James Brown's daughters discuss the importance of protecting his legacy: 'People will take from you. They will rip you off.'

"No college professor could teach me what James Brown, my own dad, taught me while I was rolling his hair, listening to him handle business," Deanna Brown Thomas says.

American soul singer and songwriter James Brown (1933-2006) performs live on stage at The Venue in London in September 1979. James Brown would go on to play 5 nights at the venue from 5th to 9th September 1979. (Photo by David Redfern/Redferns)
James Brown's daughters Yamma and Deanna discuss what it was like growing up with the Godfather of Soul as their dad. (David Redfern/Redferns)
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What was it like being a daughter of James Brown? One minute, you’d be setting his hair before he hit the stage to perform his signature funk with explosive energy. The next, you may be losing your job.

“I got fired twice,” Deanna Brown Thomas, tells Yahoo Entertainment of working with her father, the Godfather of Soul. “The third time, I said, ‘I will just leave’ because I didn’t want to disrespect my dad and I felt that coming. I have a very strong personality from time to time — and I don't question where I got that from.”

While she knew when to walk away, Deanna, who went on to have a broadcasting career, says “being on the road with him … was really my best life's teaching. No college professor could teach me what James Brown, my own dad, taught me while I was rolling his hair, listening to him handle business.”

Deanna and her sister Yamma Brown appear in a new A&E documentary, James Brown: Say It Loud. The film, executive produced by Questlove and Mick Jagger, tells Brown’s story of being born into poverty, witnessing his father abuse his mother and being incarcerated at age 16. Brown sang and danced his way to the top with a performance style that influenced icons like Michael Jackson, Prince and David Bowie. He was an entrepreneur before entertainers, especially Black entertainers, demanded a piece of the pie, and he encouraged racial pride with his song "Say It Loud — I'm Black and I'm Proud.”

While riding the wild wave of stardom, there were bumps: marriages in which he was abusive, drug abuse, money problems and another prison stint when he was in his 50s.

Growing up Brown

James was known for being the hardest-working man in show business, but when he married second wife, Dee Dee Jenkins, in 1970 and they had two daughters, he made family a priority in a way he hadn’t before.

“When he was with our mother, it was us in the house really doing the whole family thing,” Deanna says. It was the “first time he had done that on a long-term basis,” having often been on the road during his first marriage.

Yamma Brown and Deanna Brown Thomas.
Yamma Brown and Deanna Brown Thomas at A&E's James Brown: Say It Loud premiere event at the Apollo's Victoria Theatre on Feb. 13. (Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for A+E)

He was a “disciplinarian for sure,” says Yamma, a clinical pharmacist and radio host. “He joked sometimes, but he didn’t joke a lot.” He took his daughters’ education seriously because he didn’t have one: He grew up poor, both of his parents left him and he moved into his aunt’s brothel. While his daughters were growing up, they said, he brought them to where he grew up, so he couldn't forget or hide from his humble days.

While he had “a certain persona for the world,” she continues, “he was definitely softer with us as a family. There were endearing times — times where we had one-on-one conversations with him where he was asking about what we had going on. It was not always just about himself.”

Reflecting on James’s closeness with his daughters and input in their rearing, Yamma says, “It a big deal for him” because it was something “he didn't really have growing up. So to go from where he [started, to being] a pillar of strength for us in the home [is] dynamic because he didn’t have the best teachers,” she explains.

Yamma Brown, Adrienne Rodriguez, James Brown and Deanna Brown Thomas.
Yamma and Deanna with their father and stepmother, Adrienne Rodriguez, at the 1992 Grammy Awards. (Vinnie Zuffante/Getty Images)

While he was a loving and involved father, there were dark days. James violently abused their mother. A young Yamma had to pull her father off of her mother. Dee Dee eventually left the singer, moving into her parents’ home with the girls.

“I'm just proud of her for being so strong,” says Yamma. “You get to the point where you're like: ‘I'm better than this. I choose me.’ And she did. That was the most selfless thing to do.”

Not only did she leave “someone she was in love with” and “the father of her two daughters,” but also “the lifestyle,” Deanna says. “My mother had to start all over again. ... We're not talking about [leaving] just anybody who was rich. We're talking about James Brown. She didn't have to do anything [while married to him, and suddenly] she had to work a job after she hadn’t worked in years. Go back to school. … She was just that strong of a woman to say: '[Whether] he sends money or not, I'm gonna go out here and make it happen to feed my two girls.' And that's a hard thing to do when you come from not having to worry about doing anything.”

Dee Dee Jenkins and James Brown.
Brown with Yamma and Deanna's mother, Dee Dee Jenkins, in 1973. (Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Deanna, who’s four years older than her sister, says after her parents split, she “didn’t want to have any relationship with my father” initially because of the abuse she witnessed. “My mother was the one who, in spite of her situation and her experience,” made her take James’s calls. “She said, ‘This is still your father.’”

The sisters were able to keep the connection to their dad, with Deanna working and traveling with him as executive vice president of James Brown Enterprises.

Protecting his legacy

James died on Christmas Day 2006. For the next 15 years, there was a battle over his estate. Tomi Rae Hynie, who claimed to be Brown’s fourth and final wife, tried to make the case that she was entitled to a portion of the estate, but it was determined they hadn’t been legally married because she was still married to someone else. James had at least nine children. A settlement was reached in June 2021, and James’s estate was sold months later to Primary Wave Music. The sisters’ efforts continue through the James Brown Family Foundation.

“I felt it almost impossible to grieve,” Yamma says of their father’s death. "The grief got pushed so far down and still is to a certain degree because his estate is not officially closed. There are still some things lingering. But you have to conduct business and continue on.”

She continues, “No disrespect to mailmen, but [my] father was not the mailman who passed away and had a nice pension, a wife and two kids and there it is. You had this man who not only had this legacy he was leaving, but all these businesses and all these different people were a part of this. So mostly Deanna and I were the ones who had to start navigating it, even before all that happened, just to plan funerals.”

Yamma Brown, Deanna Brown Thomas and Venisha Brown.
Yamma, Deanna with their half-sister Venisha Brown leaving the South Carolina Supreme Court in Columbia, S.C., in 2011, amid a battle over their father's estate. (Brett Flashnick/AP)

Both women have their own careers, but suddenly “my whole life changed,” says Deanna. “You had to be here for this court [date]. You had to do this with this lawyer. It took a toll physically, mentally, spiritually and emotionally. ... You could not even grieve. It was pockets of grieving — and it's still pockets of grieving. It was a whole lot of having to stand up for what was left for you. You had to fight. If you didn't, because this is what we were told by Daddy, if we had not stood up and taken a stand for what was rightfully ours, it will just be ripped away from you.”

She adds, “And you have to do it because, if not, people will take from you. They will rip you off. If they ripped off my father in his lifetime — when he was the man making the money — certainly they don't have [any] respect for us.”

Promo for James Brown: Say It Loud.
A&E's new documentary James Brown: Say It Loud airs Feb. 20. (A&E)

With this new doc, which surfaces never-before-seen archival interviews and performances of Brown alongside commentary from Jagger, Questlove, LL Cool J, Bootsy Collins and many others, Yamma hopes “people get better insight into him as a person and not just the persona.”

Deanna’s excited because “a new generation is going to learn a little bit more about the Godfather of Soul. I believe it’s going to inspire and kick off some great creatives and collectives in the music world. ... Because Dad inspires you to be like: Let me get up off my thing and do something.”

James Brown: Say It Loud airs Feb. 20 on A&E.

If you have been affected by abuse and need support, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233, or if you're unable to speak safely, log on to thehotline.org or text LOVEIS to 22522.