Roundtable: the MJ Academia Project

Willa:  A few weeks ago, Joie and I had a fascinating conversation with author Joe Vogel and investigative reporter Charles Thomson about Michael Jackson as a songwriter. That conversation focused on the musical aspects of his songwriting, so we decided to meet again to talk about Michael Jackson as a lyricist. However, when we sat down to talk, our discussion immediately took a left turn and developed in ways none of us had expected, but was very interesting to all of us. Here’s the discussion that followed …

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Charles:  Have you been watching the Michael Jackson Academia Project videos? They’re magnificent. Joe spoke in the last session about how Michael’s lyrics weren’t always as great as his compositions, but those videos make a very strong argument that his lyrics were actually a lot more insightful and astute than people gave him credit for – especially on the HIStory album.

Joe:  The HIStory album, I’ve argued for years, contains some of MJ’s boldest and strongest work. It’s both his most personal album and his most political. I should clarify, since you mentioned his lyrics:  my case isn’t that Jackson’s lyrics aren’t “as great as his compositions.”  My argument is that his lyrics are augmented by their vocal delivery, supplemented by his non-verbal vocalizations, and enhanced by how they are performed and represented visually. So I think for the many critics who dismiss Jackson as a songwriter, these aspects of his artistry/creative expression need to be taken into account.

Now, regarding the MJAP videos, there are definitely things I like about what they’re doing. They take MJ’s work seriously, which is a good thing, and provide close readings of his work (I’d actually never heard the capitalist tycoon names mentioned in “Money”). They’re also quite well-made. However, for all the research that has clearly gone into them they do some things that are a bit confusing for an “academia project.” For example, they don’t attach their names to their work and from what I understand, aren’t affiliated with a university or academic organization. They also don’t cite sources that have already published the same information/interpretation in their videos, which is very important if it is going to be taken seriously outside the MJ fan community.

Joie:  I have to say that I agree with Joe on this point. I don’t understand why whoever is behind the MJAP videos seems reluctant to reveal themselves. It’s almost as if they’re hiding and I think Joe is correct in saying that they can’t really hope to be taken seriously outside of the MJ fan community if they’re unwilling to stand behind their work. Right now the videos, as great as they are, are really just preaching to the choir, so to speak.

Joe:  Also, I think in certain ways they lack context and nuance. For example, they make it seem like MJ was deeply entrenched in the Black Power movement of the 60s/70s. In one of the videos they imply that MJ was a member of, or in allegiance with the Black Panther Party; in another they quote Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam and a figure with an ideology far different than Michael’s. MJ believed deeply in social justice and equality, but never advocated Black supremacy, anti-semitism, or violence.

Willa:  That’s really interesting, Joe, because I don’t think those videos are saying that, and I don’t react to them that way at all. Maybe if the dominant narrative in the media was that Michael Jackson was an angry Black man, then I might agree that they portray him as too radical. But that isn’t the case. The dominant media image is that he was a deeply troubled Black man who was ashamed of his race – a shockingly false image. So I think they provide a much-needed counterweight.

Joe:  I think there’s some merit to that, Willa. Certainly there have been serious misunderstandings and false narratives about Jackson’s racial heritage and how that informs his identity and work. But for me, the counterweight shouldn’t be to present him as an ideologue who is aligned with Farrakhan and the Black Panthers. It should be to present him as a complex African American artist who refused to be boxed in, who constantly challenged, provoked and inspired us with his work. In certain ways, I feel the MJAP videos do that, and in certain ways they feel a bit simplistic and reductive to me.

Willa:  Wow, Joe, my response was just the opposite. I thought it was really interesting that the Academia Project showed the connections with Black Panther symbology and included the clip of Louis Farrakhan precisely because they are so different, or are perceived as being so ideologically different, from Michael Jackson.

In other words, Louis Farrakhan and Michael Jackson are two important cultural figures typically placed at opposite ends of the spectrum:  Farrakhan is portrayed as deeply divisive, a separatist, while Michael Jackson is portrayed as such an integrationist he actually wanted to be White. It’s a horrible distortion of who he was, but it’s out there. So to me, suggesting common ground between them really forces people to question their preconceived ideas about both. But showing they share some common ground doesn’t mean they’re identical. I can’t imagine anyone mistaking Michael Jackson for Louis Farrakhan. I just don’t see that.

Charles:  I think that if you listen to a song like “They Don’t Care About Us,” Michael discusses race in a clear ‘them and us’ sense. It’s right there in the title. He is juxtaposing ‘us’ – the subordinates – with ‘they’ – the establishment. He makes clear that the ‘us’ are racial minorities through other lyrics in the track. “Black man, blackmail / Throw  the brother in jail.” “I’m tired of being a victim of shame / You’re throwing me in a class with a bad name.” The use of the police radio message about the young Black man killed by police in a case of mistaken identity reinforces this position.

Then you look at the two videos which accompanied the song. The prison version shows the inmates to be almost unanimously Black. There are images of the KKK. In the Brazil version, he goosesteps and gives a Nazi salute. He stands on a balcony delivering a song based in part on Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have A Dream speech.’ There is little room for any interpretation besides that Jackson is railing against racism and identifying himself as a Black man and therefore a victim.

He reiterated this belief quite often in later years. There was the summit with Al Sharpton in 2002, where he slammed the music industry for ripping off Black artists and the media for attributing their innovations to their White contemporaries. Then there was the Jesse Jackson interview where he spoke very eloquently about the Jack Johnson story and compared himself to other Black luminaries who had been targeted by the establishment.

At the very least, I’d say Michael Jackson demonstrated conflicting ideologies on race. On the one hand, he spoke often about being ‘colour blind’ or wanting people of all races to come together. On the other, a lot of his music and his public speeches and interviews after the 1993 allegations demonstrated a deep belief that racism was very much alive and that he was a victim of it. He seemed to become more ‘militant’ after the 1993 allegations. His music spoke of police brutality, being targeted by the FBI, his prosecutor being aligned with the KKK, the media ‘lying to shame the race’. During his trial and even at the This Is It concert announcement, he would give the Black power salute. He surrounded himself with the Nation of Islam – led by Farrakhan.

I think it’s very difficult to dismiss the MJAP’s conclusions on this basis. I would also disagree with the comment that they don’t reference their work. Most of it seems to come from books, which they name explicitly in the videos.

Joe:  I’ll explain what I mean by not referencing their work. If they say that MJ’s Earth Song video was inspired by a Soviet propaganda film that looks somewhat similar, as a researcher, I just want to be able to look at where they discovered that information. Did it come from an interview? Did they have access to his archives? Or is it an educated guess based on other information? (The Triumph of the Will connection is more obvious.)

Charles:  The similarities are so striking that I’d be floored if it turned out it wasn’t an influence. Michael is dead now so it’s most likely we’ll never know for sure, but if the Earth Song video and concert performances weren’t based on that Soviet film, it’s one eerie coincidence.

Joe:  There are some striking similarities, but I’d say it’s about 50/50. Michael had a huge video archive and a personal archivist though, so it would certainly be possible to try to verify something like that.

One more example about citing:  much of what they explore in “Black or White” has been written about before (by Armond White, myself and others). So it would be customary in academia to credit ideas that have already been established so you aren’t charged with plagiarism. Of course, if these videos are primarily intended as “fan videos” these criticisms are less relevant.

Now let me go back, Charles, to the point you made about MJ engaging with race/racism:  I don’t disagree with the fact that Jackson became more politically radical and outspoken in his later career. There is no question that he was fighting against institutional racism and oppression/injustice in general. Where I disagree with MJAP (and you) is in the literalness of interpretation. For example, I see him morphing into a black panther as symbolic, not that he was secretly attending Black Panther meetings and sending out discrete codes to a specific political group. Similarly, with “They Don’t Care About Us,” I think he is identifying with the oppressed and speaking truth to power regardless of skin color or nationality. It is radical, but it has nothing to do with Nation of Islam or Louis Farrakhan (a man known for being racist, homophobic, anti-semitic, and many believe, partially responsible for the assassination of Malcolm X).

Like I said at the top, I think there is a lot to like about these videos – I think they have a lot of potential – but especially to reach outside the fan base (if that’s the goal) I think they could benefit from some nuance.

Joie:  Again, I completely agree with Joe here; I think the first MJAP video took a huge leap in suggesting that Michael was a member of, or at least in total support of both the Black Panther Party and Mr. Farrakhan simply because he morphed into a panther at the end of the “Black or White” video. And in “They Don’t Care About Us,” he is definitely “identifying with the oppressed,” as Joe put it, but ‘the oppressed’ come in many colors. As Willa and I discussed in our conversation about “They Don’t Care About Us,” this song/short film(s) is not simply a Black or White issue. It’s dealing with much more than that – poverty, the abuse of human rights, and yes, racism. And he did become much more outspoken on issues of race after 1993 and I agree that he felt very much victimized by the system. How could he not? But I don’t believe that it reveals some hidden connection to the Nation of Islam or Louis Farrakhan.

