Summer Rewind Series, Week 6: Racial Equality
NOTE: The following two conversations were originally posted on December 1 and 7, 2011. To read the original post and comments, please click here.
MJ’s Art of Racial Equality
Willa: A couple months ago we raised the question, “Was Michael Jackson Black Enough?” and we ended up really challenging the question. After all, what does it even mean to be “Black enough?” How do we define that, and what does that definition say about how we perceive and interpret racial differences?
Joie: Well, I think during that discussion we came to the agreement that we can’t define that. No one can really say whether or not someone else is Black enough or White enough. That’s something that can only be determined by the individual, and I really feel that when this accusation is leveled at Michael Jackson, it’s really just masking something deeper.
Willa: Absolutely. I think you are so right, Joie. It really seems like the people most threatened by Michael Jackson and most insistent on questioning whether he’s Black enough aren’t really talking about skin color at all. Instead, they’re using that as an indicator of something else. They’re speculating about the color of his skin, the shape of his nose, the parentage of his children, his relationships with women, his clothes, his hair, his penny loafers, his whole public persona, as external manifestations of his thoughts and how he sees the world.
In other words, they’re using his skin as a metaphor for his mind. And what they’re really saying is that his mind wasn’t Black enough. There seems to be this insistence that a “proper” Black man must have a Black mind, and Michael Jackson challenges that idea and calls the whole concept into question. What does it even mean to have a Black mind? What are the implications of judging him by that standard, especially when many of the commentators passing judgment on him are White? And does anyone, especially a White person, have the right to impose their definition of Black onto someone else?
We concluded that “Michael Jackson was plenty Black enough,” as you put it. However, he insisted he had the right to define for himself what that means. And in fact, everyone should have that right of self-definition.
Joie: You know, Willa, I really do hate this Black enough question and I find it somewhat disturbing. That would be like me trying to tell you that you’re not White enough. I just find it sort of ridiculous that anyone would even attempt to impose their idea of how a certain race should “act” on others. I mean, isn’t that sort of the definition of a racial stereotype? And I wonder how interracial people feel about this topic. I’m sure this is something that they have a lot of experience with in a way. You know, they’re seen as not really Black but, not quite White either and again, I wonder who are we to determine whether or not they are Black enough or White enough? And why does it even matter? And I wonder about Michael’s children sometimes and how they see themselves and how this Black enough question affects them.
Willa: That’s a really good point, Joie – and as Dr. Louis Henry Gates, Jr., suggested in his PBS series, Faces of America, most of us are mixed race if we look at this genetically. I am. You are. Especially in the U.S. most people are, with the possible exception of Stephen Colbert. He started laughing when Dr. Gates told him the tests they ran showed he was 100 percent White because that perfectly fits the persona he plays on his show. Dr. Gates even found that he himself has “more White ancestry than Black” – far more – though he still self-identifies as Black.
Joie: That’s very interesting. And really funny about Stephen Colbert!
Willa: Isn’t it? What a crack up! But this isn’t really a genetics issue. It’s a cultural issue. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, ever since we looked at You Rock My World a couple weeks ago. The ideas generated by that video and by the fascinating comments that followed has this persistent criticism that Michael Jackson somehow wasn’t Black enough percolating in my brain all over again.
The central conflict of the video is between Michael Jackson’s character and the managers of a club. And as Ultravioletrae pointed out, all of those managers are White. There’s also this wonderful interlude in the middle of the video – just as the big face-off with the managers reaches a fever pitch, suddenly there’s a pause in the action as the everyday people in the club create a type of street music. As you described it, Joie,
“We hear the rhythm of the broom sweeping across the floor and the glasses clinking, the shoe shine guy buffing, the high heals clicking and the patrons tapping on the tables.”
And all of the people creating this street music are Black. Importantly, Michael Jackson’s character draws strength from this street music – he pulls the rhythms and energy of it into his music and then uses that beat and energy to defy the White managers. And he fights hard, flipping a henchman onto his back, punching the ringleader in the face, and ultimately burning the club down.
So we can actually look at You Rock My World as representing the conflict between Black musicians and the people who make money off them. And as Aldebaran pointed out in a comment, that conflict has a long troubled history, and Michael Jackson was very aware of that. As Aldebaran wrote,
“in Michael’s press conference about Sony and Mottola, he speaks of how black artists (like James Brown) were exploited by the music industry and how they ended up penniless and forced to perform into old age.”
