May 29, 2020 § Leave a comment
The killing of George Flyod made me think of Michael Jackson’s often under appreciated protest songs. Seeing the video of Madonna’s son dancing to his They Don’t Care About Us this week and the reaction it got made me realise that most people have never really paid attention to the song. The message behind it got lost in the internet commotion that followed. I will attempt to dissect the song (and others). He sang these songs 25 and 29 years ago yet the same things keep happening.
Two versions of the music video were shot. One was shot in Brazil, that’s the most famous one shot in the Favelas. The lesser well-known one is the prison version. That’s the one I want to tackle first. I will focus on three of his videos and the lyrics.
The first version of Michael Jackson’s They Don’t Care About Us was banned by MTV USA and VH1 (seen below)). In fact, MTV USA showed it once and never again because of the “lyrics and violent imagery”. In reality, America did not like the fact that he was putting the country on blast.
“I am a victim of police brutality” he sings. Some imagery in the Prison version of the video shows actual footage of black people being brutally beaten by cops. The video was in releases in1995. It was not the first time one of his videos or a portion was banned. Back in 1991, the second portion of Black or White was also banned. The media simply dismissed the videos as stunts without digging deeper because that was the easy and convenient thing to do at the time.
In the prison version of They Don’t Care About Us, Michael Jackson is in prison, he plays a prisoner in a dinning hall with other prisoners. At some point, he is all by himself in chains as images of violence against people reflect on the walls of the prison cell he is in.
When They Don’t Care About Us became controversial, he issued a statement saying the context had been misinterpreted either unintentionally or deliberately. When you watch the prison video on YouTube you will find that it begins with a disclaimer. The disclaimer demonstrates the lengths to which people of colour have to go through when discussing issues of race because discussing racial inequality is often perceived as controversial and in itself RACIST! What we also know is that it is an attempt to shut the conversation down. Because if you shut it down there is no need for self-examination nor one to explore one’s privilege.
Michael added this disclaimer to the video after it was banned. It’s like when you discuss racism and then someone says you’re being racist for discussing racism. Then you have to explain that talking about racism doesn’t mean that one hates white people, it simply means one hates the system of racism. It’s a constant battle people of colour face.
In my view, the song is about the state of blackness in America. There is no running away from that when you read and listen to the lyrics. I suspect that he, along with Spike Lee who directed the videos, realised that if the the video only showed the brutalisation and imprisonment of black people, it would be banned, so they added other images of injustices across the world: even though the lyrics were really about systematic injustices against black people in America. Meaning they attempted to water it down. Even then, it was still banned.
The lyrics are unmistakably about how black people are treated in the United States.
The song begins like this:
Skin head, dead head
Everybody gone bad
In the suite, on the news
Everybody dog food
Bang bang, shot dead
Everybody’s gone mad
Later he becomes more explicit (I have highlighted some words for emphasis):
Skin head, dead head
Everybody gone bad
In the suite, on the news
Everybody dog food
Black man, black mail
Throw your brother in jail
He speaks of the state of fear and constant trepidation the black man lives under. He could be shot, killed and arrested at any time. Yet, paradoxically, the system in turn claims to be in fear and lives in trepidation of the black man which is why it in turn justifies the imprisonment, and killing of the black man in the hands of authorities.
The fear of the black man is in the suite, meaning in the most senior boardrooms of corporate America and the news help perpetuate the idea that the black man is dangerous. For a long time, when a black man was shot by the cops, the news media would show images of a thug, never that of a smiling loving family man, or a graduate, but always a thug who deserved to be feared and probably deserved to get shot. The news media was complicit and Michael was also letting it know.
Back to the song. Then he asks America:
Tell me what has become of my rights
Am I invisible because you ignore me?
Your proclamation promised me free liberty, now
I’m tired of bein’ the victim of shame
They’re throwing me in a class with a bad name
I can’t believe this is the land from which I came
You know I do really hate to say it
The government don’t want to see
Am I invisible because you ignore me? Maybe if I start breaking things you will see me because when I speak nicely no one hears. The wording, Your proclamation promised me free liberty, now is interesting. He doesn’t say, “Our” but chooses to say, “Your.” As a person of colour, he does not feel included in these proclamations of free liberty. They are not his because people like him are treated differently which is why he “can’t believe this is the land from which I came.” He came from this land but it’s proclamations of liberty, justice, fairness and equality do not apply to him as a person of colour.