Willa:  But are these videos saying that? I don’t think so. They include a clip of Farrakhan on the Arsenio Hall show saying, “Michael is becoming politically mature. And he wants to use his political maturity, along with his wealth, to aid his people.” That’s it. To me, that shows that Louis Farrakhan has an opinion – a positive opinion – about Michael Jackson’s work and activism, but it doesn’t suggest anything more than that.

And I don’t think they are suggesting “he was secretly attending Black Panther meetings,” as you mentioned, Joe, or anything like that. I didn’t get that from the videos at all. To me, Michael Jackson’s work is this incredible tapestry that weaves together threads from many different sources. And the first Academia Project video highlights some of the Black Panther imagery in his work and traces a few of those threads. I thought that was fascinating, and it helped me appreciate a part of the tapestry I hadn’t focused on before. But I never thought they were saying he was literally a Black Panther. I just don’t see that.

Joie:  No, I’m not saying these videos are suggesting that. I don’t think that. I’m simply disagreeing with Charles’ assessment that the MJAP’s conclusions on this matter are difficult to dismiss.

That said, I do agree that the videos are really wonderful in their own way. They are very well researched and well thought out. Whoever is behind them has obviously put a great deal of time and effort into creating them and they could have a lot of potential if they were reaching the right people. Right now, they are limited to making the rounds of the MJ fan community, which is fine as there are still a lot of fans out there – especially the new fans – who maybe aren’t aware of the extent of what Michael went through and how biased the media coverage was. But in order to be really effective in changing the conversation about him, the videos need to reach a wider, more mainstream audience.

Joe:  These are very good points, Joie. I think, what I hope at least, are my constructive criticisms stem from exactly what you’re talking about:  becoming more credible so they can reach a broader audience. In fact, I think this third video they did was by far their best effort. So let me go back quickly to something Willa said. You mentioned that the Farrakhan quote is interesting because it speaks positively about Michael’s work and activism. I actually agree (mostly) with what Farrakhan is saying in this clip. But for me, again, it’s about credibility. Using Farrakhan to establish a point will actually work the opposite direction for 99% of people.

With the Black Panther stuff, I would personally just like to see more nuanced interpretation so its taken seriously in an academic context. I think they provide much more compelling interpretation when they write about how Jackson is reversing certain symbolism to opposite ends (a la the HIStory teaser and Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will).

Joie:  I agree completely with what you just said about Farrakhan and credibility. The fact is, the very sight of him turns a lot of people off and using him to establish a point or to try and persuade others to your point of view is risky and could be counterproductive.

Willa:  He is really polarizing, and I understand what you and Joe are saying, Joie. But as I said before, I think it’s really interesting and worthwhile to juxtapose Michael Jackson and Louis Farrakhan precisely because they are so different. It’s like seeing Michael Jackson on the steps of the White House with Ronald Reagan. My response is always, Wow, what a contrast! Yet they shared some common ground. That image doesn’t lead me to assume that Michael Jackson is a closet conservative and secretly funneling money to the Republican Party. Not at all. And I don’t think that about Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam either.

It’s true that Louis Farrakhan has said some things I strongly disagree with. So did Ronald Reagan, for that matter. But I don’t think the answer is to try to stuff Farrakhan in a box in the closet and pretend he doesn’t exist. Instead, I think he should be one of a collage of people who supported Michael Jackson in some way. I think it’s incredible that one person appealed to both Ronald Reagan and Louis Farrakhan, Nelson Mandela and Elizabeth Taylor, fans from the U.S. to Japan, Africa to Ireland. That’s wonderful to me.

Charles:  I don’t think the MJAP videos in any way imply that Michael Jackson was secretly attending Black Panther meetings or anything of that nature. I think they just demonstrate that his work, even prior to the allegations, was laced with political and racial commentary which was completely ignored by the critics.

Willa:  Exactly.

Charles:  I agree that using Farrakhan as a source is not going to win anybody over because the man has shown himself repeatedly to be a racist and a loon. I remember being very alarmed a while back to see fans passing around an hour or more of Farrakhan ‘preaching’ about Michael Jackson in church. During the sermon, he interpreted “They Don’t Care About Us” as a targeted assault on Jewish people and praised Michael for having the balls to express his anti-Semitic beliefs. But Farrakhan is just one of many sources used to support the point being made by the MJAP creators and I certainly agree with him that Michael Jackson’s treatment was at least partly racially motivated. If the whole thing hinged on Farrakhan, it’d be another matter – but that’s not the case.

I also disagree that the lyrics to TDCAU aren’t about any specific race. The line, “Black man, blackmail (black male) / Throw  the brother in jail” is pretty blunt, especially in tandem with the police radio message at the beginning of the track and comments throughout the rest of the album, such as “In the hood / Frame him if you could… In the black / Stab him in the back / In the face / To lie and shame the race.”

Willa:  But in the videos – the prison version, especially – the visuals complicate those lyrics. Most of the prisoners are Black, but some are White or American Indian or some other minority. Most of the guards are White, but several are Black. And I’m really struck by the fact that when he gets angry and shoves aside a guard’s billy club, that guard is Black. What that says to me is that while he’s fighting racism, as you say, it’s institutional racism, and he opposes anyone who supports that institutional racism, regardless of whether that individual is White or Black. He’s evaluating people by their beliefs and actions, not their skin color, and that’s a message he consistently expressed throughout his life.

There are also newsreel-type visuals of some fairly horrific violence – so horrific MTV refused to show this version before 9 at night. And while many of those scenes focus on images of the Ku Klux Klan or White-on-Black racial violence, there are also scenes of a White truck driver being severely beaten by young Black men during the Rodney King riots. And some of the most graphic scenes are war footage from Southeast Asia. So again, he’s fighting racism, but not in a simplistic Black versus White sort of way.

And I don’t think the lyrics are a simplistic Black versus White either. Here are those notorious lyrics that were so badly misinterpreted by a few outspoken people like Stephen Spielberg and Louis Farrakhan (speaking of strange bedfellows):

Beat me, hate me
You can never break me
Will me, thrill me
You can never kill me
Jew  me, sue me
Everybody do me
Kick me, kike me
Don’t you black or white me

He’s clearly fighting anti-Semitism in these lyrics, I believe, which is why it’s so galling that he was charged with anti-Semitism because of them. So this isn’t just about race. And when identifying leaders in the fight for justice, he says, “if Roosevelt was living / He wouldn’t let this be.” The next time he sings this verse, he replaces “Roosevelt” with “Martin Luther,” suggesting that the torch of civil rights was carried and passed on by many hands, including Franklin Delano Roosevelt as well as Martin Luther King, Jr.

So I think it’s an oversimplification to reduce this work down to simply Us versus Them. As Michael Jackson himself says, “Don’t you black or white me.”

Joe:  Exactly, Willa. This is what I think is so important:  Michael’s creative life and work, to me, is about getting beyond these air-tight oppositions. He always provides these shifting tensions. He was constantly pushing his audience, even in his protest songs, to consider the various faces cruelty, bigotry and injustice can take. He wasn’t calling for “black power” to replace “white power.” That’s the way the Bush’s and Farrakhan’s see the world. Us versus them. White versus Black. Christians versus Muslims. It’s more complex than that. Malcolm X began to realize that in his final years; MLK knew it; Michael Jackson knew it. He knew the history of White supremacy in America. He also knew about other forms of bigotry and cruelty, whether because of appearance, gender, sexuality, class, religion, illness or any other difference. But he fought such discrimination with rich, complex, syncretic art, not ideological dogma.

Joie:  And Willa and I just want to point out that you can find a link to the MJ Academia Project videos in our Reading Room. But for now, you can just click here.

About Dancing with the Elephant contributors

Joie Collins is a founding member of the Michael Jackson Fan Club (MJFC). She has written extensively for MJFC, helping to create the original website back in 1999 and overseeing both the News and History sections of the website. Over the years she conducted numerous interviews on behalf of MJFC and also directed correspondence for the club. She also had the great fortune to be a guest at Neverland. She has been a Michael Jackson fan since she was three years old. Lisha McDuff is a classically trained professional musician who for 30 years made her living as a flutist, performing in orchestras and for major theatrical touring productions. Her passion for popular musicology led her to temporarily leave the orchestra pit and in June 2013 she received a Master’s degree in Popular Music Studies from the University of Liverpool. She’s continuing her studies at McMaster University, where she is working on a major research project about Michael Jackson, with Susan Fast as her director. Willa Stillwater is the author of M Poetica: Michael Jackson's Art of Connection and Defiance and "Rereading Michael Jackson," an article that summarizes some of the central ideas of M Poetica. She has a Ph.D. in English literature, and her doctoral research focused on the ways in which cultural narratives (such as racism) are made real for us by being "written" on our bodies. She sees this concept as an important element of Michael Jackson's work, part of what he called social conditioning. She has been a Michael Jackson fan since she was nine years old.

