While I am completing Part 2 of my series on Langston Hughes’s “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” here is a wonderful bridging article by Didi Cheeka that touches on many of the very points raised in Part 1 of my own article, and which I will be exploring in more depth in Part 2. Some of you may recall a popular article I published here back in 2013, just after the occasion of Michael’s 4th death anniversary, by the Nigerian writer Oris Aigbokhaevbolo, titled “Michael Jackson, 4 Years Later.”
Recently, I received an email from Oris asking if I would be interested in reprinting this article from his friend Didi Cheeka. Cheeka is also a Nigerian writer who has written quite a bit on Michael but I don’t think his work has had much exposure in the U.S. and Europe.
This is an article I would have gladly reprinted anyway, but the particular timing couldn’t have been more opportune. Since my series on the Langston Hughes essay is dealing specifically with Michael’s role as a black artist, receiving Cheeka’s piece in my email was quite a timely coincidence, to say the least.
BLOOD ON THE DANCEFLOOR
Michael Jackson: The Hidden Injuries of American Entertainment by Didi Cheeka
Marx characterized the profit system as dripping from head to toe, from every pore with blood and death. The American entertainment industry drips with the blood of countless talented individuals. In the wake of Michael Jackson’s death, the mainstream bourgeois media fell over themselves in a frenzied feasting over his life without a single attempt at offering serious analysis of the processes that produced the persona.
Born in 1958 in Gary, Indiana – a working-class suburb of Chicago – Jackson, one of nine children of Joseph Jackson, a crane operator in a steel mill, began his musical career at the age of five as the lead singer of the Jackson 5. Michael’s dancing ability as well as his singing skills quickly made him the group’s leader. Jackson would later state that for many years, the stage was his real “home,” the one place he was “most comfortable.”
Of his father, Jackson told Oprah Winfrey in a 1993 interview, “I don’t know if I was his golden child or whatever, but he was very strict, very hard, very stern. … There’s been times when he’d come to see me, I’d get sick, I’d start to regurgitate.” The singer asserted that his father was demanding, and controlling, and regularly beat him. This much was confirmed by his brothers.
Gary, at one time, was one of the largest steel-producing centers in the world. With the end of World War II in 1945, Chicago experienced an increase in its black and Hispanic populations. Blacks and Hispanics moved into formerly white residential areas as whites moved to the rapidly growing suburbs. World War Two marked a new stage for the black struggle in America. Over 3 million blacks registered for the armed services and at least half a million served in racially segregated units in the Pacific, Europe, and Africa.
Back home the war economy drew Blacks into the northern factories, accelerating a migratory process began in the first world war, as a million Blacks left the south for the north between 1941 and 1946. This migration turned major American cities black, as whites fled to the suburbs before this black flood.
With the end of the war black America, now organized in unions, was gripped by the determination not to return to the old conditions. To stem black revolt, which was on the rise, the US administration had encouraged the growth of a small black middle class; this policy would receive further boost in the late sixties and early seventies.
But conditions in the black ghettos rapidly deteriorated, giving rise to despair, hopelessness, and rage. All these culminated in the great urban riots of 1965-8. To white America, the blacks were burning the cities, trying to turn them into the same kind of jungles their forefathers came from.
But while Watts, Newark, Detroit, and others burned, inside Motown’s music factory, insulated from the cities’ nightly flames, the henchmen of a music mogul were working round the clock hammering out what Berry Gordy himself called “bubblegum-soul.” In the words of former US Secretary of State, Gen. Colin Powell, it was “… A time of war, a time of political turmoil, a time of the counter-culture and domestic unrest,” and yet Motown’s product “made us smile with their freshness and their cute ‘fros. We tapped our feet, felt good watching them, and our cares left for a few minutes.” (TIME July ’09)
The group, the Jackson 5, was signed by Motown in 1968. Motown, owned by Berry Gordy, a fervent believer in “Black Capitalism”, was a beneficiary of Affirmative Action. Disguised as reform, as progress, Affirmative Action was an attempt by the American ruling class to promote a layer of blacks who having a stake in the system would promote the ideas of that system. That is to say that, Affirmative Action was an attempt by the American ruling class to cut off the black rebellion.