To the untrained eye, it is easy to say ‘but Michael Jackson was one of the most famous and one of the richest people on earth, therefore he was protected from racism.’
No black person, no matter how rich, famous or educated is protected from racism. The racism you experience simply shifts form.
As Chris Rock so eloquently put it, “There ain’t a white man in this room who would change places with me, none of you, none of you would change places with me.” And then he paused, and dropped this, “And I’m rich.”
President Barack Obama wrote on Friday the 29th of May about George Flyod. He shared an email he received from a friend of his and identified as a “middle-aged African American businessman.”
“Dude I gotta tell you the George Floyd incident in Minnesota hurt,” the e-mail began. “I cried when I saw that video. It broke me down. The ‘knee on the neck’ is a metaphor for how the system so cavalierly holds black folks down, ignoring the cries for help. People don’t care. Truly tragic.”
That email was shared by a black man who was the most powerful man in the world. No black person is sheltered from racism. Even one as powerful as Barack Obama talks about the burden of the black person in the new documentary, The Last Dance, “Any African American in this society that sees significant success has an added burden. And a lot of times America is very quick to embrace a Michael Jordan an Oprah Winfrey or a Barack Obama so long as it’s understood that you don’t get too controversial around issues of social justice.”
Let me take us back a bit. When Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall Album was released in 1979, it was the biggest selling and most critically album of the year. It won a single Grammy. Later that year he asked his manager to call up Rolling Stone Magazine so that he could be on the cover. They came back and said he was “too ethnic” and couldn’t be on the cover. This was code for black. Then he said he’d make a album so great they would’t be able to ignore. He made Thriller. It became the biggest selling album of all time soon after it was released. Even then, they tried to ignore him as seen by MTV trying to shut him out of the channel.
He wanted his music video to be on MTV but they wouldn’t because they weren’t playing black artists on the channel. He decided to make the bet music video ever made at the time. Nothing of its kind had been seen before. Even then, MTV refused to play Thriller. Sony had also refused to pay for the making of a music video for Thriller because they knew that MTV wouldn’t play it. So Michael paid for the video himself. After seeing the finished product, Sony’s president called up MTV and threatened to pull all of its white artists from the channel if they didn’t play Thriller.
They relented and played Thriller and it would become the most requested video of all time. So much so that MTV ended up playing it every 30 minutes.
The press wrote stories about him bleaching his skin because he wanted to be white. In the meantime, he suffered from a skin condition that destroys melanin. The same skin condition Canadian Super model Winnie Harlow has. In a twisted way, the story had undertones. ‘The most famous person in the world who also happens to be black is so ashamed of his colour that he aspires to be white’ all while laughing at him. We were all meant to laugh at him. And the world joined in. Everyone laughed at him.
For a long time, even though he needed the media, he never trusted it, which is why his first interview in 14 years was with Oprah Winfrey. That interview would become the most-watched interview of all time. He believed that if a black person interviewed him, they would be fair to him.
So, Michael already knew and felt the sting of America’s racism, which is why he says in They Don’t Care About Us, “Your proclamation promised me free liberty.” So where is this liberty of yours?
In a line from the song he says, “I’m tired of being a victim of hate,” at some point, we see actual footage of members of the KKK burning crosses. He reminded America of the parts of itself it does not want to admit.
Earlier on, I mentioned Black or White. The original film is 11 minutes long. The only part most people know is the upfront section because the second half of the video was banned. The video below is the full version. Let me give you my take on it.
When the music video premiered, it was watched by an audience of 500 million people. The largest audience ever to watch a music video on TV. The year was 1991.
The 4 minute part of the video towards the end generated controversy because of the anger, violent and sexualised Jackson. At the beginning, we see a lovely white neighborhood with a kid playing loud music in his room. The dad goes upstairs and tells him to tone it down angrily.
The father slams the door shut and the Michael Jackson poster pinned on the door comes smashing down. It was symbolic of how white parents couldn’t understand their children’s fascination with black heroes and their desire to see them fall. In his personal life, he had seen how the press constantly hounded him with false stories. To be fair, how he responded did him no favours either.