Posted on March 8, 2012, in Michael Jackson and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 48 Comments.

  1. I have to say, in this discussion I’m completely on Willa and Charles’ side.

    I think, before giving any sort of assesments to how the authors present the material and what points they accentuate, we must first determine which audience this material targets. It is my understanding that despite of its name, MJAP project does not target academic community. And I think that’s what Sam from the MJAP team also explained in the interview on MJ Preservation Project ( He said their effort was aimed at the general public and casual MJ fans. And from this standpoint their work is presented in a perfect package.

    It doesn’t really need a list of source material, becase all the ingredients are already inside. The videos mention books, films and historic events that have parallels in Michael’s work, so anyone can google them and verify those parallels.

    The “Academia” name invites you, the viewer, to learn something. At the same time the word conveys seriousness and fundamentality that counters the common perception of Michael as “just a pop singer”. It instantly puts the discussion on a different level, the level that many people would have never attributed to MJ. “Michael Jackson Academia” sounds incongruous to many, and so it stirs curiosity. It’s a brilliant name.

    And I like it very much that the authors chose not to advertise their names on the project. This way, the focus is kept entirely on Michael. This is very important, especially in this fan community where everybody’s motives are questioned and everyone is accused of self-interest. With most of the works that have been published on MJ, the focus of the discussion has been immediately shifted from the work itself to the authors. It’s not Michael that is being discussed, it’s people who write and talk about him. So by choosing to stay behind the scenes, not put themselves into the picture, the MJAP team eliminated this effect.

    Of course, this format is not fit for a real academic discussion – if it was a scholar study, it would require to be an essay with authors and a list of sources. But again, I think it wasn’t the original intention. Now, there is an interesting question: when it comes to changing general perception of MJ and his work, which way is more efficient? Is it better to post youtube videos that target masses and the media? Or is it better to start with an academic cultural discussion and hope that scholar opinions will sink into mass consciousness with time? Who knows. It certainly won’t hurt to approach the matter from both sides.

    As to the Black Power and Farrakhan, those associations didn’t rub me as distorting the real picture. Maybe it’s because I know where Michael really stood, but I also thought they were put well into context. They reveal much more about his roots and deep connection to his culture, than about his political beliefs. They show how much he knew, read, and internalized his cultural history. They show the depth in his work.

    Maybe if you look at these videos in isolation, they are a bit one-sided, but no one will view them in isolation. There is so much information about Michael out there, and they are just a piece of a big puzzle. (And it’s a new, different piece that all others. I read tons of material on Michael and his art and even for me many of the references pointed in the MJAP videos were new. For non-americans such cultural citations are very hard to spot! And these videos, by the way, are far more accessible than real academic works, like, for example, Mr. White’s book that is impossible to buy from my country). I doubt these videos will make many people believe that MJ spported Black Power or Nation of Islam. What they can do is make some people stop in their tracks and say, “Wow, how could he betray his race if his work had so much connection to it? How could his post-Thriller work be insignificant with all these themes in it? Maybe there is more to it than I thought”. These videos works on sharp contrast to common beliefs. And they work as a good counter-argument to ignorant haters.

    • Hi, Morinen, Just to say that you can order Armond White’s book–Keep Moving–at this address: Armond White, P. O. Box 20295, New York, NY 10011. You need to send a check for $20 USD to cover cost of the book (10 usd) and for shipping internationally. For people in USA,. the cost is 13 usd. The book is very well worth reading IMO. I am wondering why you say it is impossible for you to get, so I hope you will be able to order it with this info.

      • We do not have nor use checks in Russia. I can pay by paypal or a credit card, but apparently neither is an option. And when I sent emails to the author/publisher asking how a purchase can be arranged, I got no reply – twice. That’s why I’m saying it’s impossible.

        • Hi, Morinen–just got this via email–you can order via paypal–perhaps you have received the reply by now anyway:
          thank you for your interest (on behalf of a Michael Jackson fan from Russia) in the Armond White book, KEEP MOVING: The Michael Jackson Chronicles. It is available via paypal for international orders. Please send $20.00 per book to ResistanceWorks WDC Sales Associate Teofilo Colon Jr at his PayPal account. The higher price takes into account average international shipping and handling rates and paypal processing fees. Just look up his name on Paypal or his email address, which is:

          Teofilo Colon Jr.
          ResistanceWorks WDC

    • “The ‘Academia’ name invites you, the viewer, to learn something. At the same time the word conveys seriousness and fundamentality that counters the common perception of Michael as ‘just a pop singer’. It instantly puts the discussion on a different level, the level that many people would have never attributed to MJ. ‘Michael Jackson Academia’ sounds incongruous to many, and so it stirs curiosity. It’s a brilliant name.”

      Morinen, you perfectly captured my feelings about this. That’s exactly how I interpreted it as well – not as a claim to be linked to a college or university, but as an invitation to consider a more in-depth, even “studious,” look at his work. And as you say, I love the incongruity of placing the word “Academia” next to “Michael Jackson” simply because he has been so under-valued by critics and scholars.

    • Some points to consider from A Change is Gonna Come: Music, Race and the Soul of America:

      “Black is an’ black ain’t,” Ralph Ellison wrote in the prologue to his great jazz novel Invisible Man, ‘Black will git you an’ black won’t. It do an’ it don’t.’ Attempting to reconcile the demands of racial affirmation with their battle against ideological limitations of all kinds, black musicians of the late sixties probed the contradictory meanings of blackness with an intense honesty that responds to the fundamental call of the jazz impulse. In contrast to political discussions that assumed blackness as an answer to the most fundamental questions confronting black people, jazz impulse musicians understood racial identity as part of a larger, more complicated mix. James Brown, Miles Davis, and Jimi Hendrix shared a contempt for simplistic understandings of blackness. Each blew away white stereotypes and embarked on his own quest to reach a higher level of understanding.”

      • Thanks Joe. I certainly agree that Michael’s work can be viewed broader than just racial message and a cry agianst oppression of blacks. After all, this, in my opinion, is what defines great art: a work of art can be considered great if it fits various interpretations, if you can apply it to many areas of life and it will stay relevant. Michael’s message was universal, and people of all races could identify with it – that what makes it great. However, that doesn’t deny the fact that when he was _creating_ his works, Michael drew from his cultural experience as a black man, and his cultural baggage. Interpretation of his work is interesting, but it is also interesting to try to trace back knowledge, stories and visuals that lead him on his creative path. If only because nobody did it before! His work is largely considered shallow, and this cultural context reveals great depth to it – not only in how we understand it, but also in how it was created.

      • Thanks, Joe and Morinen, for the way you thoughtfully broach these questions.

        Although I haven’t yet read “The Invisible Man,” this quote reminds me of the late, great filmmaker Marlon Riggs, whose essay/documentary, “Black Is…. Black Ain’t” traces the histories and present-day understandings of multifaceted black identities: a “larger, more complicated mix,” as Craig Werner says in his book, “A Change is Gonna Come.”

        I’ve been reading a number of things that go to the heart of these questions, I think; some are related to Michael Jackson, some not. I’d be happy to share these with anyone who’s interested. In fact, I’m compiling a bibliography, in connection with a personal essay I’m attempting to write about Michael which will consist of (among many other things) a close reading of some of his short films.

        I hope to post (at least!) he bibliography somewhere once it’s completed.

        Cheers, all.

        • Nina, I’d be interested to read what you’ve got.

          • SJ Martin,

            Yes (although my writing, I have to say, is an inchoate mess at the moment); and I’d be very interested in reading your writings, too.

            Also, I recently noticed that you’d left a reply for me on the late November entry here—having to do with essentialism, de-essentializing Michael, and the panel at the SCMS conference last year. I’d be interested in conversing more about this. Are you still at the same email address you posted there?

  2. Probably the first time I saw the MJAP I was shocked and my mind got twisted that’s why I provided the links of the videos to really get the right help. Even for me as a fan for about 25 years now I was surprised. I loved this conversation it was really healthy. You set the record straight. I love you Willa, Joie and Joe you guys are incredible. The time I watched MJAP I made my own research on similar videos and articles and guess what there are hundreds and hundreds of them to twist the fans minds just like you mentioned especially the new fans. The most annoying thing that I also found during my research is Michael Jackson death hoax. It’s so stupid and ugly work about the greatest entertainer of all time. I hope people don’t depend on these type of videos.