Thus, in 1971, Gordy and Marvin Gaye would clash over Gaye’s desire to record an anti-Vietnam song, “What’s Going On.” Marvin Gaye, whose cousin died in Vietnam, and whose brother had done three tours, said at the time, “With the world exploding around me, how am I supposed to keep singing love songs?” Indeed, the black rebellion, civil rights, anti-war movements gave birth to an explosion of radical music. Curtis Mayfield recorded “Power To The People,” James Brown did “Say It Loud, I’m Black And Proud,” etc. In 1959, Lorraine Hansberry published her play A Raisin in the Sun, which was made into a motion picture in 1961, about a Black family’s challenge of Chicago’s segregation laws by moving to an all-white neighborhood. After Hansberry’s death from cancer, her husband, songwriter and music publisher Robert Nemiroff, adapted her letters, plays, and papers into the production To Be Young, Gifted and Black (1969). This compilation was published in book form that same year.
For the growing numbers of the black middle class moving ever closer towards the outlook of the American ruling class the Jackson 5 couldn’t have arrived at a more propitious time. “All record companies,” said Nina Simone, “prefer third-rate talents to true genius because they can push them around more easily, make them change their clothes or politics just to sell more records.” Of course, Jackson possessed real dancing and singing talents. But, all too often, talent is not enough.
The opening shots of the movement that would indirectly shape the trajectory of Michael Jackson’s musical and personal life was fired at least three years before his birth. The shot was fired on a day in 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama. On that day, Mrs Rosa Parks, a black widow in her early 50’s, refused an order to give up her seat on a bus to a white man. She was dragged off the bus and fined $10.
According to the city’s segregation laws, blacks paid at the front and then board at the back. Behind the first four rows stood the sign “WHITES ONLY.” If all these seats were taken, a white person had the right to demand that blacks in the next row gave up their seat. Rosa Parks had refused to give up her seat. A boycott of the buses by blacks ensued which led to a desegregation of the buses. This victory triggered a protest movement that shook the very foundations of white supremacy in the southern states of America, as blacks rose up to challenge racist laws.
1963 was a watershed year in the black struggle. A march on Washington by 250,000 protesters forced important concessions from the state and led to the passing of a new Civil Rights Act, far wider in scope than hitherto. There were widespread arrests, beatings, injuries, death. But the rebellion continued to spread across states in the US, given an added impetus by the anti-colonial struggle sweeping across the African continent.
That same year, in June, Medgar Evans, NAACP’s moderate leader in Mississippi was murdered in front of his home. The summer of “64 was to prove a long hot one. Six blacks were murdered and 1,000 arrested, following the launching of a voter registration campaign. 30 buildings were bombed and 36 black churches burnt, and, in August of the same summer, the bodies of three freedom riders – a non-racial bus rides launched by the Congress Of Racial Equality (CORE) – were found in Mississipi, the two white men shot, and the black man chain-whipped and mutilated.
All across the south racist attacks was on the rise. In Granville, Louisiana, the sheriff presided over the savage beating, by racists, of the leader of the NAACP youth council. In Selma Jimmy Lee Jackson was beaten to death by policemen while trying to protect his mother. A non-violent demonstration of 2,000 protesters marched against this killing. The protesters were mercilessly beaten by state troopers.
Out of the growing radicalization of the black struggle, was raised the slogan of “Black Power,” which, by 1967, was to become the dominant ideology within the radical wing of the civil rights movement. Blacks were rediscovering themselves and affirming pride in their culture, their Blackness. Thus, in one of the most dramatic moments in Olympics history, at the award ceremony for the men’s 200 metres at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico, American track-and-field athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos gave the Black Power salute as the American national anthem was being played, to protest racism in the U.S. For this Smith and Carlos were suspended from the U.S and expelled from the Olympic village.
It was really a time to be Black and proud – after hundreds of years of humiliation and indignity. In the words of Mckissick, one of the leaders of Core, “…we left our imposed status of Negroes and became Black men.” Blacks “…realized their full weight in society, their dignity, their beauty and power.” But, according to black historian Manning Marable, “Black Power quickly became the cornerstone of conservative forces.”
And so Richard Nixon was happy to endorse Black Power saying, in 1968 that, “ Much of the Black militant talk these days is actually in terms far closer to the doctrines of free enterprise,” and that his policies would gravitate towards “Black ownership…Black opportunity and yes, Black Power.”
In August 1965, the Watts district of Los Angeles exploded into a race riot lasting five days. The riot left 35 people – 28 of them black – dead and over 1,000 injured. Detroit followed in “67, with 47 people killed, 2,000 injured and 2,700 businesses destroyed. Across America, between 1964 and 1972, 250 people were killed in riots and 10,000 seriously injured. Even Washington was not left out. No doubt, in the eyes of racist America, the blacks were burning the cities, “the violent, lawless, savage Blacks…endlessly spawned by welfare mothers.” In 1968 protesters staged a demonstration against the Vietnam War in Chicago during the Democratic presidential convention. Daley ordered aggressive police action to quash the protest. The ensuing violence by police led to several days of rioting.