Joie: Aldebaran was right; Michael did speak out about that troubled history very publicly. And I’m glad you brought that up, Willa, because I believe that Michael’s participation in that conference proves unquestionably where his head was at, or how Black his mind was, as you put it. During that conference, Michael told the world exactly how he saw himself:
“I know my race. I just look in the mirror; I know I’m Black.”
Everyone always thinks that conference was all about Invincible and the shoddy way it was promoted (or not promoted) by Sony. But in actuality, the whole purpose of that conference was to fight for better contracts, royalties and distribution for Black artists. So, Michael didn’t only address racial issues in his own art, but he also became something of an activist in the fight for racial equality in the music industry as a whole. And this was a cause that was very important to him, as he said in his speech:
“I just need you to know that this is very important, what we’re fighting for, because I’m tired, I’m really, really tired of the manipulation…. they manipulate our history books. Our history books are not true; it’s a lie. The history books are lies; you need to know that. You must know that. All the forms of popular music from Jazz to Hip Hop to Bebop to Soul, you know, to talking about the different dances from the Cake Walk to the Jitter Bug to the Charleston to Break Dancing – all these are forms of Black dancing! …. What would we be like without a song? What would we be like without a dance, joy and laughter, and music? These things are very important, but if we go to the bookstore down on the corner, you won’t see one Black person on the cover. You’ll see Elvis Presley. You’ll see the Rolling Stones. But where are the real pioneers who started it? Otis Blackwell was a prolific, phenomenal writer. He wrote some of the greatest Elvis Presley songs ever. And this was a Black man! He died penniless and no one knows about this man. That is, they didn’t write one book about him that I know of, and I’ve searched the world over.”
I once read a really interesting blog post called “How Michael Got Gangsta With Sony Music Over Black Music and Racism.” It was all about that conference and I learned some things that I hadn’t known before simply because of the way the media distorted coverage of that conference. They deliberately made light of the importance and seriousness of the issue and instead tried to make it all about Michael being upset at Sony because his album didn’t do well but, that’s not what the conference was about at all; it was about fighting for racial equality and Michael took it very seriously.
Willa: Wow, that’s such an interesting post, Joie. I didn’t know a lot of that either, and I think it does show where his mind was at. But I think the best reflection of his mind is his work, and fighting racial prejudices and other forms of prejudice is a critically important issue in his work, though it’s often handled in subtle ways. If we look at a chronological list of all the videos he helped produce and develop the concept for, fighting racial prejudice is a recurring emphasis throughout his career, from Can You Feel It, the first on the list, to You Rock My World, the last on the list.
Joie: You’re right, Willa, fighting racial prejudice was a recurring theme in his work and that clearly shows what an important issue this was for him. And we see it in song after song and in video after video.
You mentioned Can You Feel It. You know, I remember when that video first came out and I thought it was the coolest thing! Videos were still very new at that point and just the whole visual for it with the special effects and everything – at the time, it was actually sort of cutting edge. But the amazing thing about this video is that, for the first time really, we get to see exactly what Michael’s message was – LOVE. His dream was to bring people together. People of all backgrounds, all ages – and most importantly – all races. From the very beginning, it was obviously all about love for him, and love has no room for racial prejudice. And I think that is ultimately the message behind this particular song and video.
Willa: I agree, Joie, it is about love. That’s evident in both the lyrics and the visuals: the video ends with everyone joining hands as they share a new vision of the future. And this was a groundbreaking video, both in terms of its special effects and some of the ideas it puts forth.
For example, through the lyrics he “tells us twice” that “we’re all the same / Yes, the blood inside of me is inside of you.” So as we were talking about earlier, he’s saying this isn’t a genetics issue – biologically, we’re all the same. Instead, it’s about perception, as he emphasizes through the visual elements of the video. He was very interested in the relationship between perception and belief throughout his career and, in this case, genetic differences such as skin color aren’t nearly as important as how we perceive and interpret those differences.