  3. I agree with Joie – as a relatively new, but much obsessed fan I found these videos fascinating and I had no idea living in South Africa since 1985 that Michael had gone through so much, and coming new to his music from 2010 also had no idea of the many many messages that his lyrics contain. It has all been a wonderful, if very painful, education for me, and I find myself mentally saying sorry over and over again to Michael on behalf of humanity for all that was done to him. Having said that as a fan, I would very much like for these videos and all serious discussions like this about Michael to go out to everyone, not just his legions of fans. The world needs to know what happened to him, and perhaps even more importantly I feel, just what his messages were, and how they were so wonderously conveyed in his art. I am very much a new abassador for Michael, but I talk about him whenever I can, particularly to peolple who are ignorant about him, as I was myself until 2 years ago – nothing like a convert to spread the message hey!!! Keep up the good work everyone.

  4. I agree with your interpretation on how Michael approached racism, bigotry, injustice, etc. About some of the lyrics, well, they are indeed enhanced by his performance on stage. However, in the name of justice done to the artist Michael Jackson, he did indeed compose some beautiful poetry which has already been published.

  5. I am absolutely with Marinen, Willa and Charles on this. Just very very correct what you two said and I appreciated the things Marinen said so well. After reading Black Sharks comments it just confirmed to me how important it is that THIS type of material that these videos and this post have brought forward.THIS IS WHY MICHAEL WROTE THESE SONGS!!!! This wasn’t just a bunch of pretty melodies and love songs.Fortunately we have those wonders from him too. there is a lot more material to cover and I look forward to the MJAP doing their share and I hope you guys will follow suit as you did here. And to Caro Attwell…God Bless you and welcome to the incredible world of will unravel so many truths for all of us if we will only open our hearts and minds and let it all in. He did this all for us….thanks to all of you who find his life and works and love..he wants us to all share him and spread this far and wide.

  6. “During his trial and even at the This Is It concert announcement, he would give the Black power salute.” This is one of the problems right here–Charles is interpreting the raised fist gesture as a ‘Black power salute’ but it is the ‘Power to the People salute” used throughout the sixties by all those protesting the many injustices of the establishment. Moreover, that raised fist gesture goes way back to ancient Middle East and has been used by 30-40 different organizations in more recent times, including the American Indian Movement. So IMO it is limiting to identify it as only referencing the Black Power movement. This is the same point with the panther/jaguar at the end of Black or White. Rev. Barbara Kaufman does a good analysis of this image. Again, I think it is too limiting to see it as only a reference to Black Power movement. In the BOW film, the hotel I believe is called the ‘Royal Arms’ –the sign comes crashing down when MJ shouts out a kind of war cry or cry of anguish/outrage. This indicates to me MJ is opposed to the institutionalized injustice/racism represented by traditional power structures and he wants to replace that with a freer, more natural and artistic, egalitarian world. His protest covers all oppression.

    About Farrakhan–I listened to that video of Farrakhan talking about MJ to his followers. It is very powerful in that he defends MJ so well and understands the forces that tried to bring him down. As far as I know, he was one of the few (along with Armond White and MJ himself) to say openly during Michael’s lifetime that racism was at the source of the media and government efforts to destroy him. I love it when Farrakhan says, ‘It’s not about his nose’–which we certainly heard about and saw ad infinitum during MJ’s lifetimes–his nose being the symbol for all his ‘weirdness’ and ‘deviance.’ Yet speaking about Farrakhan brings up the anti-semitism charge against MJ (for TDCAU) –b/c we know Farrakhan is charged with this too. Then we get into issues that are hot potatoes.

    Another interesting point in this connection–MJ died right when USA was gearing up for war with Iran. Right before his death, the media was drumming up this war and there was a lot of coverage of the protests in Iran, especially the death of the protester Neda. MJ’s death bumped that story right off the news and the whole incident with Iran lost its world-focus and died down. I think MJ’s death had a lot to do with averting that potential war. Now we see the drums of war being sounded once again, and this time what is going to stop us? We are also in an election year, so it gets complicated.

    The MJAP seems to have an agenda–they seem to want to redefine MJ as strongly speaking out both directly and in covert ways against the media-corporate-music industry-government oppression, but with a major focus on his identification with racial oppression and specifically racism against blacks. However, we have seen what the media can do–they went from placing MJ at the pinnacle to trashing him–they are certainly capable of going from ‘he wanted to be white’ to ‘he is a scary Black Power advocate.” IMO the MJAP videos have a heavy air of unveiling a deep conspiracy–the music in the background is very dramatic, for example, and suspenseful. I think they are doing a good job but need to be examined with a view to their possible agenda, which seems unstated in a clear way and instead to be inferred from the videos they release. So I guess I agree with Joe in a lot of his comments about MJAP in this fascinating roundtable discussion.

  7. Well I can’t believe anyone would say this but we just pay better attention now that he is not here, and now we wish we had more music and more projects released to discuss.

    • Hi Jase. I agree with what you said here. It is weird to think about but, you’re right. People are paying better attention now that Michael is gone. Sad but true.

  8. Thank you Cathy for the welcome – it is indeed a wonderful Michael world, and I think it was Speilberg who said something like “who wouldn’t want to live in Michael’s wonderful world” when talking about Neverland and the ET storybook. I realise that nothing at all is insignificant in Michael’s work, and am looking with keen eyes, now I have got past just listenening to his music. I wondered what the significance of the “Royal Arms” was in BOW as everything else was obviously charged with meaning. Have read many explanations of other things, thanks to this blog, and Willa and Joe’s work, and other sources, but have found nothing on the Royal Arms. Seems like a small detail, but obviously there is no such thing as “small” when it comes to Michael!!!!! Am sooooo hoping that MJ Immortal is coming to South Africa in its world tour. He came here so often, that I am more than sure that thousands of fans will want to go to that concert – I most certainly do.

    • Hi Caro. I’ve wondered about the “Royal Arms” sign in Black or White as well. It does seem significant, especially the way it comes crashing down. To me, it seems to tie in with resistance against the after-effects of imperialism and colonialism. After all, racism in the United States, especially, grew out of the institution of slavery, which grew out of imperialism. The British army, or the “Royal Arms,” spread the British Empire around the world, gaining political and economic domination over indigenous people as they went, and that empire was supported in large part by the slave trade.

      There are a couple of references in Black or White to the history of slavery in America, like when the panther roars at the statue of George Washington. (The first MJ Academia Project video, You Remind Me of a Black Panther, talks about this.) I see the “Royal Arms” as a reference to that history as well, and I think it’s significant that the sign crashes down when he begins to “roar” – to protest and fight back against that history – and reclaim his body as his own.

      • Hi, Willa–point well taken about British imperialism being built on slavery and referenced in BOW. I do think the ‘Royal Arms’ sign has a potentially wider reference as well–look at the Spanish royalty and what they did to the natives of the New World. In the BOW film –and I do know this was added later but still–there are signs about ‘wetbacks go home’–so maybe the ‘Royal Arms” refers not only to oppression from the British but also other ‘royalist’ regimes? As we know, many cultures practiced slavery, and there were even black owners of black slaves. In fact, slavery is still going on today–God help us.

  9. I read very attentively this analysis on the work of MJ and I’m many things with you. Many years ago I follow his discography as also his life and I’ve seen since he was very small that it was a non-conforming with the society in which he lived, and say that by their status as black. If; “He grew up in the ‘ 60 the black movement was in full boiling for their claims, then when the had barely 29 years recorded the album BAD, where there are songs like the own Bad,” Man in the Mirror “,” Dirty Diana “, “Smoth Criminal” showing his lyrics there is a complaint to society in your country, do the same for the album “HIStory” where is you was the hand with the song DCAU where he makes a complaint to the system as is as sees how so many Americans not blacks also, and why this letter as in winding? Because he is very tired after what happened in 1993, this year he had no life of its own, but his life belonged to the media, becoming uncontrollable until reaching the poor Michael keep his psychological state with pills, and here begins the fall of his career as also his prestige. US so far is a very biased people, there are still many people who hates blacks, and many people could not accept that the greatest artist of his country was black! It is so! MIchael wanted to through his songs get ere disgusting racism with songs such as “black or White” Man in the Mirror, very intelligent when he sang songs like “earth song” that what he wanted was a change, if a change not only for their country but for the whole world. If in doubt that the burden of symbolism that had their videos shake quite to the system, leaving him in the sights, as already it was “bothering” to all those who did not want any change… Michael was a visionary with regard to what was coming for her country, the wars, vaccines, education in schools, which according to him everything was bad, hence which began lecturing abroad, of course, on what he thought that it should be a change in society, but only had luck in us fansthat if we shared everything he thought not so much the people surrounding him, were not as friendly as some of you believe. With whom he knew was, and perhaps used that saying: “Join the enemy if you want to beat you”, but went wrong, that it was controlled with the servants of your own home by his Jewish friends, then, doing the work of the Ant put together the conspiracy to get rid of him, as he said it well from 15 years ago. Michael was the largest pop artist that had the American industry, although some of its lyrics were not so deep, their performances in public were magical, videos are spectacular, had this creative gift that his videos came to all audiences, from children of 7 years to very elderly people, something that does not happen with other artist, and that because he before making a video much thought on what you might like to the public, it was very creative, much imagination, either in the covers of their albums (Dangerus, the best I’ve seen) or video as Black or White, Screan and many more. I believe that Michael was a very intelligent, intuitive, calculating man and knew very well managed his career without complaining about never as black, if much discrimination against the people of his country. I think that the sword of Damocles that led always was the be black.


