This Thursday night in Augusta, Georgia is exceptionally significant: the premier of the James Brown biopic “Get On Up”. As we approach our proud moment in the spotlight, I would like to say a few words about the evening’s coordinator and an esteemed star: Deanna Brown Thomas, one of his daughters. Deanna has been working relentlessly on this event, which is not only an opportunity for our town to shine, and her father’s story to be revealed, but also a chance for the world to learn more about the James Brown Family Foundation, beneficiary of the evening’s proceeds. The Foundation’s flagship program is known as JAMP, the James Brown Academy of Musik Pupils. JAMP is year-round music education crafted to encourage youth to discover their own abilities, and keep them on a positive life path. JAMP is also one reason why Deanna is such an authentic star.
Deanna founded JAMP and it is a delightful priveledge to see her face light up when she talks about it. She explains that the program is so important because music paved the way for her dad to journey from poverty to purpose, and he would be thrilled to know that some members of the next generation are also receiving an open door. Offering this instruction to young people in the community is Deanna’s passion. The budding musicians are always learning, practicing and performing, getting a taste of the work ethic which made James Brown famous.
While JAMP is a compelling story, it is not what impresses me the most about Deanna. In my brief contacts with her over the past few years, I have become convinced that she is the ultimate personification of grace. She carries herself with such dignity, it seems impossible to picture the undeniable pressures ever disturbing her always-smiling face. I aspire to carry myself with such decorum one day, perhaps filled with inner peace. (Or at least a hard-core stress-management system).
Deanna and I met in 2011, when we were both recruited to participate in “Dancing Stars of Augusta”, a fundraiser for the Alzheimer’s Association. Followers of my blog know that I was a
hot mess nervous wreck throughout this process, a personal ordeal which was abated somewhat by writing about it.
In contrast to my frequent borderline panic attacks over the thought of performing a Tango in front of thousands of people, Deanna was the consummate cool customer, acting as though she danced in front of massive crowds every day. This is actually not far from the truth, since her famous father was known to put little Deanna on stage to dance as crowds cheered. She has only known the life of performing and mingling with celebrities, yet she never seems boastful of these stories. She will tell you she is just blessed.
My fellow dancers and I had plenty of down-time on the night of the performance. The event coordinators asked us to be ready early for a VIP Meet N Greet, then we waited as patrons listened to speeches and ate dinner. I spent these hours alternating between the parking lot with my headphones, listening to Rhianna’s “S&M” (the only song on my iPod which helped my nerves), and sitting in the small dressing room adding more sparkle to my makeup. Deanna likewise spent a great deal of time in the dressing room, but instead of staring at herself in the mirror as I did, she sat in the corner quietly looking at emails on her phone. I commented that she and I were the only ones not out in the “Green Room” socializing, and she replied that staying quiet before a performance was a tip she learned from her dad. She stated it very matter-of-factly, as if having an iconic performer for a father was a very normal thing.
I was struck with her humility and approachability, as well as with her willingness to speak freely about memories of her dad, who had passed away five years prior. I wondered what it must be like to live in the shadow of a man who seemed larger than life to the entire world, and speculated to myself about the strategy involved in crafting an identity separate from the surreal persona of the Godfather of Soul. Does she get tired of people asking her questions about him all day, every day? Does she wish she could have her own performance career? Is it exhausting to deal with the celebrity-clingers who only reach out to her because of her maiden name?
These questions are, of course, all ego-based, and as I have had more contact with Deanna over the past few years, I realize that they are incompatible with her true self. Deanna is honored to represent her dad’s legacy, and strives every day to uphold the brand he created. She carries herself with the demeanor of a person who understands what is important in life. She never tires of her circumstances; she brings new relevance to traditional family endeavors. In addition to JAMP, she and her team continue her father’s long-established ritual of giving turkeys and toys to needy families during the holidays.
As if these pursuits were not significant enough, her service to the community reaches even further, augmenting the inspiration I receive just from knowing her. She serves on the Board of Directors for the Augusta Museum of History, which houses an impressive exhibit of James Brown artifacts, and Deanna often leads tours of visitors. During them, she shares personal stories which makes the exhibit come to life, and her admiration for her father is palpable. Her confident, articulate presentation is vibrant, never sounding like she has repeated it thousands of times, which she likely has.
Finally, Deanna blew me away when she agreed to serve on my own humble committee, a marketing team to promote the revival of the Miller theater downtown. Her dad had been on the stage as a teen, so the connection is there, but it would have been easy for her to dismiss the project in lieu of her many other commitments. On the Miller Marketing Team, she weighs in on discussions, attends meetings, and volunteers for various Miller events. Everything she does has a purpose, but is also done with thoughtfulness and -I’ll say it one last time- grace.
So after you watch the James Brown biopic “Get On Up”, do not forget another inspiring story: that of his daughter, who works quietly every day to honor his memory. Reach out to learn more about her talent, which is embracing what music can do for our community. Be inspired by her story, the tale of a little girl who went from dancing on stage to enriching the lives of those around her by taking her dad’s superstardom to a whole new level.