Basically, a few biologically trivial differences such as skin color have become artificially important cultural signifiers. As we all know, dealing with how we as a people perceive and interpret those signifiers became a huge issue for him a couple years later when he discovered he had Vitiligo. Importantly, he was already thinking about these ideas before he developed Vitiligo, and I think that strongly influenced his response as his skin began losing its pigment. And I strongly believe that his response revolutionized the way White America, especially, perceives and experiences those signifiers.
You know, Lorena wrote a comment last week about her work with Michael Jackson impersonators, and I’m so intrigued by the research she’s doing. Looking at her photographs, I’m fascinated by which signifiers they thought were important to duplicate when portraying Michael Jackson, and which ones they didn’t. As I look at them, they don’t seem to be trying to replicate his appearance, as celebrity impersonators generally do. Instead, they seem to be focusing more on capturing his spirit, his style, his personality, his way of being in the world, and that’s so interesting to me.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that, for me, Michael Jackson was Black – he fully embraced his Black heritage, he fought for equal rights on many different fronts, and he always identified himself as Black – but his race didn’t define him. Instead, he defined himself to an extent that’s rarely been seen before.
Joie: That is so true, Willa. I love the way you put that! His race didn’t define him and I wish that everyone could get to that place where race doesn’t define any of us anymore and I think, with each new generation, we’re slowly getting there. Very, VERY slowly.
You know, that makes me think of a line from one of my most favorite movies of all time – Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, with Sidney Poitier, Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn. Sidney Poitier’s character is arguing with his father about his desire to marry a White woman and he says to him, “You think of yourself as a colored man. I think of myself as a man.” Basically, he’s saying that the older generation has to let go of their antiquated ideas about race if we are ever going to move forward. It’s a very powerful moment in the movie and it has always stuck with me because of it. And I think your statement of ‘his race didn’t define him’ is just as powerful.
So, next week we’ll look at some other examples of Michael’s work where he addresses the subject of race and other prejudices.
Some Things in Life They Just Don’t Want to See
Joie: So, last week we began a discussion about how Michael Jackson dealt with race issues and in particular, his fight for racial equality in his work, and we talked a little bit about Can You Feel It, which was the first video that he ever had a hand in creating the concept for. And in thinking about all of his videos and his response to racial prejudice, I can’t stop thinking about They Don’t Care About Us.
You know, before the HIStory album was even released, critics were labeling this song racist and anti-Semitic because of the lyrics, “Jew me, sue me, everybody do me / Kick me, kike me, don’t you Black or White me.” And Michael actually took offense to that because he felt he had written a song that drew public awareness to the ridiculousness of racism and prejudice. He even issued a statement saying,
“The idea that these lyrics could be deemed objectionable is extremely hurtful to me, and misleading. The song, in fact, is about the pain of prejudice and hate, and is a way to draw attention to social and political problems. I am the voice of the accused and the attacked. I am the voice of everyone. I am the skinhead, I am the Jew, I am the Black man, I am the White man. I am not the one who was attacking… I am angry and outraged that I could be so misinterpreted.”
But even after his explanation the heat wouldn’t let up so he finally went back into the studio and re-recorded the lyrics. And even though both videos for the song still have the original lyrics, the offending words are masked by obscure sounds over top of them.
What intrigues me is that, I think this is probably the one and only time that Michael was ever accused of being a racist himself and it’s just sort of odd to me that anyone could look at his overall body of work up to that point and accuse him of anti-Semitism. I mean, even Sony at the time came to his defense and called the lyrics brilliant, saying that the song was an opposition to racism and had been taken out of context.
Willa: And Sony was right. The lyrics are actually confronting anti-Semitism, not endorsing it, and that should be obvious to anyone who listens to the lyrics. Yet even Michael Jackson’s friends Steven Spielberg and David Geffen criticized the song, saying it was offensive.
I was really disappointed in Spielberg’s response, especially. As a director whose own work has been misunderstood on occasion, he should be a little more insightful than that. For him to suggest that Michael Jackson is anti-Semitic because of these lyrics is simplistic and a gross misinterpretation. It’s like calling Spielberg a Nazi sympathizer because he has Nazis in his film, Shindler’s List. Spielberg isn’t endorsing Nazis – just the opposite, he’s critiquing their beliefs, obviously – and that’s exactly what Michael Jackson was doing in the original lyrics of “They Don’t Care about Us.”
