Messenger King: Michael Jackson and the politics of #BlackLivesMatter
"Where are all the celebrities?"
That's a question many supporters of #BlackLivesMatter protests are asking. At this moment of great unrest, some are feeling a lack of leadership from those who have worldwide media platforms.
Many black actors and musicians have made public statements to express their sorrow and frustration over the Michael Brown and Eric Garner grand jury decisions. John Legend hired food trucks to feed protesters in New York. Hip-hop celebrity J. Cole joined the marchers. Philadelphia rapper Chill Moody wrote a song, "We're Worth More."
But there's a feeling that the super-famous haven't really stepped up to the plate. Pharrell's statement was less than satisfactory to some. Where is Oprah? Where is Tyler Perry? Where is Beyonce? These are the questions I've seen on my Twitter timeline these last few weeks.
I think something other than apathy is really at work here: fear and trepidation. Artists fear that taking a political stand may jeopardize their reputations and careers. Any political statement is going to have a backlash — and a price will be paid. Careers are dependent on the goodwill of corporations, from the record companies to the sponsors to the radio stations.
Questlove put it like this on his Instagram: "I urge and challenge musicians and artists alike to push themselves to be a voice of the times that we live in. I know that many see what happened to Dixie Chicks' #NatalieMaines @mainesmusic (she bravely expressed her opinion/dismay on the Bush administration declaring war & was unjustly targeted....while in hindsight being CORRECT) suddenly there was an onslaught of radio silence from artists across the board…"
The Dixie Chicks lost their corporate sponsor following that 2003 incident and saw their songs pulled off the air and sales of their music nosedive. Imagine then, what fate could befall artists who made political statements a centerpiece of their work?
Michael Jackson was never afraid to put himself out there for the truth as he saw it. We could always count on Jackson to be the global leader of the band, to give voice to everything we were feeling. His adult catalog is a trove of social activism. Starvation. AIDS. War. Gang violence. Race relations. The environment. It was Jackson who put on concerts for war-torn Sarajevo. It was Jackson who put together a group charity song and concert after 9/11. It was Jackson who used every ounce of his global celebrity to make a difference. He was there.
What happened to Jackson for his politics was so much worse than losing sales. For in speaking truth to power, Jackson made himself a target, and he took a pounding. The worst shots at him were taken by a white district attorney in California who pursued him relentlessly for 12 years and charged him with heinous crimes that were utterly disproved at trial.
No one ever seems to connect the dots: A very vocal, very influential, very wealthy black man was taken down by a white prosecutor on trumped-up charges.
Indeed, for Jackson the silence was deafening. He lost sponsors and faced financial problems of exactly the type that Questlove refers to. Skepticism about his vitiligo (later verified by autopsy) and accusations of skin-bleaching had already cost him some supporters. His fellow artists bailed, his protests against the machinations of his record label were roundly mocked in the press. "Most of us had turned our backs on him," Madonna said after his death.
In 1996, Jackson enlisted Spike Lee to create the short film for his song, "They Don't Care About Us." You may have never seen it however, because it was banned from American television. And radio stations in the U.S. were reluctant to play the track because Jackson was accused of using "racist" language in it.
The song was, in large part, a response to the failure to convict police officers of the videotaped 1992 Rodney King beating, but also to his own terribly degrading experience of police brutality in 1993. To re-read the criticism of the song today is to shake your head in disbelief at its disingenuousness. It's obvious that for some in power at the time, this was a dangerous song, and the objections merely an attempt to deflect.
What we need, said Questlove the other day, are "songs with spirit in them. Songs with solutions. Songs with questions. Protest songs don't have to be boring or non-danceable….they just have to speak truth."
On Twitter, #TheyDontCareAboutUs is a hashtag. In Ferguson, they blasted the Michael Jackson song through car windows. In New York City and Berkeley last weekend, it was sung and performed by protesters. And In Baltimore, there was a magical moment when the Morgan State University choir answered protests with a rendition of Jackson's "Heal The World."
The price has already been paid, but the check was never cashed. Maybe we just need to finally listen to Michael Jackson.
D.B. Anderson is writer and content strategist based in the Washington DC metro area. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org