Michael Jackson and Black Politics
(Baltimore) The convergence of Michael Jackson and Black politics is part of the modern tapestry of 20th Century American life. Some of you may take exception; others will wonder why a pop icon and politics are intertwined. Music, arts, entertainment and politics are often commingled sometimes in unhealthy ways. They feed each other as if it were a spectacle at the coliseum during the Roman era. It’s the roar of the crowd, the empathy, the ability to touch people personally, and the acceptance that you are one of us which the audience can give and take away. Jackson over the span of his lifetime had all these traits and political figures wanted to glow in his flame. But like the narrative of far too many figures in history, the adulation was both all consuming and elusive.
The Visual and the Message
As a young man growing up in Baltimore I remember the first time I heard about the Jackson 5. It came from a 13 year old girl who asked me and a friend to go with her to a record shop to buy a 45 record called, “I Want You Back.” When we arrived at the store, the attendant new exactly what she wanted. 45 records were the quintessential music marketing tool for inner city youth. The price point was perfect, one dollar. It enabled you to play multiple artist and songs by stacking them on top of each other, keeping the party going as long you didn’t exceed the stack limit. Before we left we asked the guy to play the song. It was different. It didn’t have the do-wop harmonies of the Temptations or the screaming guitars of Sly and the Family Stone. It was young and spoke directly to our age group (or at least to girls who were of that age).
There was no visual to accompany the record. All it had was the Motown label, showing the Detroit roadways and the writer of the song, “The Corporation.” Note it would be nearly six months before the visual of 5 young Black men on stage. This lapse in time allowed me and my friends to visualize who they were.
This time plays directly into Black Politics. It allows you, the individual, to visualize not just who you are, but who you would like to be in life. This is the key element in Black Politics, defining self. As I look back, the writer of the song, “The Corporation,” is another visual which ingrains a collective spirit. All these traits are subliminal but begin to define modern Black Politics.
Several years before the arrival of the Jackson 5 there are several entertainment events which galvanize Black life for many of my peers. The arrival of James Brown and his song “Say it Loud I’m Black and I’m Proud,” Sydney Poitier’s winning of an academy award for Lilies of the Field, and Nina Simone’s, “Young, Gifted, and Black.” They gave youth gumption, boldness and inspiration. These varied inspirations also forced Motown to change it's motto from "Hitsville" to "The Sound of Young America."
The problem, the people trumpeting this era of youth were over 30 year’s old. They were defining success for generations not yet born.
No Turning Back
Ed Sullivan and his television show was a communal living room for America. He broke ground for Black America by showcasing Black stars. For White America he introduced the majority community to what we as African-Americans already knew, Black America was much richer and deeper than the depictions from Hollywood. His run of securing top acts from America and Great Britain was unprecedented. The rise of the Jackson’s first single and subsequent singles on the charts made them a natural for the show. It would be the first live performance by the group. They were more electrifying than billed. I know in my household, like many Black households, there was instant identification with band members. I recognized they all had neatly shaped Afro’s which I also wore. The age range had something for everyone.
When they finished their performance, Ed Sullivan asked the group to come over. The conversation lasted all of about one minute, but forever changed television and also informed Black Politics. The performance said,“there was a new dynamic going on, and it was youthful.” From then on there were certain requirements for Black Politicians. Afro’s were in - crew cuts out, bold colors in - staid colors out, and more importantly youth was happening. If you could find a band of young kids in your neighborhood it was the right element.
Several politicians road this wave and became some of the early Black mayors in America. There was Carl Stokes in Cleveland, Maynard Jackson in Atlanta, Tom Bradley in Los Angeles, and Gary Hatcher in Gary, Indiana, the home of the Jackson’s. This formula lasted through most of the 70’s as the Jackson 5 became synonymous with success. The take it to man experience was in vogue but excellence was all a part of nomenclature of the moment.