Joie: I agree with you about Spielberg’s response; he should have been much more insightful but instead, it felt like he was just jumping on the bandwagon.
Willa: It really did. You know, Spike Lee, who directed the videos for “They Don’t Care about Us,” talked about the controversy in a very interesting interview with The Guardian. He was actually asked about a different controversy – Quentin Tarantino’s use of racial epithets in his film, Jackie Brown. Spike Lee had spoken out about it, calling it “excessive,” and then was roundly criticized for criticizing Tarantino. So The Guardian asked Spike Lee if he regretted his comments. Here’s an excerpt from that interview:
“Oh, I don’t regret that at all. And to put the record straight, because a lot of people never got the whole story… I never said that Quentin Tarantino should not be allowed to use the word nigger. My contention was that his use of it was excessive. You know, Harvey Weinstein [co-founder of Miramax, Jackie Brown's financiers] called me up and said he wished I’d leave this thing alone. And I said, ‘Harvey – would you ever release a film that on so many occasions used the word kike? He just cleared his throat and said, ‘No.’ So, it’s like, ‘Oh – you can’t say kike but nigger is OK?’ ”
He lets the question hang. But he’s not done yet.
“And then of course they say, ‘But Tarantino’s an artist, he’s just expressing himself.’ Well, if we’re talking about artists, let’s talk about…”
Everything slows with the realization of what’s coming next.
“Michael Jackson. Because, forgetting all that other shit for a minute, in the song ‘They Don’t Care About Us,’ Michael Jackson said ‘Sue me, Jew me, Kick me, Kike me.’ What happened? He was ripped apart by Spielberg and David Geffen, and the record was pulled from the stores. So, Quentin Tarantino says nigger and he’s an artist, but Michael Jackson says kike and it can’t be exposed to the public?”
That’s a really long quotation, but I think it raises several important issues: not only are different groups, and the sensitivities of different groups, treated differently, but different artists are interpreted differently as well.
Many critics see Tarantino’s films as crossing the divide between high art and popular art, and that affects how they interpret his work: he is given the respect due an artist, and therefore is allowed a certain artistic license to challenge social norms. But most critics dismiss Michael Jackson as “just” a pop musician, so his work is interpreted very differently. When he challenges social norms, it’s treated like an offensive publicity stunt. That’s why I think it’s so interesting and important that Spike Lee says, “Well, if we’re talking about artists, let’s talk about … [long pause] … Michael Jackson.” His point is right on target, I think.
Joie: I think so too; I loved that quote. But, you know, it wasn’t just the song’s lyrics that came under fire for racism, it was also the video itself – or I should say videos, plural – as this is also the first time that Michael ever made more than one video for a particular song. Interestingly, both versions of the video came under fire for what you could call racial / political reasons.
As you said, both videos were directed by Spike Lee and supposedly, the Brazil version was filmed first but Michael wasn’t very happy with the finished product. So they shot the Prison version, which was reportedly filmed in a real prison with actual inmates. This is the version that was originally released but critics and others thought it was way too violent. The video was banned in several countries. And in the US, MTV and VH1 would only allow it to be shown after 9pm. So Michael withdrew the video and released the Brazil version instead.
The Brazil version was fraught with controversy because authorities in that country were afraid that images of poverty in the areas where Michael wanted to film would do damage to their tourism trade and they accused him of exploiting the poor. A judge in that country even ruled that all filming be stopped but that ruling was overturned by an injunction. I can understand why they were afraid. I mean, I think the visuals in that video really serve to highlight the poverty and social problems in countries like Brazil but, I wouldn’t call it exploitation on Michael’s part. I think he was just trying to draw attention to their plight. But it’s my opinion that this version of the video really doesn’t serve the song very well and I think Michael obviously felt that way too, seeing as how he started over and shot the Prison version.
The Prison version paints a much better picture of what the song is all about; it features real footage of police brutality against African Americans, real footage of the Ku Klux Klan and footage of violence and genocide in other parts of the world. We also see Michael himself behind bars wearing a prison uniform, handcuffed and shackled, sitting in a prison commissary with real prison inmates – many of them Black or members of other minorities. And if you examine the lyrics of the song, these were all points that Michael really wanted to make so, to me, the Prison version is so much more effective than the Brazil version in terms of evoking the feeling that Michael was going for. In fact, when describing the song, Michael himself said,
“‘They Don’t Care About Us’ has an edge. It’s a public awareness song … It’s a protest kind of song.”