In what would be his last public speech, at a rally in Mason Temple in Memphis, King recounted that “the masses were rising up in South Africa, in Kenya and Ghana, in New York City, Atlanta, Jackson and Memphis and everywhere their cry was the same: ‘We want to be free.’ On April 4th 1968, King was shot dead on the balcony of his hotel in Memphis by a white man, James Earl Ray. As his death was announced, further rioting broke out in major U.S cities. About three years before, on Feb. 21, Malcolm X had also been assassinated.
Faced with the increasing radicalization of significant layers of the black population, the U.S. administration, alongside its strong arm tactics, stepped-up the expansion of the black middle class, creating new, relatively high paid jobs for some black workers. This thin layer quickly became integrated into the American system and broke, at critical moments, with the struggle. And so, there was a huge shift, particularly among the top layers of the movement, away from the radicalization of the civil rights movement.
By the early 70s, the earnings of the top 5% of the black labour force had increased by 32%. Between 1969 and 1977 the total number of black-owned business increased from 163,000 to 231,195 and between 1970 and 1975, twenty-four black-owned banks were established. Also, the number of blacks entering the universities increased from 75,000 in 1950 to 660,000 by 1976.
At this point, the civil rights movement was ebbing. The tiny layer of black petit-bourgeoisie, created through affirmative action and positive discrimination, having integrated itself into the American white middle class, occupied itself with making it within American capitalism and putting the radicalism of the civil rights days behind.
Writing in The Observer Review, Keith Richburg, New York bureau chief of the Washington Post said, “In the segregated America of the 1960s and early 70s, Michael Jackson was a true “crossover” artist… I started out in Catholic schools until eight grade, when my parents sent me to a private, almost all-white school in an all-white, wealthy suburb, Grosse Pointe. There were only a handful of black students at the school, and for me, in many ways, it was an alien environment. I listened to Motown and R’n’B; the kids I now went to school with were largely into hard rock. But Michael Jackson was like a bridge; everybody liked Michael. In 1972, the year we both turned 14, his song “Ben”, from the movie, became a No 1 hit.” This is a most telling statement.
From 1968 to 1971 the ranks of the antiwar movement had expanded greatly. But, by 1972, alongside the mainstream civil rights movement, organized protests against the war dwindled. Most mainstream antiwar activists had turned from demonstrations to working within the Democratic Party. The arrival of “bubble-gum soul” coincided with this moment. And the vehicle was the integrated black and white middle class. Michael was not the “bridge,” but rather a product of this integration.
As the civil rights and anti-war movements gained momentum, they triggered a cultural reflection in the works of cultural icons like The Watts Prophets, The Last Poets, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, The Beatles, etc., who gradually transformed their art from infantile love songs into complex works about a world full of political and social upheaval. These artists correctly reflected the turmoil and change that gripped their society during the 1960s. But with the ebbing of the movement, with “bubblegum soul” and the rise of Disco, the cultural movement seemed to be in the opposite direction.
In January 1970, the Jackson 5 reached No. 1 with the single “I Want You Back;” in April, with “ABC;” In June, with “The Love You Save;” and in October, with “I’ll Be There.’ All in a single year. “Because Michael I don’t think had ever dealt with an emotion that deep in just a regular normal romance,” said Jones, another product of Affirmative Action, “(And) he cried on every take. Every take we did, he cried. I left the tears on the record because it was real.” The song in question was “She’s Out Of My Life,” a song from Off The Wall about the very bad ending of a marriage, which Jones was saving for Frank Sinatra, but later did with Michael Jackson. The lyrics of the album’s first single were suggestive enough as to reportedly incur the disapproval of Michael’s mother Katherine.
But Katherine, wrote TIME’s David Von Drehle, quoting a family friend, “Knew the only way out of Gary was through Michael … One day she turned to me and said, ‘Michael is cute now, but he won’t stay that way forever. Then what do we do? They’ve got to get a record contract now.’” They did. But, “There was a park across the street from the Motown studio, and I can remember looking at those kids playing games,” Jackson wrote in his memoir, Moon Walk. “I’d just stare at them in wonder – I couldn’t imagine such freedom, such a carefree life – and I wish more than anything I had that kind of freedom, that I could walk away and be just like them.”