The kid, played by Culkin, grabs a giant speaker, plays the guitar and the dad shoots up through the roof in his chair like a rocket taking off and lands in the middle of black natives in Africa. The horror!
The first time Michael appears in the video is Africa. Beginning in Africa was deliberate, acknowledging his black and African heritage. The first part of the video is all happy and dancing with cultures all over the world.
He gives the audience the happy dancing black man who has to hide his rage to be accepted in a white controlled narrative. He sets up the audience and it comes along with him to such an extent that they miss the hard message in the song. They have no idea what’s coming.
Fast forward to the banned part. He is angry. Alone. He is the dancing Black Panther. A black superhero. There was an overwhelming negative response to the second portion of the video.
Armond White, a music critic noted, “The imperatives set before Jackson… are to be an artist, and individual, and a black person. That’s one obligation more than Elvis or the Beatles had to deal with. And being black is more complicated than other goals.”
At the end of the unbanned part of the video, a black panther walks out of a studio unnoticed and onto the street. It morphs into Michael. The first half shows a utopia where everyone is getting along. The lyrics say “It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white.”
They miss the angry message here:
I am tired of this devil
I am tired of this stuff
I am tired of this business
Sew when the going gets rough
I ain’t scared of your brother
I ain’t scared of no sheets
I ain’t scared of nobody
Girl, when the going gets mean
Yet he also says, “Sew when the going gets rough“. Here, he says that when things go tough, there is a tendency for some to retreat and sew their KKK sheets instead of facing the actual structural challenges we face as a society. “I ain’t scared of no sheets.” Here, he is singing about the KKK.
He also goes on to say, “Don’t tell me you agree with me when I saw you kicking dirt in my eyes.”
This part is about those people who sit comfortably at the table of polite racism. That subtle form of racism every black person knows.
So when Michael turns into a black panther, that immediately made people think about the Black Panther movement in the U.S. He was suddenly an angry black man something to be feared. This was before his legal troubles.
Michael said of the second portion of the video, “I want to do a dance number where I can let out my frustration about injustice and prejudice and racism and bigotry.” The video was released in November 1991.
In March of the same year, a video of police officers brutally beating a black man in LA was all over the news. 24 hours news channels were still new. CNN played the video of the police brutally beating Rodney King over and over again. Finally what black people were experiencing on a daily basis was captured in the news.
LA went up in flames. Black people were protesting because that was how they had been treated all along, and this time it was caught on camera. “America, this is what you do to us.” Michael Jackson, not just most famous black person, but the most famous person in the world was standing on a car, dancing aggressively, smashing windows. The video of an angry Michael Jackson, smashing windows and a car soon after what was known as the LA Riots was too much. Not long after, the allegations against him surfaced.
The Black Panther Dance portion was no coincidence.
The final song I want to look into is Scream where he sings with his sister, Janet.
Pay attention to the Lyrics:
“Oh, my God, can’t believe what I saw as I turned on the TV this evening
I was disgusted by all the injustice, all the injustice”
“A man has been brutally beaten to death by police after being wrongly identified as a robbery suspect. The man was an 18 year old black male…“
With such collusions don’t it make you wanna scream?
Michael is convinced in this song that there is collusion against people of colour. His frustration is not at individuals because no one sits in a group and decides to collude against black people. The whole system is built that way. He is so frustrated that he just wants to scream because it is all just so overwhelming and makes one feel powerless.
Your bash abusin’ victimize within the scheme
You try to cope with every lie they scrutinize
Oh, brother, please have mercy
‘Cause I just can’t take it
Stop pressurin’ me
Just stop pressurin’ me
Stop pressurin’ me
Make me wanna scream
This is what we are seeing with people of colour all over the world after the killing of George Flyod in full view of the public. People of colour are screaming because they feel unheard and unsafe.
Sometimes we miss the messages Michael Jackson had in his music. He protested a lot more than people realised and more pro black than he is given credit for. There is no doubt that he would have been violently angered in his own way. I just didn’t want us to miss the message in his music because of Madonna’s tweet.