By Larry Hales
It happened you would even play, be merry
And dance, in sheer exuberance of spirit:
And then would all the splendour of your manhood,
The sweet desires of youth sound, wild with power,
On strings of brass, in burning tambourines.
And from that mighty music the beginning
Of jazz arose, tempestuous, capricious,
Declaring to the whites in accents loud
That not entirely was the planet theirs.
(Excerpt from “May Our People Triumph,” Patrice Lumumba)
The excerpt above, taken from a poem by Patrice Lumumba, depicts specifically the spirit of African people chained and enslaved. From the conditions imposed upon them came a rich musical culture.
The conditions were not of a natural kind, but came from the degenerate racist ideology that justified the primitive accumulation of capital by European nations and the U.S., which included genocide, rape, land theft and enslavement of the original inhabitants of the Americas, Africa and Asia.
Black culture was and is defined by the conditions imposed upon Black people in context of a larger culture that springs from the productive mode of the larger society; that is to say, Black culture is not only contrasted with nature, but with unnatural conditions in line with the specific history of the United States.
When looking at Black culture years from now, though there may be many artists who were political and whose music spoke to and of the actual struggle for Black liberation, Michael Jackson—who passed on June 25 at the age of 50 from alleged cardiac arrest—will shine forever brightly.
Before his death, Michael was in the midst of rehearsing for a scheduled 50-concert tour that was to begin on July 13. All the concerts were to take place in London.
He was not only a brilliant musician and performer, but was a perfect example of how the human spirit can both thrive and suffer under the death-grip of capitalist society, no matter how wealthy cultural icons may become.
Upon hearing about his death, millions of his fans around the world held impromptu vigils, built shrines and gathered in public places to sing his songs and perform his dance moves for hours. More than a thousand prisoners in the Philippines re-enacted Jackson’s groundbreaking video, “Thriller,” as homage to him. As of July 5, over one million people have registered online to attend a July 7 public memorial for Michael at the Staples Center in Los Angeles—a venue that holds a little more than 20,000.
Thousands lined the streets of Harlem for a memorial at the Apollo Theater June 26, where Michael and his four brothers won amateur night on Aug. 13, 1967. They caught the eye of artists like Diana Ross and were eventually signed to Motown Records as the Jackson Five.
At that time, Michael was 9 years old and the second youngest son of Joseph Jackson, a steel mill crane operator, and Katherine Jackson. He was raised along with his eight siblings in Gary, Ind. He was then the little kid with the big voice, dance moves and incredible charisma.
Role of bigotry, exploitation
The Jackson Five came into being at the height of the Civil Rights struggle, as Black musical culture was becoming increasingly popular in the mainstream. The realities of racism would play a major part in the development of Michael once he left the Jackson Five. What are seldom discussed are the effects of misogyny, homophobia and the patriarchal system on his development as an adult in the public eye.
Michael was a worldwide icon of popular music, and though for the most part he was not political, his life cannot be taken out of political context.
Michael has been ridiculed for being androgynous, for his effeminate speaking voice, his soft features and his alteration of them through cosmetic surgery, and even for his changed complexion over the years, which is attributed to his desire to even out his complexion after the encroaching effects of vitiligo, a skin disorder.
A person should be free to express who they are, no matter whether they exist in the public eye or outside of it. Michael, like so many, was denied that and the more his appearance changed, the more he was ridiculed and degraded in the mainstream media for it.
It is no wonder that he became more withdrawn and untrusting. Michael’s whole life was one of suffering child abuse, abuse by record labels and managers, and the general abuse of the music industry—which, like any industry under capitalism, views the end product, music, as a commodity for which to gain profit. Though many are extremely well-paid and adored by millions, musicians and entertainers are workers and ultimately work to make a profit for someone else, who most times owns the rights to the finished product.
Different than most people, though, Michael was very popular and made hundreds of millions for the labels he was signed to. MTV, which initially refused to showcase Black artists, owes its survival to Michael, who transformed music videos and stage performances.
His presence shone through and through; his singing could evoke many different emotions. His vocals could go from being light and delicate as an orchid to pithy and harsh, as evidenced on the song “Will You Be There,” where Michael sings: “Everyone’s taking control of me/seems that the world’s got a role for me/I’m so confused, will you show to me/you’ll be there for me and care enough to bear me?”
It is the system and his drive to overcome bankruptcy and be able to do what he loved to do, perform, which led to his death. After years of performing and learning to cope with the pressure placed upon him, he developed insomnia and turned to a powerful sedative, Diprivan—delivered through an IV and extremely dangerous—to be able to sleep. Jackson reportedly continued to take painkillers following an accidental fire that burned his scalp during a Pepsi-Cola commercial in the early 1980s. There is much speculation that the combination of powerful sedatives and painkillers eventually stopped Jackson’s heart and breathing.
His talent was immense. He will be remembered as a giant and despite the years of ridicule, the allegations of child abuse and molestation—something no one should make light of and for which a jury of mostly white non-peers acquitted him of—the legions of fans across borders and cultural lines never wavered in adoration for him.
There may have existed within him many contradictions, as exist in all under this brutal system. The years of suffering from racism may have taken its toll on him; he may have fallen victim to the dominant society’s definition of beauty and wanted to exist in between being Black and white. Frantz Fanon’s writings on the Black psyche seem to illustrate perfectly the paradox of Michael.
Louis Armstrong famously lamented suffering racism with the lyrics, “I’m white inside, but that don’t help my case/That’s life; can’t hide what is in my face,” in the song “Black and Blue.”
But, despite the detractors, Michael Jackson cannot be separated from the Black experience. His music and dancing, which incorporated many Black musical and dance styles, was uniquely Black.
He never lost his Black fans in the U.S. and millions of his fans around the world. From Africa, the Middle East, Asia, Europe, Caribbean and the Americas he was beloved and the world will mourn him. His music will live on and he will forever be remembered as the King of Popular music.
Join Raleigh-Durham FIST in a forum on the legacy of Michael Jackson from a perspective drawn out in this article that finds him caught in the crosshairs of racism, gender oppression and capitalism.
Thursday, July 23rd
Warren Library in Durham, NC