  10. I’m glad to see you addressed the “controversy” of the lyrics in They Don’t Really Care About Us- I remember watching Diane Sawyer interview Michael when the HIStory album was coming out and he was going to go on tour and she ripped into him about those lyrics. I sat there in disbelief because I couldn’t understand how she could so misinterpret them. I understood that Michael was NOT hurling racial epithets around but actually doing the polar opposite – he was saying do NOT label me, categorize me, stereotype me, define me (therefore think you know all about me) therefore try to control me and oppress me based on my ehnicity. It was so obvious. I remember feeling well,Diane you certainly are good at perpetuating that “dumb blonde” image. I guess at heart you’re still a beauty queen. One more thing – Michael’s lyrics well, I think “When I’m with you I’m in the light where I cannot be found, It’s as though I’m standing in the place called Hallowed ground” are equally as poetic as “the answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind.” I’m tired of Michael’s poetic artistry being labelled as less than other musicians (I bet he got tired of it too) when in reality the depth and breadth of his poetry was such that it needed to be presented in the forms of song AND dance AND film to allow it to be fully realized/ formed as MIchael was poetry in motion himself. I could also offer this argument as much of a poet Bob Dylan is perceived as he certainly was NOT a singer and yet no one ever criticized or questioned his pursuit of singing his music – saying it was somehow LESS profound because he couldn’t sing.

    • Good point re Michael’s poetry– I do think his lyrics are poetry, and just as wonderful if not more so than other song writers who are much more praised. It is this whole dismissal of “pop”–when some have argued that ‘pop’ is in fact a very challenging art form. Also Michael’s works encompass many musical categories, even classical.

      About Diane Sawyer–I could use some very strong words about her ‘interview’ with Michael, as well as her comments over the years about him. That ‘interview’ was the most amazingly hostile–really hatefully hostile and totally disrespectful–‘interview’ I have ever seen in my life. It was degrading to him and to Lisa Marie. This was LMP’s first interview–you could tell she was nervous–she kept saying, ‘I’m sorry”– when the person who should have been apologizing was the shamelessly abusive ‘interviewer.’ I also read that this ‘interview’ (aka hatchet job) helped to destroy Michael’s marriage b/c LMP as a newly wed was put in the horribly uncomfortable and humiliating position of having to defend her husband against these outrageously disrespectful and nasty attacks. The Diane Sawyer ‘interview’ did not focus on anything other than excoriating Michael–she basically just brought up all the worst things that had been sad about him and threw it in his face. I lost all respect for her.

      I noticed too after the death of Princess Diana that Michael made the comment that the media needed to be ‘kind’ to the people they cover/pursue for stories. Barbara Walter jumped on him for that. But why aren’t the media held to some standards of common decency that the rest of us are asked to live by? Why should they be exempt from courtesy, respect? I think Michael was right–where is the kindness in the media–it is all hateful trashing of your ‘opponents.’ When B. W. jumped on his word ‘kind’–he turned it back on her–‘you tell me then’ he asked. I understood that he was asking, is it ok to cause the death of someone in pursuing a story? to basically run them down like an animal or prey? The media has no shame. We have a lot of work to do!!

  11. @caro: I hope you do get to see Immortal World Tour. It’s truly amazing. Another commenter here said to the effect we are now, since his death, paying better attention. Immortal grabs you and forces you to pay attention to every word. The clarity of sound permits every word of every song to come through with an intensity that is missing from audio versions. The audience really “gets” what Michael is saying and the message he is conveying. I used to think Michael’s message sometimes became muted or lost on CD, as visuals were such an integral part of his tours and videos. Immortal, although loaded with visuals, allows the audience to bask in Michael’s messages conveyed through crystal clear vocals. So while Cirque is replete with gorgeous tapestry, how satisfying was it to at times close my eyes and truly hear the lyrics, the words and his message.

  12. Thank you June – I am even more inspired now – if that is possible. I have the double cd, and the sound of that is incrediible, but as you say the visuals really bring Michael’s message alive. Like his children I never got to see him perform live, but enjoyed the Live show when it came to Cape Town, so am really hoping that Cirque comes here. Just downloaded Joe’s Earth Song and thank you Joe for another wonderful piece. It is indeed sad that only after his death are more people getting serious about Michael’s music, but better late than never, as has been said, is so often the case. Just read the article about his chef writing a book and saying that she can see Michael and God high-fiving in heaven, and I am sure he is doing the same over all the ‘positive’ press and understanding that he is now getting.

  13. Thanks, all, for this stimulating conversation! I feel I’m about to open up a hornet’s nest, since the issues raised by the Michael Jackson Academia Project’s work are potentially quite controversial. But… here goes.

    Joe’s words really resonate with me here:

    “Michael’s creative life and work, to me, is about getting beyond these air-tight oppositions. He always provides these shifting tensions. He was constantly pushing his audience.….. He also knew about other forms of bigotry and cruelty, whether because of appearance, gender, sexuality, class, religion, illness or any other difference. But he fought such discrimination with rich, complex, syncretic art, not ideological dogma.”

    I watched the two videos for the MJAP’s HIStory project that you posted here, and I’m finding I have very mixed feelings that echo some of what Joe has said.

    On the one hand, it’s impressive that they’ve found so many graphic matches between Michael’s short films and their sources: for example, “Earth Song” juxtaposed with the Soviet animated film, and the “Dangerous” teaser’s unmistakable borrowings from Riefenstahl’s infamous “Triumph of the Will.” I’m glad they’ve pointed out the cinematic precedents for some of Michael’s short films, and it’s gratifying to hear their take on Michael’s use of these for (subversive) political ends.

    I only wish I could be as convinced as MJAP that the “Triumph of the Will” imagery was the indeed the kind of critical spoof on Third Reich politics and propaganda that they believe it is. But I do find it helpful (or at least somewhat comforting) when they state that it was done entirely in the spirit of Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator.”

    But apart from the Nazi-style imagery here, or the “Jew me sue me kick me kike me” lyrics, I’ve recently heard online a portion of a phone call that was taped in 2005, where Michael says some very aspersive things about Jews. Far from a saint, he was a complex human being; and I take his words as a “cri de coeur,” arising from his despair and frustration at the way he was being treated by the people under whose control he labored.

    Painful as it may be, the film remains deeply ambivalent to me. I think that throughout Michael Jackson’s life he both *did* and *did not* embrace his situation as a messianic and iconic “savior” and a figure of universal adulation and even worship. (The 1980 “Can You Feel It” video by the Jacksons, where Michael had a huge creative role, might be a precedent here.) As I see it, the “Dangerous” teaser vacillates between genuine self-aggrandizement and a kind of critical and ironic detachemnt from that whole style of presentation.

    At times the MJAP’s arguments seem implausible. For example, they’ve picked up on subtle layers of the recordings in the litany of names of the Captains of Industry, but the mention of the name of “Trump” kind of confuses me. We know that Donald Trump was a personal friend of Michael’s, and I think he would have been unlikely to criticize his friend by constructing this guilt-by-association feeling about him in a song.

    My main caveat with the MJAP is its conspiratorial tone—-its use of heavy, emotionally leading music, for example—and the way it fills the screen with text. I disagree that the videos are well-made; in fact, I think their aesthetics fall far short of illuminating Michael Jackson’s spectacular art. The heavy-handedness of their presentation has a clear “vindication” agenda that I’m not sure would be intelligible outside of the MJ fan community, as I think Joe pointed out. To me, it’s not the kind of nuanced and multi-faceted readings of Michael’s work that I believe would be essential in understanding who Michael Jackson was as an artist.

    So I guess I agree with Joe here.