I just think it’s a shame that this version was deemed too violent because, coupled with the song’s lyrics, it really makes a powerful statement.
Willa: I agree, it’s very powerful, and as with much of his later work, it also makes the personal political. It begins with a group of teenage girls filmed through a chain link fence. They’re all minority kids, and the fence suggests that they are imprisoned in some way – either literally imprisoned at a reform school or some place like that, or figuratively imprisoned in a social system that restricts their freedom and limits their potential.
As the girls begin to chant the chorus of “They Don’t Care About Us,” one of the girls says, “Don’t worry what people say. We know the truth.” To me, this clearly refers to the 1993 accusations against him, so he’s juxtaposing the lyrics of the song with the way he’s being treated by the police and the press. That’s what I meant when I said this song is “personal.”
Joie: Oh, it’s no doubt that this song is very personal and obviously stems from the events of ’93.
Willa: It seems that way to me too. But then he “makes the personal political” by situating his plight within the context of other scenes of oppression. He’s saying that the way he’s being treated isn’t an isolated incident – it’s part of a much larger pattern of systemic oppression. And in a country where a young Black man is more likely to go to prison than college, that is a crucially important point. Why are all those young men going to prison? Are they all criminals? He’s been falsely accused and painted as a criminal by the police and the press, but he’s innocent. Has that happened with other Black men as well? How widespread is this?
Joie: All extremely good questions.
Willa: So as with the young girls behind the chain-link fence in the opening shot, the prison can be interpreted both literally and figuratively as well – literally in that far too many young Black men are being incarcerated, and figuratively in that they are trapped in a society that presumes they are born guilty merely because of who they are.
However, he doesn’t make this a clear-cut Black and White issue. Most of the prisoners are Black or some other minority, but some are White. Most of the guards are White, but several are Black. In fact, at one point he shoves aside a guard’s billy club, and that guard is Black. And while he includes many scenes of oppressive White-on-Black violence, there are also scenes of Black-on-Black violence, and Asian-on-Asian violence, and two clips of a White truck driver being beaten by a circle of young Black men during the Rodney King riots. And when identifying leaders in the fight for justice, he cites Franklin Delano Roosevelt as well as Martin Luther King.
As in so much of his work, he’s talking about issues of race in a powerful and important way, but he refuses to simplify it down to an Us versus Them conflict, and he doesn’t align individuals with one side or the other based on physical signifiers such as skin color. Racial identity, including the physical signifiers of race, is an important element of the type of systemic oppression he’s targeting – hundreds of years of injustice and violence and prejudice make it important. But while he highlights that history of oppression and violence and forces us to look at it in ways that may make us uncomfortable, he nevertheless insists that everyone be judged by their behavior and beliefs, not their race or cultural identity. This isn’t simply a Black or White issue.
Joie: You’re right, it’s not simply a Black or White issue and, while I believe the Prison version is the superior video for this song, the Brazil version does highlight the fact that it’s not strictly about race. It’s about the universal political issues of poverty, oppression and the abuse of human rights. And why is it that those three always seem to go together?
Willa: Now there’s a good question.
Joie: The video was shot in the shanty town of Dona Marta and reportedly there were about 1,500 policemen and 50 local residents acting as security guards to control the massive crowd of residents that came out to watch the filming. The government was overwhelmingly against the video being filmed there and an article printed in The New York Times in February 1996 tells why:
Raw sewage runs down the hills, sending nauseating odors like curses through the neighborhood. Drug dealers stand at checkpoints along winding alleys. This is the favela, or hillside slum, that the singer Michael Jackson will use as a backdrop for his music video, “They Don’t Care About Us.” The knowledge that the poverty here will be used as an international image of urban misery has sparked an emotional debate dividing the “Marvelous City,” as Rio likes to be called.
An “international image of urban misery.” That’s pretty strong language but, it’s entirely accurate.
Willa: It’s especially striking compared with the “Marvelous City” that tourists see.
