Today is the sixth anniversary of Michael Jackson’s untimely passing. The world knows now more than ever that he is indelibly ingrained in the history of popular music. And while his music stands the test of time, as evidenced by the millions being raked in albums sales and the Cirque du Soleil MJ ONE show, it is his lyrics, his own words, that are as relevant today as they were decades ago when they were written. Jackson’s social commentary through his lyrics underscored his concerns that ran the gamut from personal accountability to systemic racism to police brutality.
Jackson did not write his number one hit in 1988, a rare occurrence for him. While Billboard’s number one song for the year was George Michael’s Faith, a song written about a relationship gone sour, Jackson chose a song on another level of consciousness. If he was searching for lyrical gold, Jackson mined the verses of Man in the Mirror into a statement of personal accountability and commitment to those less fortunate. I see the kids in the streets/With not enough to eat/Who am I to be blind/Pretending not to see their needs? In May of this year, Richard Blackmon called 911 because he was hungry and unable to get out of his chair to buy food. Donations from the 911 operator who took the call and multiple others, have Blackmon’s refrigerator “overflowing with food”. In February of 2015, Detroit native James Robertson was discovered walking the majority of a 42 mile trek to work and back. Unable to afford a car, a GoFundMe page was established to buy Robertson a car with an initial goal of $25,000. As of this date, donations total nearly $350,000. Jackson’s lyrics continue to resonate with listeners, whether in 1988 or present day, to help those in need. If you wanna make the world a better place/Take a look at yourself and make that change.
For this artist and songwriter, his lyrics were a rallying cry to raise awareness for social issues such as racial profiling and police brutality. Inspired by the Rodney King verdict and ensuing Los Angeles riots, Jackson released They Don’t Care About Us in 1996. I am the victim of police brutality, now/I’m tired of being the victim of hate Recent social unrest, flagrant police brutality, racial profiling and subsequent protests in cities all over the country have identified with Jackson’s lyrics. In February 2015, the death of Freddie Gray, allegedly at the hands of six police officers, sparked outrage and riots in Baltimore. In 2014, Eric Garner was killed by a police officer in New York City causing massive protests. In 2011, protests erupted in Oakland over the killing of Oscar Grant by police. In all the protests, the anthem protesters chose to use was Jackson’s. Nearly 20 years from the date of release, protestors throughout the United States identified with Jackson’s lyrics in unprecedented numbers. All I wanna say is that/They don’t really care about us
Jackson’s song Black or White was released in 1991. Again, the number one song for this year was Bryan Adam’s song Everything I Do, a song written about a man’s undying love for a woman. Jackson however, wrote Black or White to target the undertones of racial inequality and disharmony, and to mend the discord. See it’s not about races, faces, just places Jackson’s lyrics also tackle the subject of apathy within communities with regard to race relations. Don’t tell me you agree with me/When I saw you kickin’ dirt in my eye In March of 2015, Trayvon Martin’s father, whose son was killed by a man ultimately acquitted of murder, had speaking engagements across the country, urging audiences to promote tolerance and end the racial divide in their communities. After the riots due to the furor over the death of Freddie Gray, Baltimore residents of all races came together to help clean up their city. It don’t matter if you’re black or white
Michael Jackson’s lyrics remain relevant decades after their first release. His lyrics ask more of us. They tell us to break the barriers of classicism and racism and replace them with broad mindedness and empathy. They emphatically request that we look beyond our own personal lives, beyond our complacency, to expand our awareness of the social issues of yesterday, today and tomorrow. They tell us to take a look in the mirror and make that change. They tell us that people of color feel that nobody cares when blatant racism occurs. They tell us that it don’t matter if you’re black or white. And perhaps most importantly, they tell us that nobody wants to spend their life merely being a color.