    On a side note, it’s interesting to consider that Farrakhan wasn’t always an ardent supporter of Michael Jackson’s. Here is Farrakhan’s statement from “People” magazine’s special “Michael” issue, December 20, 1984:
    “This Jheri-Kurl, female-acting, sissified-acting expression, it is not wholesome for our young boys nor our young girls.”

    But… that’s People magazine, so who knows about the veracity of this statement?

    Thanks again, Willa and Joie and all, for providing an opportunity to converse about these (sometimes) tangled skeins of ideas!

    • “But apart from the Nazi-style imagery here, or the “Jew me sue me kick me kike me” lyrics”

      I never understood how can anybody think that the lyrics for TDCAU are anti-semitic. Especially in the context of the song. It’s totally the contrary and I think the American media deliberitaly twisted it into something it is not.

      As for those phone calls, some say they are doctored by Marc Schaffel who used them to try to smear Michael in the media, but even if they are not, sometimes people say things in private conversations they should not or that they don’t really mean. Michael had many Jewish friends through the years, but he also felt some stabbed him in the back: the Spielberg, Geffen, Katzenberg trio, for example, with the DreamWorks company, the Chandlers and so on. Of course, it’s not a good thing to generalize, but he was only human, who in times of feeling betrayed and hurt by these people might have said something in private that wasn’t appropriate (that is IF the tape was not doctored or what he said was not taken out of context).
      I’m pretty sure though he was not an anti-semite. Isn’t the mother of his two older children Jewish? Didn’t he befriend Jewish people? Wasn’t he a big fan of Charlie Chaplin who was as anti-Nazi as one can be? When I put everything together I have no doubt about where Michael stood on the issue.

      I remember about a year after his death the media also ran a story about him having a “huge collection of Nazi memorabilia”. That was yet another twisted story. Here is one article:

      However I checked out those titles and they were actually ANTI-Nazi films!

      “Hitler’s Children” is a 1943 American anti-Nazi propaganda film!

      Here it is on IMDB:

      “This propaganda piece starts in 1933. Prof. Nichols’ American school in Berlin is next door to a school for the Hitler Youth. Karl, from the latter, is attracted to German-American Anna, but events lead to their separation. Six years later, near the outbreak of war in Europe, Anna is removed from Nichols’ school on presumption of German citizenship. Nichols becomes obsessed with finding her, as Anna undergoes a rather lurid odyssey through the Nazi nightmare.”

      A review of “Nazis: Of Pure Blood” on Amazon:

      “OF PURE BLOOD is a compelling drama detailing the horrific ramifications of the Nazis’ Lebensborn programme.

      Lee Remick plays Alicia Browning, a successful New York casting director, who learns that her son (living in Germany) has been mysteriously killed. She gets another shock when she discovers that he fathered a daughter.

      Alicia travels to Germany, and uncovers the horrible truth: her granddaughter is embroiled in a revival of the ‘Lebensborn’ programme, used by the Nazis’ during WW2 as a way of breeding perfect Aryan children (the master race). When Alicia discovers that she, too, was a product of the Lebensborn programme, she decides to smuggle her granddaugher out of Germany.

      Fine, well-written thriller/drama co-starring Patrick McGoohan, Gottfried John, Richard Munch, Katharina Bohm, Edith Schneider and Carolyn Nelson.”

      And “Oasis of the Zombies” is some silly horror movie which only slightly has to do anything with Nazis:

      “The plot involves treasure hunters who track down a lost fortune in Nazi gold in the desert, only to discover that the treasure is still guarded by the Afrika Korps soldiers transporting it, who have become zombies.”

  14. Thank you, as always for the wonderful discussion. I had only recently happened upon MJAP- and I lean toward Willa and Charles in this discussion. While it is true that there are indeed images and parts that can be taken as clear opposition against oppression in general, They Don’t Care About Us, especially, addresses historic oppression – with focus on institutional discrimination and oppression SINCE the Emancipation Declaration. The mention of this document itself is a strong clue, as are references to Dr King, and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (THAT was a brilliant revelation- I never connected the dots on that one before). Certainly, and typical for Michael, as Joie and Joe pointed out, Michael moved the lens out in a way to give a broader picture of other oppressed segments- however, the focus narrows over and over to highlight the question about the real state of liberation Black Americans defacto enjoy since dejure liberation.

    I think MJAP aims to incite further investigation by the audience- they clearly indentify they do not affiliate with any one political view. To me, it is as if they state “here, look at this from this specific angle- and feel free to investigate on your own- to learn more.”

    Michael shares the sad fate of many geniuses – not only of our time, but before: to have the true scope and impact of his work discovered after his death. We are now doing what I believe he always wanted us to do- to look beyond the light, masterful surface and apply our own experiences and feelings to his words and music. It is like he offered the landscape- and asked up to step through a door to inhabit it, however, before too many were too afraid to do so, or simply did not see the door.

    Thanks to Joe, Charles (whom I both respect immensely and have followed both their works), and to Will and Joie for their contributions to help fans and non-fans alike to understand the complex art of this complex, gifted man. And I want to thank MJAP as well- as they supply parts of the puzzle.

  15. Nina Y F, if you’re going to point fingers, judge, and accuse based on second and third hand, out of context tabloid sources at least get the title of the album correct – it was the teaser for the HIStory album NOT Dangerous which came out in ’92. I find it interesting that in an age of vile, hateful, crude, violent, sexually explicit (usually degrading women) and graphic “music” and videos that are played and shown without hesitation Michael is still going to be treated as suspect of harboring secret hatred for any group of people when his constant message was L.O.V.E..
    As for any materials “evidence” used in that modern day lynching of Michael in 2005 it has NO credibility. No one knows the true context in which that conversation took place except the participants. No one knows what heightened emotional state Michael may have been in or what caused such reaction. I know that I’m not one to go around cursing but put me in the right agitated, highly emotional state and I can put a sailor to shame. Now, if someone chose to record that and present it out of context I guess they could label me an inappropriate, foul mouthed individual, which I am not. By the way I’ve never heard of this recording or its content since I don’t read or reference tabloid material about Michael – never have, never will. I guess I’ll end this by saying that Michael’s art and it was art (I find it curious that there seems to be little room or tolerance for art and artists in the U.S.) did what art is suppose to do and stimulate thought and elicit discussion.

    • I was thinking about the anti-Semitism charges that were leveled at Michael after the lyrics from TDCAU. Then I thought–this is a man who had great love and respect for his tutor when he went on tour as a child–a very kind woman and obviously a terrific teacher who gave Michael such a love of learning. He speaks about her with love and gratitude in Moonwalk. She was Jewish. Then he chose a RABBI as a spiritual advisor for 2 years. Not to mention all his friends and associates who were Jewish. So how could those charges have carried weight at all? Not to mention his lifelong messages of love for all races, as you point out.

      Armond White takes on this issue in depth in his book. He talks about the hypocrisy of no rebuke from the media when white musicians use the word ‘nigger,’ but that the word ‘kike’ got such negative attention. “‘They Don’t Care About Us’ offers an oppressed person’s wariness, but the ‘anti-Semitism’ charge, instead of challenging racism and capitalism, encourages the public to stop thinking, just panic and finger point. But in a way this pious moralizing serves a purpose: Having no place in criticism, it reveals journalists’ distaste for Jackson’s brave, awful truth about American life.” He also writes, ‘A careless epithet, like a careless accusation, demeans everyone. Jackson–as singer and songwriter–makes every word count. He teaches a lesson to listeners and journalists that every human utterance must be meaningful and must empower us all.’ also: “who should know more about the pain of deprecating language than a tormented Black American singer?” Who objected when Michael was called FREAK?

      The thing is the context–and in the context of the song and Michael’s whole life I do agree it is absurd to accuse him of anti-Semitism, although I can see that the words in the lyrics are powerful triggers that provoke a response. Just let’s have a reasoned response. So much irresponsibility in the media.

  16. Hi everyone. I realize we’re talking about some fairly emotional and controversial topics in this blog, and I think that’s very important – especially with someone like Michael Jackson who seriously challenged our perceptions and biases and beliefs, and encouraged us to look at things in new ways.

    However, for us to be able to have the kind of open and honest discussions we need to have, we need to be sure to always speak to each other with respect and compassion, even when we disagree, and even when we’re upset or angry. I know that’s hard to do sometimes, but everyone needs to feel safe here – everyone needs to feel that they can speak about things that are confusing or problematic or even disturbing to them without fear that they’ll be slammed for it. It’s perfectly ok to disagree – I know I learn a lot from exchanging ideas with people who disagree with me or simply see things in a slightly different way, and it helps clarify for me what I truly believe – but we always want to respectfully disagree.

    Thank you so much to everyone who’s participated in these discussions. This has been a wonderful experience for Joie and me, and we love reading all the different perspectives you all bring from different backgrounds and different parts of the world. We really appreciate your contributions. We’ve learned so much over the past few months!