And what was it like inside Motown? “Wall-to-wall work,” wrote Drehle, “The house song-writers started cranking out ‘soul bubblegum,’ as Gordy called it. The arrangers and producers and sidemen pushed the boys in search of a Jackson 5 sound. There were endless hours with the Motown fashion crew, trying on wild clothes, and more hours with Gordy’s etiquette teachers. Inside the studio, there was a name for the group handling the Jacksons: ‘the Corporation.’”
The economic crisis that hit American capitalism in the seventies, following the worldwide economic recession of 1974, triggered the movement of industries out of the big cities and devastated the living conditions of black workers. Black neighborhoods in the big cities of the most advanced capitalist country began to resemble third-world ghettos – areas of unemployment, bad schooling, drugs and crime, as “crack” (a cheap by-product from cocaine) began to overflow the streets.
But insulated as they were from the wretched conditions of these ghetto inhabitants, the creators of “bubblegum soul” pretended this horror did not exist and closed their eyes to it, serving for American capitalism a safety valve. This, I think, is the beginning of Michael Jackson’s flight from reality. “I… used to always cry from loneliness,” he told Oprah. “Beginning at what age?” Oprah asked?” Oh, very little, 8,9,” the singer replied.
Cut off from reality, the stage, its falseness and unreality, became ‘reality,’ became “home.” The “Vultures of culture,” as Public Enemy called them in one of their songs, “They like to… Profit off the soul of black folks.” Jackson was effectively transformed into a bland, desexualized money-making machine. For quite a section of the public, left without a clear leadership, politically and intellectually adrift, Jackson became the focus of popular adulation. No doubt, the combination of these – the emotional demands and financial requirements of the public and music industry, respectively – must have been very exacting. “They think they own you, they think they made you,” Jackson said of his fans in a 1982 interview to Gerri Hirshey, author of Nowhere To Run: The Story Of Soul Music.
In suburbia, where white America fled following the great urban riots that racked America, they felt their values threatened by a strange new counterculture – hippies, punks, radicals, drugs, and all that. Added to these were the burning cities of Watts, Rochester, Newark, Detroit, and even Washington. And the burning cities were black. Blacks! Violent and sexually threatening. “… I think that Honorable Members who have experience will agree that the attitude of the African towards women and sexual matters,” said B Craddock at the British House of Commons in May 1953, “is entirely different from the attitude of the general run of Europeans…”
James Brown, the godfather of soul, with his overtly sexual gyrations and lyrics must have lent credence to these – from the point of view of white America. And yet Brown, was a fervent believer in self-improvement, and the need for minority-owned businesses within American capitalism, and owned a variety of enterprises, including recording studios, radio stations, and a real estate company. Clearly, from the point of view of the American music industry, for a “crossover” artist, one that is black, to successfully crossover, s/he must be non-violent, non-radical, non-sexually threatening – and non-black. Michael Jackson will follow this to its logical conclusion.
“But Michael also had changed,” wrote Richburg, “… His hair was no longer the tight curls from Thriller – it now looked downright straight. His nose was appreciably thinner. The thick lips he had as a child were thinner, too. The round face was more gaunt. And his skin tone had become several shades lighter, to almost a ghostly pale. Jackson later explained that his color change was the result of a rare skin disease known as vitiligo… And even if the skin disease was legitimate, it didn’t explain the nose, the hair, the lips.”
In Black or White, as if in a cry of protest, the child rappers defiantly sang: “I’m not going to spend my life being a color!” And Jackson answered, “If you’re thinking of being my brother, it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white.” But it must have mattered to somebody. Actually, it became really noticeable with Thriller. In the videos Michael’s Afro had gone, in its place a straightened hair, a kind of relaxed perm. Physically, he had started to change, too.
Didi Cheeka is a Marxist critic, writer and filmmaker
My Follow-Up Commentary:
In regards to the quote from Richburg, and Cheeka’s own commentary, I wish to interject some of my own rebuttal here. Although I understand perfectly the point that is being made (it is one we cannot entirely escape or dodge if this topic is to be discussed with any degree of honesty) some of these points bear further scrutiny. I do not, for example, agree that Michael was trying to present a “less black” image simply because his curls became more relaxed. Michael maintained a curly look throughout most of his career (only occasionally in the 90’s opting for a more wavy look) but it was not until the 2000’s-his last decade-that he started to go with a predominantly straight look. However, these are cosmetic choices that I think are pretty much irrelevant as far as racial identity.
