Following the events of 1993, Michael Jackson’s life and career headed into freefall as he was threatened with the loss of his liberty, his legacy and his place in history. It was at this moment that he chose to channel the anger and upset that he felt from the numerous false accusations and allegations levelled at him into his music and into his films.
Where his previous work had referred to his political beliefs and affiliations obliquely, Jackson’s HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book I project was much more explicit.
‘The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy’. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“I am the victim of police brutality”
Many of the lyrics from Jackson’s 1996 single release ‘They Don’t Care About Us’ are inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech.
As Jackson himself stated (when defending himself from the allegation of anti-Semitism for the inclusion of the lyrics “Jew me, Sue me, Kick me, Kike me”) the lyrics of the track are about ”the pain of prejudice and hate.”
When Jackson refers to himself as ”the victim of police brutality” he is, in fact, referencing Dr King. “We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality”.
Dr. King is referenced by name as is former American President Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose decree stated that the US government would not hire any person based on their race, color, creed, or national origin.
“I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.” Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Jackson alludes to his keen eye on historical African American literature when he asks, point blank, “Am I invisible? Because you ignore me!”
The lyric is a reference to Ralph Ellison’s award-winning 1952 masterpiece Invisible Man. The novel, as described by Victor LaValle (the author of Big Machine) was written in an effort to “assert the beautiful, bountiful, chaotic complexity of one black American male. And, by extension, all black American males.”
Ellison believed that Blacks (who Jackson refers to as “Us”) were invisible because Whites (Jackson’s “They”) refused to “see” them. That position led to Ellison’s own collaboration with Dr. King, whom he fully admired and supported.
The novels main character tries to live his life as a model black citizen, but is reduced to living in an underground hole and believes he is invisible to American society.
Jackson was referred to as an “invisible man” by those in his own inner circle as far back as 1988.
After his snubbing by the Grammys in 1980 following the incredible success of his Off The Wall album, Jackson’s confidants would claim that “That experience hurt Michael, and it also taught him a lesson. You could be the biggest black entertainer in history, and yet to much of the music industry and media, you were an invisible man.”
Jackson was ‘invisible’ to readers of Rolling Stone magazine during the monumental success of his Off The Wall album as they refused to feature him on the cover of their magazine. He was, as were black artists in general, still considered ‘invisible’ during the formative years of MTV. Writing in the New York Times almost two years after MTV’s debut, critic John O’Connor remarked: “The problem is that MTV seems curiously bent on returning the black musician to the status of ‘invisible man.’”
Where media outlets were happy to bestow the title of The King upon Elvis Presley, in Black or White Jackson “had to tell” the fictional Saturday Sun that he was The King of Pop and that he was “second to none.”
“Your proclamation promised me free liberty”
Jackson then goes on to refer to America’s Emancipation Proclamation when pronouncing that “Your proclamation promised me free liberty.”
Dr. King referred to the proclamation in the first paragraph of his ‘I Have A Dream Speech’, claiming that “This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice.” By claiming that the proclamation promised “me” free liberty, Jackson is referring to himself in the same context as a Negro slave.
Where Jackson’s Black Panther roared at George Washington in 1991 for signing the Naturalization Act of 1790, a law that excluded blacks from US citizenship, Jackson himself now roars at the American Government for defaulting, as Dr. King put it, “on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned.”
“I am here to remind you”
Jackson, of course, recorded two short films for ‘They Don’t Care About Us’. The more familiar film is set in Brazil. The choice of setting for the short film is as radical as the song and lyrical content of the piece.
Olodum (the cultural percussion group featured in the video) purposefully headquarters in Pelourinho to tap into the negative energy caused by the shedding of slave blood precisely to gain strength for their fight for Black equality and power.” Pravina Shukla, Brazzil.com, ‘The Heartbeat of Bahia’
So Jackson equates himself within the lyrics of the song to the “Negro slave” and then chooses to record the short film in a region of Brazil where he could “tap into the negative energy caused by the shedding of slave blood precisely to gain strength for their fight for Black equality and power”. It is, then, as Fulbright Scholar Dr. Sylvia Martin points out, an ‘artistic act of reverence and reclamation’ in song as well as in film.
Jackson also chooses to wear the symbolic colours of Olodum. And he does so while continuously presenting the Black Power salute. It’s quite a departure from the man who was paid millions of dollars to advertise Pepsi while making sure he was never filmed holding a Pepsi can. Here he wears the Olodum colours with pride. And each colour has it’s own symbolism.
“Olodum’s imaginative use of symbols expresses itself most symbolically in its colours. Each colour has a symbolic significance: green represents the rain forests of Africa; the deep red is symbolic of the blood of the people, shed in so many centuries of suffering, from the slavery days; golden yellow represents the colours of gold, for prosperity; black is for the colour and the pride of the people, while white is symbolic of world peace. Together, these colours are symbolic of the African diaspora…” Stewart Clegg, ‘The Rhythm of the Saints’
“Some things in life they just don’t want to see”
In having to re-record alleged anti-Semitic lyrics and in having the second of his short films for ‘They Don’t Care About Us’ banned by television stations around the world, Jackson’s lyrics, that ‘some things in life they just don’t want to see’, would prove to be prophetic.
Author and film critic Armond White would later talk about why the media continually marginalized Michael Jackson’s work, “The simple and profound answer is racism. There are few folks in the mainstream today who will admit it, but James Brown, James Baldwin, Dr. King, Malcolm X, Miles Davis, Sammy Davis, Jr., Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor, and Ralph Ellison knew it. Michael Jackson is in that lineage.”
“We’re dealing with an artist, but we’re also talking about politics. A black artist in America always faces an uphill battle from a still-prejudiced power structure that operates from deeply instilled biases. This goes unspoken, and is often disguised as ‘morality’ and ‘taste’, but in the end it’s simply white supremacy.” Lauren Trainor’s interview with Armond White, Author of Keep Moving: The Michael Jackson Chronicles
The second short film, also directed by Spike Lee, is set within the confines of an American prison. A setting which is, for many African Americans, a more likely prospect than is further education in a college or a university.
The disclaimer, again, recalls the words of Dr King. Where King urges Negro leaders that “There must be a concerted effort on the part of Negro leaders to arouse their people” Jackson responds with the claim that his film is “an effort to arouse the mind and spirit of us all.”
Where King complains about “man’s inhumanity to man” Jackson offers his short film as “hope to rise against man’s injustices to man”.
The short film begins with footage of the Rodney King police beating, which was the catalyst for the Los Angeles riots of 1992, that Landis claimed Jackson had tapped into with the violence in the latter half of his Black or White film. As the video progresses Jackson again shows the viewer his disgust at the Ku Klux Klan, this time aligning law enforcement with the hate group by showing prison officers superimposed over the Klan’s trademark burning crucifix.
Where the film begins with a black man cowering into submission from police batons, it ends with law enforcement cowering into submission and Jackson, a black man, standing proud in the centre of the prison with one fist held high.
© The Michael Jackson Academia Project