  17. Thank you, Willa.

    jacksonaktak, all,

    I’m very sorry; I didn’t mean to imply that Michael was “an anti-semite” (no more than any of us may be, at any rate). And of course I meant the “HIStory” teaser, not “Dangerous.” jacksonaktak, I never even knew about these reports of the so-called “Nazi memorabilia.”

    I think we all know the kinds of pressures Michael Jackson had to endure. You’ll find that In my initial post about the recorded message (which may very well have been doctored), I took this into account. I wrote: “Far from a saint, he was a complex human being; and I take his words as a “cri de coeur,” arising from his despair and frustration at the way he was being treated by the people under whose control he labored.”

    cjg wrote,
    “Michael’s art (and it was art) I find it curious that there seems to be little room or tolerance for art and artists in the U.S.) did what art is suppose to do and stimulate thought and elicit discussion.”

    I totally agree, cjg. Michael’s art did that, as our presence here attests. And as an artist who has lived all my life in the U.S., I, too, find it very curious that art—especially the kind of art that stimulates thought—receives scant respect here.

  18. I would like to get back to the topic of MJ as a lyricist–I feel we are on safer ground in discussing his art rather than his life b/c there are so many differing claims and counter claims and I find it is sometimes hard to know what is the truth. It sometimes seems everything about MJ’s life is shrouded in thick fog. It seems everything is controversial. He really was put under the microscope. I find it almost emblematic that the poor man’s body went through 2 autopsies–every organ taken out and weighed. It is as if we are taking apart the butterfly to see what made it so beautiful and what made it fly. It seems very strange to me that even simple events are debated–did he release the hyperbaric chamber photos himself? People even still claim he and Lisa Marie did not have sex. What a thing to be debating in the first place. Did this ‘intrusion’ (as MJ names it) start with Oprah’s question: ‘Are you a virgin?’

    I read a comment, I think it was LL Cool J, who said something that resonated with me: I will paraphrase: ‘You put a masterpiece under a microscope and you will see nicks and scratches. Doesn’t mean it’s not a masterpiece.’

    I hope Willa and Joie and Charles and Joe will take on the question of MJ’s work as a lyricist. You guys are a great team!!

  19. Sylvia J. Martin

    What a rousing topic the MJAP have been!

    Using Farrakhan is absolutely very controversial. Despite how apt that particular quote is, I’m not sure that I would have used it myself. However, such provocations also make for some really productive tensions, as we’ve seeing here, not least of which is the debate over the degree to which Michael’s racial identity molded his music and visual imagery. (We might also do well to remember that Michael didn’t always have complete say in every detail of all of his music videos – he did work with other directors, creative/technical personnel, and executives who at times brought their own visions or concerns to projects).

    Anyway, “academia” – as practiced professionally or in spirit – is probably one of the very few places in which to fully and freely explore new and provocative ideas about MJ, so I welcome the opportunity to consider MJAP’s videos.

    I think MJ had a fluid relationship with race – sometimes he articulated how “race” is, in fact, a socio-historical construct (and anthropologically speaking, he’s correct) that denies the cultural and genetic commonalities actually shared across diverse human populations (as heard in the lyrics in Can You Feel It – “Yes the blood inside of me is inside of you….Yes, we’re all the same”); at other times, Micael sang from a perspective deeply entrenched in a specific racial identity and on the receiving end of white racism. The multiple perspectives in his work are just one example of why his work is so rich. It’s also one of the reasons, I believe, why MJ elicits diverse reactions in the black community. (In fact, much of the writings and discussions about MJ’s impact have lacked an analysis of the ambivalence among some women and men in the black community towards MJ as a black icon, yet that discourse also deserves to be addressed.)

    His capacity for engaging multiple perspectives is one of the reasons why I wrote about MJ using the philosophy of the moonwalk – a choreography of contradiction – as a strategy to address a wide range of experiences and views within his far-flung audience. In the video “Black or White”, I wrote, he seems at first glance to be championing racial inclusion but upon closer inspection we see that he also condemns a history of racial exclusion, but both of these messages don’t resonate equally for everybody, as many of us bring our own stances and biases to such a viewing/listening experience.

    Finally, about the unexplained and seemingly incongruous Trump reference in “Money” that Nina mentioned – I had wondered about that, too, and it triggered some distant memory about Trump and race.

    But first, a couple of things to keep in mind about Trump. When Oliver Stone’s 1987 film “Wall Street” came out, the character Gordon “Greed is Good” Gecko was popularly associated with Trump, even though he was supposedly based on Ivan Boesky.

    I also remember that Donald Trump used to talk as if he was a self-made man, but in actuality he got his head start due to a very wealthy father (Fred Trump) who made his own millions in housing for low-income and middle class people in parts of Brooklyn and Queens.

    In fact, the Trump “dynasty,” if you will, was sued by the US federal government for racial discrimination. As recounted in an article by the Guardian,
    at a middle-class housing development in Queens in the early 1970s, father and son were sued by the federal government for refusing to rent to black people.

    I suspect that MJ was not only one of the many who thought Donald’s talk of entrepreneurialism and industriousness obscured the privilege he was born into, but that he was also familiar with the federal lawsuit and Trump’s countersuit.

    And interestingly, decades later, Donald was to become a very vocal “Birther” regarding Obama (i.e. baiting his Presidential legitimacy over his birthplace and even his name). I think we can all agree that MJ probably wouldn’t have liked the whole Birther discourse.

    So how close was Trump and Michael’s friendship, really? With celebrities and very wealthy people, there are “friendships” and alliances forged for all sorts of reasons. Trump and his properties could offer MJ safe refuge when he needed it, and perhaps MJ represented free entertainment and glamour to Trump. They seemed to enjoy each other’s company, but that doesn’t mean that one or the other didn’t hold private reservations about the other, especially given Trump’s history of racist business practices. Donald has been kind to the Jackson family, yet less so to the Obama family – maybe he feels blacks in public life belong to the field of entertainment, not politics. Anyway, it seems that Michael felt emboldened to include his reservations about Trump in a song….after all, many of us didn’t pick up on Trump’s name in the lyrics, so it’s very possible that Michael thought Donald Trump wouldn’t either.

    So, I guess I should thank the MJAP for inspiring me to re-discover Trump’s business practices and reconsider the nuances of Michael’s friendship with Donald Trump! (And in a side-note to Aldebaran: Michael’s lyrics are entangled with his life – didn’t he say his lyrics were autobiographical? – so I think it’s a little tricky to impose boundaries about what is worthy of thoughtful speculation among friends.)

    • Hi, Sylvia–Regarding your comments, I would like to clarify something–I, in my comments, did not ‘impose boundaries’–I stated my preference and I gave my reasons for that. I am not imposing anything on anyone. I am stating my own preferences. I hope that is clear. In your discussion of Donald Trump, you IMO confirmed my point regarding the objection I made to the lack of clarity regarding Michael’s life. Whatever MJ might have known about Trump–what did he know and what did he ever say about Trump–this is essential to forming a theory. Michael was 12 when the lawsuit you mention occurred. The song ‘Money’ was written around 1994. Yes, MJ might have known about this–but did he?

      I am not even ‘imposing boundaries’ on myself–let alone others–I just feel we are on ‘safer ground’ in dealing more centrally with Michael’s art. When there are firm facts to work with or that require minimal extrapolation, I am happy to theorize, for example, regarding the possible autobiographical references in Who Is It. However, as long as there are so many issues that are still so debatable–I do not myself believe ‘thoughtful speculation’ is worthwhile. Speculation IMO is fraught with problems and while it is maybe fun, it is a dangerous game–again, this is my 2 cents and I am not IMPOSING my views on anyone. In fact, I am rather surprised at your choice of words. I meant well–I do make efforts to express myself in a way that I hope is reasonable and respectful. In place of the word ‘speculation’ I prefer a word like ‘theory’–one based on reason and evidence. Frankly, I am not sure the Trump issue is that important (to me at any rate), and while it is buried in the track as MJAP show, I have never heard it although I have listened to ‘Money” many times. It is not prominent in the way the clear words “Martin Luther” and “Roosevelt” are is TDCAU. And their images are in the film as well. This is what I mean by “safe” ground. However, anyone else is free to speculate to their hearts content. I am not stopping anyone!!

      Lastly– I am not aware that Michael said his lyrics are autobiographical in such a way that we can assume they are invariably ‘entangled with his life.” Not that I do not think that he didn’t say this somewhere–but could you provide me with a link to support this?

    • Wow, Sylvia; thanks for all the information on the Trump family history. Your research pointed out some very interesting things I had never heard before.

      • Thanks, Joie. When Trump trumpeted his birther views I vaguely recalled something about him and race, but it wasn’t until the MJAP video that I really started to wonder.

