When James Brown died on Christmas Day in 2006, he left most of an estimated $100 million to aid impoverished schoolchildren in Georgia and South Carolina. In the decade since, a legal contest has bled Brown’s estate of millions in fees to law firms and creditors and has prevented even one cent from reaching the young students.
It’s a sad but not completely surprising outcome for a man whose best intentions always seemed to be compromised—often by others, sometimes by himself.
Born into a one-room wooden shack in segregated South Carolina in 1933, Brown often attended school in tattered clothes. And though the future “Godfather of Soul” would eventually grasp fame and fortune with songs like “I Feel Good,” he suffered from a deep mistrust and fear of the government, the media, and business people in large part due to the racism he experienced. This calloused view eventually poisoned relationships with most of his family and friends.
In the new book Kill ‘Em and Leave (Spiegel & Grau, 2016), James McBride, winner of the National Book Award and distinguished writer in residence at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, unearths the roots that shaped Brown’s profoundly lonely world.
Jason Hollander of NYU News spoke to McBride—who recently received a National Humanities Medal from President Obama—about his personal quest to better understand the musician, despite that effort’s inevitable limitations.