Success has a way of pulling at hearts. Formulas for success are just that, they are predictable and changing a formula can be built with peril. The disco era consumed Motown artist in some good and bad ways. For the Jackson 5 it was awkward, they had aged and so had their audience. It was no longer about bubble-gum songs but rather “Shake Your Booty.” It also added excesses from sex, drugs, and partying. They were clean cut and the world wanted edginess. It was during this time the group bolted Motown and joined Epic Records. It was also during this time Michael Jackson began to explore projects outside of music. He would be cast in the Wiz as the Scarecrow. Remember what the Scarecrow wanted most; a brain.
If we watch Black politics during this period we see the number of Black politicians swell. Part of the growth is about Black solidarity and the other is about "get mine." The patronage system which Blacks had loathed became the means to reward friends and associates. Those in the system worked the system. At the being of this the era, Dashiki’s and Black Fist were the norm. It was great visually and scared the hell out of "whitey." The disco era produced polyester suited politicians (a euphemism for the type of politics they practiced). The excesses by politicans during this time proved they were no better than the whites they replaced. Crossover appeal trampled racial solidarity. The Bakke Case in the Supreme Court sent the message leveling the playing was out. Affirmative Action became polarizing.
As we look at Jackson and his brothers during this period they seemed more comfortable with white audiences rather than black ones. They had crossed over. Some questioned, "Did they give up their Blackness inorder to appease a public which didn't want to see color(Blues artist Robert Johnson called this “Selling your soul to devil.”)."
Like most Black folk I know status quo is not in option. It will kill you if you don’t look over shoulder. Jackson knew this better than anyone. He dropped all pre-tense of wanting to be in a group and went solo.In Black politics we see the beginnings of this same feeling. Strong armed Black Politicians like Willie Brown in California, Marion Barry in Washington,and Coleman Young in Detroit could “call the tune and people would dance.” (Essentially, do what I want). They were each solo artist who could be Black enough when they wanted, leveraging their power in a white world.
By MJ’s second solo album under the Epic label, “Thriller” he had established a track record and exploited it by writing on his own mirror “biggest selling record ever.” It’s during this period we see the rise of the Reverend Jesse Jackson and his first run for President. Rev. Jackson had all the pre-requisite skills. It was an insurgent campaign that used a core audience (Blacks in urban areas) to win in major cities. He then broaden his appeal via his “The Rainbow Coalition” to scare the "bejesus" out of the establishment. The "Run Jesse Run" slogan is in many ways was talked as much about as MJ’s “moonwalk” at the Motown 25th Reunion Special. By the Democratic Convention the question became, "What does Jesse want?" For MJ it was, "How did he do it?" For Reverend Jackson, "It was can he do it?"
When one reaches the top of the game of life, it’s suggested all you can do is fall down. The critics went after both men. Jackson had the "hymie-town" comment, and questions about the occult surfaced around the Thriller video (each was “much ado about nothing”)
Clearing a Void
Both Jacksons continued to have a hold on the imagination of people but they begat imitators and revisionist. Their critics were vociferous, relenting, and questioned their relevance with their core audiences. These naysayers still could not crack the audience adulation. In the scheme of things they were still relevant, but not as influential. Politicans paid homage to past, but understood being to closely link could be detrimental. In Black politics this is called, “I like you, but I can’t be seen with you.”
MJ following his last major release suggested the record label was being racist a couple of years ago and employed the likes of Rev. Al Sharpton to state his case in public. This I believe was many years to late. No one believes MJ was a victim of discrimination and having Sharpton standing next to him seem to add to the skepticism. Politics does make strange bedfellows.
Both Jacksons had their ethical issues. MJ’s relationship with children gives me the creeps. Reverend Jackson’s fathering a child while still married killed his moral high ground. There are too many similarities with these two men.
Death Makes Us Think
I've thought about MJ a lot since his death. What political linkage would he have made in the future or would he been regulated to a Las Vegas star who’s light went to quickly. I guess we will never find out.