I work with African-American students every day. It is not at all unusual for a student-male or female-to change hairstyles two to three times within a single week, especially what with all the options available today-wigs, hairpieces, weaves, extensions, etc-to make such instant changes possible. A student might easily have dreadlocks for a week, and the next week a trim flat top. A girl who had smooth, short hair a few days ago might suddenly appear in class with long, luscious curls cascading down her back. Many of the students are quite fashion conscious, and the desire to change and experiment with many different looks seems to be something they highly value. To some extent, it is also very much a “youth thing,” of course, but even among teens and young adults, I do not see this sort of thing nearly as much with my white students. The girls may be very fashion conscious, for example, but they will usually stick with one chosen hairstyle and color for at least a semester. So, if anything, it would seem that Michael’s embracing of his ability to change looks at a whim would only serve to affirm his black identity, if anything. And, as an entertainer, it was even more critical that his look and image continue to evolve. According to Quincy Jones, the decision to “toughen up” his image for the Bad album was a very calculated one, and with every subsequent album thereafter, we see Michael re-molding his image and look to suit the new album’s concept. Today, this sort of “chameleon effect” is not only standard for most major artists, but even expected. Michael may have simply been ahead of his time in somewhat pioneering this trend (just as Madonna did for white female performers). Many critics often point to Michael’s ditching of the Afro as the critical moment when his “black identity” began to shift, but that, too, is an absurd notion. The Afro was no longer in vogue in the 80’s. What did Michael have to gain by holding onto a look that was no longer current? (However, it is not at all unusual today to see many Afros popping up on college campuses; as with all fashion trends, everything that goes around, comes around eventually). Perhaps this sentiment has everything to do with the political statement that was initially behind the Afro’s rise in popularity in the 60’s and 70’s, and the Afros’s association with the Black Power Movement. But by the 80’s I don’t know of too many black performers, if any, who were continuing to wear them. Michael’s jheri curl was a logical step in his evolving transition, as he sought a more mature look and to create a new, adult entity that was separate from his childhood stardom and identity with The Jackson 5/Jacksons era.
I am also not entirely sure how having a more gaunt face equates to loss of racial identity. Aren’t blacks free to gain and lose weight just like everyone else? Michael explained over and over that these changes had everything to do with his change in diet. As he developed a leaner physique, his face naturally followed suit. I suppose the assumption is that even the change in his facial shape must have somehow been equated with a desire to look “more white.” I don’t get the logic of it, but such is the perplexity of the riddle we are dealing with.
But, nevertheless, small points of disagreement aside, it can’t be denied that Michael’s physical appearance did change drastically over the course of the 80’s, leaving an entire generation of his black fanbase in a bit of confusion. Keep in mind that the official explanation of vitiligo did not come about until after several years of speculation as to the cause and reasons for his lightening skin. And even if we say it’s ludicrous, many did believe that his cosmetic choices reflected a desire to look more Caucasion. It didn’t seem to matter how much or how vehemently he denied it. Humans are terribly skeptical by nature, and the media has only served to intensify that skepticism.
But it also brings up another interesting argument. Shouldn’t these kinds of aesthetic and cosmetic decisions be a matter of personal and individual choice? At what point-what arbitrary line- do they cease to be merely cosmetic or vanity decisions, and become, instead, justifiable reasons to question one’s racial identity and loyalty? And who, exactly, draws that line? And by what right?
However, shifting gears from the issue of appearance, Cheeka does establish quite clearly both Michael’s importance as a “product of integration” between blacks and whites at a crucial time in history-when the world was ripe for a black star of Michael’s magnitude. But the cost for Michael, in personal terms, meant a certain adherence to the music industry code for black performers (even if it was a subconscious adherence)-to be “non violent, non radical, [and] non sexually threatening.” Over time, of course, Michael would break and redefine all of these tenets, but again, not without some measure of cost.
The Asian comedian Margaret Cho has a very funny routine where she talks about her experience on the short-lived TV sitcom “The All American Girl.” She was routinely criticized for being both “too Asian” and “not Asian enough.” How is that even possible? At one point, they even brought in a coach to teach her how to be “more Asian.” And, of course, she was constantly being reminded that executives didn’t know how much longer they could play “the Asian thing.” Behind the humor, it is a very telling-and scathing-expose’ on a conundrum that remains unique for the minority artist, especially the minority artist in America.
These are all issues I will be continuing to explore in the coming weeks. Thanks again to Didi Cheeka for permission to reprint this piece, and to Oris Aigbokhaevbolo for bringing it to my attention.