      • Another comment: I know MJ has precious few vocal supporters in the financial establishment like Trump, so some fans may be reluctant to bark up his tree, and I understand that. It was, after all, refreshing to hear a stalwart of white, corporate America unabashedly praise MJ. But at least at this point within the fan community, I think it can be useful to take a more nuanced sense of the kinds of friendships a global icon would have. Michael was a capitalist business entity, too, and sometimes talk of him as an artist obscures that.

  20. Aldebaran, I’ve been trying to find the link but can’t at the moment, but I’m pretty sure that Michael said in an interview (I’m paraphrasing) that if you want to know more about him, his life, then listen to his music, it’s all there. I’ll keep trying to find it (anyone else remember?). And in his 2003 interview with 60 Minutes’ Ed Bradley, he said that “Childhood” is his most autobiographical song That is what I mean – that the lyrics reflect his feelings and his life experiences in all their complexity. So in talking about his lyrics, we are talking about his life, no?

    I am sorry if “imposing” was too strong a word. I did not mean to criticize you, which is why I wrote that I think that thoughtful speculation (which in my field means “contemplation”) among friends – note, friends – is a worthy pursuit. I was totally including you in the friends comment.

    Here, to me, is an example of thoughtful speculation: “Jackson didn’t want us to get comfortable with the changing color of his skin, didn’t want us to stop feeling the conflict within ourselves when confronted with that change, and didn’t want us to stop thinking about the implications of that conflict and why we feel it so strongly.”

    The quote is from Willa’s “Rereading Michael Jackson” article. To me, it’s definitely thoughtful speculation/contemplation, because I don’t know that there is so much “reason” or “evidence” to go on to be convinced that Michael in fact “wanted us to get comfortable with the changing color of his skin,” as Willa didn’t interview him, nor do I really see grounds for his feeling that way in his lyrics or in his interviews….it’s speculation, basically, and can even be unsettling to some fans, but I think it’s fascinating, and brilliant, and it helps me to think more deeply about him and his art (which I don’t see as separate at all).

    If it helps, in my work and research, I have to impose boundaries quite a bit! And yet in MJ fandom, I’m sometimes a little puzzled because I see different people want to partition certain parts of MJ’s life from discussion, while others do not. When among friends, as I count us all here, I like to think we can have consider all kinds of ideas. I hope that helps explain a bit where I’m coming from.

    As for Michael knowing about the lawsuit….of course I don’t know, but I’ve already talked to a few people about it, and I gather from them that some people in the black community knew about Trump’s history of racial discrimination and over the years Michael could have heard about it. IMO, the very fact that the name is so hard to discern but is still included in the song shows that it may have meant something to Michael, who seems to have been pretty deliberate in his crafting. Who knows?

  21. Not the ‘black race’, but the ‘HUMAN RACE’! MJ cared about ALL people, and he wanted us all to wake up to the deceit and manipulation of The Powers That Be who control the masses. That’s what his art was about… it very closely. That’s why he was killed.

  22. My sense is that Michael Jackson had very conflicted feelings about Judaism – and Christianity, and Islam. I’ve been thinking about this a lot the past couple of years, and really struggling to conceptualize it and put it into words. And I’m still grappling with it, so please excuse me if I ramble around a bit.

    It seems to me that humans have a deep psychological yearning for purity, and this longing for purity lies at the very heart of Judaism. In fact, I think that’s one reason it’s such a powerful religion and has proved so compelling for so many people for so many years. Christianity then grew out of Judaism and changed the rules a bit, providing another route for obtaining purity, and then Islam grew out of Christianity. But this deep psychological yearning for purity still lies at the core of all three.

    However, the logic of purity also lies at the heart of some of our worst prejudices. Think about the Nazis and their ideas about racial purity. Think about the Aryan nation and anti-misegination laws and their focus on racial purity. Think of the whole debate about homosexuality – how it’s repeatedly spoken of as a corruption, while heterosexuality is designated as natural and pure. Think about misogyny and how the idea of purity lies at the very heart of it. (Are women pure enough to enter the temple? How about menstruating women?) I’m still struggling to understand this, but I think this longing for purity is the core motivating impulse behind racism, anti-Semitism, misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia, and other types of prejudice.

    I don’t think it’s coincidental that in the late 1990s, when it seemed like the whole world was condemning him as a child molester, that Michael Jackson befriended Rabbi Boteach and began seriously studying Judaism. Or that after Madonna published her Sex book and Erotica album and the world began condemning her for that, that Madonna explored Judaism as well. If ever two people needed purification rituals, it was Michael Jackson and Madonna in the late 1990s. And I think it’s significant that Madonna adopted the practice of Kabbalah and to some extent used Judaism to “purify” herself in the public mind, and Michael Jackson didn’t. I think he was far too aware of the dangers of the logic of purity to ever take that path. In fact, a central theme of his art was challenging traditional notions of purity by transgressing boundaries of race, gender, sexuality, nationality, family, age, religion, and on and on. But he was also a deeply spiritual person who was raised in the church, so I believe he felt conflicting emotions about the concept of purity.

    As I said, I’m still stumbling around trying to clarify my thinking about this, but this is kind of where I am right now. Thank you to everyone who has participated in this discussion. I know it’s very difficult, and pretty emotional, but I also think it’s very important.

  23. Michael may have also been inspired by the ancient Jewish concept of “Tikkun Olam,” Hebrew for “repair/heal the world”. It’s a very common term that has long been used by synagogues and organizations to describe the social action and advocacy work they do. I have always wondered if he was first introduced to that term by his proximity to the Jewish community of LA. Most synagogues have a Tikkun Olam initiative, and given that Michael knew many Jews, and in Encino lived down the street from a well-known synagogue, he may have heard the heard the term. The pro-peace organization, inter-faith worship, and magazine, “Tikkun”, was founded by Rabbi Michael Lerner in Berkeley, CA, in 1986 (I think the magazine was started at the same time as the organization).

    It’s possible that Michael was inspired by this phrase and practice that has long been common in the Jewish community around the world. His brand of social entrepreneuralism – funding charity with world tours – is a vivid example of Tikkun Olam.

  24. Sylvia–the problem I see with speculation is that it can be irresponsible, as we have seen so often in the tabloids. Now fans, bloggers, commentators are also speculating a lot b/c Michael is no longer here. This can be healthy to some extent but if things are presented as facts or as true when actually this is speculation–or a kind of playing with ideas–then there can be misinformation passed around–basically, rumors develop. This happened ad nauseum with MJ while he lived. For example, the Trump thing in the Academia Project–I listened to the tape they posted and even with the volume way up I cannot hear the word ‘Trump.’ They put the word on the screen, so is it there?–how do they know? Do they have special equipment to hear it? I cannot hear it. Then rumors get going about MJ and Donald Trump. You refer to a 1970 court case. I checked the link you gave in the Guardian. A comment on the article states that in the 1960’s NYC was one of the 5 cities in the USA with the most segregated school districts. We are going back (just going to MJ’s death in 09), 34 years (the case against Trump was settled in 75). Just wondering about all this in terms of conclusions that might be drawn from this speculation: 1) is Trump a racist? or was he then? 2) Did MJ have some dislike/criticism of Trump on the basis of whatever we can speculate he knew? 3) Is this central/important to an understanding of MJ or the song ‘Money’? 4) Does the word ‘Trump” appear in the song after all or is MJAP making it up?

    The problem is people go running away with info that they think is accurate when it is not. Sometimes they can’t distinguish from speculation vs. fact or else the person speculating does not make it clear.

    Regarding the life/lyrics issue–I think the quote you refer to is when he said (paraphrase ’cause I couldn’t find it either) ‘If you want to know me, listen to my music.’ To me, this did not mean that his lyrics are ‘entangled’ with his life or that he was saying that all his lyrics are autobiographical (yes, re did say that re ‘Childhood’–one song). What I took it to mean is that he, as a person, is revealed in his music–how he thinks, his values, what he believes in–i.e., who I am in my heart of hearts.

    When I first saw This Is It, and was looking for commentary, I found Charles Thomson’s blog where he said that the movie was dubbed. This set me back. In fact, when someone asked me how I liked TII, I said I read it was dubbed. Then I thought maybe I should not be spreading that info b/c it seemed to me that at least some of the singing was obviously live (I just Can’t Stop Loving you, and Human Nature, for example).

    So if we want to carry the water, as Willa says, and turn the flow then we have to be careful about what we put out there about MJ.

    Again, so there is no confusion–this is just my opinion and I am not trying to impose barriers or my views on anyone.

  1. Pingback: Joe Vogel essay removed following Copyright Claim | The Michael Jackson Academia Project

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