(Here's the text of my talk at the UC Berkeley Michael Jackson Symposium, Oct 1, 2009)
Good afternoon, I’m happy to be here on this panel with my colleagues here.
We are here to discuss Michael Jackson, the King of Pop. I am here to frame Mr. Jackson as the Original Post-Racial Soul Brother.
What do I mean by that? This past year a lot of discussion has taken place regarding the election of Barack Obama and the heralding of a Post-Racial society. Some Obama critics such as Shelby Steele have claimed Obama was a “bargainer” that manipulated whites desires to transcend race, while relying upon his own racial identity to garner support from his racialized base.
I would submit that Michael Jackson became the greatest entertainer on the face of the earth in a similar fashion. Jackson initiated social breakthroughs as a de-racialized entity, entertaining and appealing to all, yet Jackson remained relevant because of his effective use of the Soul Music aesthetic, and the moral imperatives of Soul, as I will explain.
As a public entity, Mr. Jackson was a transitional figure, one who emerged on the national scene as a child in the 1960s during an era of overt expressions of racial consciousness, yet as a young adult in the 1970s was forced to navigate in an arena where race based social movements declined, and the presumption of racial equality dominated the discourse of the entertainment industry.
Mr. Jackson, like others of his era such as Bill Cosby, Diana Ross, O.J. Simpson, and Prince, sought public acceptance by distancing themselves from the overt racial identification in their works, seeking to be judged – by the content of their artistic character – if you will.
Michael Jackson was by far the most successful, and succeeded in utilizing the performance aesthetics of the Soul Music environment he was raised in, and applied them to the international arena to emerge as a global superstar.
Michael Jackson, the 7th of 9 children born in the working class neighborhood of Gary, Indiana in 1958, came of age when the demographics of the great black migration north afforded opportunities for those most ambitious. The family patriarch, Joe Jackson, ruled the home with an iron fist, driven to make something of his boys, that he could not do with his own fledging musical career. Joe Jackson came from the old school, where force and violence circumscribed daily life in Jim Crow Arkansas. Growing up in Gary Indiana in a touring band, rehearsing with their father sitting by, whip (a big belt) in hand, the young Jackson boys learned how the legacy of Jim Crow violence would shape the Sound of Young America.
Michael Jackson internalized the lofty standards of Soul, a conception that emerged in the crucible of the Civil Rights Movement, in which the desires of generations of African Americans would explode in a dazzling array of actions, artistic expressions, and social upheavals.
Soul Music incorporated the emotive elements of the blues, with the moral imperatives drawn from the back church and the gospel music, to produce a new standard of black music – one that was forged by, but no longer bound to the historical memory of slavery. The new sound, the Sound of Young America promoted by Motown Records represented a popular interpretation of changing ideals on the streets of young America.
Michael Jackson interpreted these ideals as a youth, dancing the “James Brown” during his audition for Motown Records in 1968, and wearing the trademark “Afro” hairstyle in the early seventies as a teenager along with this brothers in the Jackson 5.
Mr. Jackson was to become the world’s greatest interpreter of black styles, from soul to disco to pop and even hip hop.
Michael Jackson emerged in the 1970s, when black popular culture was straddling the contradictory impulses toward the celebration of black identity and the desires of many for popular acceptance at any cost.
As Mark Anthony Neal writes in Soul Babies: “Despite the drive toward self-determination that the soul aesthetic encapsulated, it remained a project that essentialized black identity and culture for one consumer public demanding inclusion into the mainstream on its own terms…and another looking for non-threatening markers of difference…) (Soul Babies p.7)
In the 1980s,popular music would become re-segregated, as rampant stereotypes of jerry-curled Super-Freaks like Rick James played on timeless tropes of the threatening, uncontrolled black buck encroaching on polite white society, which was being reconstructed under the traditionalist mandate of Ronald Reagan and Reaganism.
Michael Jackson, with the aid of his mentor and producer Quincy Jones (himself a legendary integrationist jazz arranger), was positioned as the great unifier. Building on his expressive talents and soulful pedigree, Jackson utilized the talents of popular stars from outside of the black music world such as Paul McCartney, Eddie Van Halen and Vincent Price on Jackson’s landmark “Thriller” album. The resulting soul based, all star pop collaboration became what is still the greatest selling record of all time.
Michael Jackson, spawned from Soul, created a new brand of ‘post racial’ pop music, and became as the first post-racial black superstar.
Jackson’s commitment to humanitarian causes is another significant part of his legacy and of his roots. Jackson’s support for causes that support terminally ill and abused children was constantly backed up by public presentations of his donations. In much the same way that his mentor James Brown would stop a concert midway to give a donation to the local NAACP chapter, or showcase a civic leader, Michael Jackson would make public appearances on his tours to give to numerous charities that included the United Negro College Fund and Transafrica. (although records are hard to find, he was also a great friend to the Nation of Islam, which was revealed in the memorial issue of the Final Call published after Jackson’s death)
As the “King of Pop” in the 1980s and 1990s, Michael Jackson stood at the mountaintop, as a Soul Music giant, philanthropist, and humanitarian, with cross-racial appeal enjoyed by no other American since the days of Paul Robeson in the 1930s.
In his own way, Michael Jackson ushered in an era of post-racialism in popular music and by extension, popular American culture. As a result of his constantly whitening skin condition and numerous facial reconstructions, Jackson became a living symbol of a de-racialized celebrity. But Michael Jackson never lost his soul…
Of the many social breakthroughs Michael Jackson could be given credit for, from “integrating” MTV, to breaking sales records worldwide, to his global humanitarianism, it is not a stretch to claim that his prominence as a Post-Racial Soul Brother primed a generation of Americans to accept a new President that applied the same strategies for success…
Upon his death, and elegant memorial, the global public was reminded of the totality of the man’s gifts to the world. We recognize that like few others American icons, like Marilyn Monroe, JFK, and Dr. King, Michael Jackson was larger than life while he was alive, and was perhaps never destined to grow old. His youthful spirit will transcend all of the doubters. The King of Pop is dead. Long Live The King.