal and poetic style influenced artists like Gil Scott Heron and later hip-hop artists like Chuck D from Public Enemy and Common.

The success of the album Sin and Soul opened up new career avenues for Oscar.

He presented his own TV shows He also wrote plays and musicals. The most famous, Big Time Buck White, was about a black militant activist and starred Muhammad Ali.

Throughout the 1960s and again in the 1990s he made thought-provoking albums. Oscar Brown Junior has left us a rich cultural legacy.

Oscar Brown's official website:

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Sat 18 Jun 2005, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1956
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