Joie: An “international image of urban misery” is exactly what those scenes from the Brazil video have become, giving visibility to the poverty and oppression. You know, Michael was really good at throwing those ‘in-your-face’ punches in his music with songs like “Earth Song” and “They Don’t Care About Us,” and both the Brazil and the Prison videos are visual ‘in-your-face’ punches instead of musical ones.
Willa: That’s a really good point, Joie, because it seems to me that challenging both psychological and institutional oppression and the many different forms of prejudice – especially racial prejudice – is a central theme throughout Michael Jackson’s work. But he doesn’t always address it in the same way. In fact, he uses several different approaches. First, there are those really sexy videos from Don’t Stop til You Get Enough up through In the Closet where he’s presented as a sex symbol, which was a relatively new and provocative concept for a Black entertainer, especially a Black entertainer with cross-over appeal. There was Sidney Poitier, but he was always pretty buttoned up. I can’t really picture him ripping his shirt open like Michael Jackson does in Dirty Diana and Come Together. In all of these “sexy” videos, race is an issue whether he wants it to be or not – though I always felt he was very aware of what he was doing. In these videos, race is an issue because of who he is, and the character or persona he projects on screen.
Importantly, this kind of video abruptly ends after the 1993 accusations. To me, he always seemed a bit reluctant to portray himself as a sex symbol anyway, though he certainly handled it awfully well when he wanted to. (I’m thinking of Don’t Stop til You Get Enough at the moment. I do love that song….) But after 1993 he doesn’t put himself in that role any more. The one possible exception is You Are Not Alone, but there he’s with his wife and the mood is very different, and to me it conveys a totally different idea.
Joie: Well, I gotta say that I completely disagree with you on that because for me, Blood on the Dance Floor is like watching MJ porn or something. That video does things to me that we should not be talking about in this blog!
Willa: Heavens, Joie, you are incorrigible! You know, I can hardly listen to “Rock with You” any more because of you. I always loved that video because he just seemed like such a happy, exuberant kid. Then you clued me in to some of the lyrics and now I blush all over myself every time I hear it. Gracious….
Joie: I merely suggested that the lyrics to “Rock with You” might not be all about dancing, that’s all! But seriously, you know, I’d really like to be able to say that my interest in Michael is purely intellectual but, we both know I couldn’t say that with a straight face. The fact is, there is an element to the music and the short films and the live performances that would make for a very steamy blog topic but, probably wouldn’t be very appropriate so, I’ll be a good little girl and behave myself.
Willa: And I won’t mention that amazing poster with his boa constrictor draped over his shoulder. Oh my!
So anyway, there are these very sexy videos that present him as something entirely new in our national consciousness: a Black teen idol, which is pretty radical if you think about it, and a major challenge to miscegenation customs and beliefs and how Black men were labeled and categorized in the past. There were a lot of White teenage girls out there thinking about Michael Jackson in ways that would have shocked our elders, and I know – I was one of them.
Then there’s the cycle of four videos set in the inner city: Beat It, Bad, The Way You Make Me Feel, and Jam. The “inner city” is a term sociologists use to denote a lower income urban area with a predominately minority population, regardless of whether that area is in the middle of a city or not. Sometimes it is, but sometimes it isn’t. So in these videos, their setting designates race as an issue – and the Brazil version of They Don’t Care about Us fits within that as well. As with the “sexy” videos, evoking and reconfiguring racial tensions is a subtle but important undercurrent in all of these videos, and he handles that in very interesting ways.
And finally there are the videos where race is a thematic element and he confronts racial issues through the ideas he’s expressing. Sometimes it’s implicit, as we’ve talked about with You Rock My World for a couple of weeks now, and sometimes it’s more overt, as in Can You Feel It and Black or White. However, even in cases where his message is explicitly stated and seems more obvious, there’s still a lot to explore and discover as we’ve just seen with They Don’t Care about Us – the prison version, especially, which makes it so frustrating that it was banned.
The complexity of Michael Jackson’s work is one reason it was so misunderstood sometimes, but that’s also what makes it so endlessly fascinating – and I think it will help make it interesting and relevant to audiences for generations to come. His work continually surprises. And while it appears deceptively straightforward and transparent sometimes, it is never simple.
Posted on August 1, 2012, in Michael Jackson and tagged Can You Feel It, Faces of America, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, Michael Jackson, race, racial equality, Spike Lee, They Don't Care About Us, You Rock My World. Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.