One has to wonder if Michael Jackson was aware of racism when the Jackson 5 signed with Berry Gordy and the Motown Record label. Part of Gordy's "polishing" process with his new acts, was something called elocution. This was a system Gordy developed in order to market his musicians to a broader audience, and mainly to include a white audience. "He also realized that his singers, most of whom were from poor inner-city neighborhoods, needed to be able to make a good showing in interviews to better promote their records. He hired elocution instructors and taught the artists proper English and social skills. Gordy dressed his acts in suits, tuxedos, or full dresses. If racists were going to complain that black music would pervert the nation’s youth, they would have a hard time proving it by looking at the Motown stable of groups, whose members were well-dressed, articulate, and polished." Michael and his brothers prepared and were exposed to Gordy's process of elocution for a year before they were presented to the world as the Jackson 5.
Whether Jackson was aware of racism at that age, is uncertain. What is abundantly clear is that by 1979, Jackson KNEW that it mattered if one's skin color was black or white. Jackson recalls the racism he and his brothers experienced in the South, stating that the famous family was told just to deal with it because that's how that part of the U.S. was. Jackson states “That (racism) is the only thing I hate. I really do. And that’s why I try to write, put it in songs, put it in dance, put it in my art—to teach the world. If politicians can’t do it, poets should put it in poetry and writers should put it in novels. That’s what we have to do and I think it’s so important to save the world." HE KNEW.
He KNEW when Rolling Stone turned down an opportunity for a cover story after Off The Wall was released. Joe Vogel, author of Man in the Music, recently wrote of Jackson's frustration at the lack of black artists who were deemed worthy to adorn the cover of prominent magazines. "Jackson was well-aware of this history and consistently pushed against it. In 1979, Rolling Stone passed on a cover story about the singer, saying that it didn't feel Jackson merited front cover status. 'I've been told over and over again that black people on the covers of magazines don't sell copies,' an exasperated Jackson told confidantes. 'Just wait. Some day those magazines will come begging for an interview.'"
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HE KNEW when he refused to work or associate with Elvis Costello, who admitted calling Ray Charles a "blind n****r" and James Brown a "jive-ass n****r" in a bar in 1979. Costello's Rolling Stone interview in 1982 reveals:
HE KNEW in 1982, when Rick James was screaming racism because MTV was not playing his videos (or few other black artists' for that matter) that racism was involved, even though MTV claimed James' and other black musician's videos did not fit their "rock" format. Although MTV denies it, the uncorroborated story goes that Walter Yetnikoff, head of CBS records, threatened to pull their white artists from rotation at MTV, including Billy Joel.
Again, HE KNEW that the color of one's skin mattered when in 1983 in the Gainesville Sun, Louis Farrakhan "called on black youths to reject the 'female acting, sissified image' of award winning entertainer Michael Jackson. Farrakhan blamed the 25-year old Jackson....for his style that actually ruins your young men and makes your young women have nothing to look up to as a real man in their own lives."
HE KNEW in 1984, when a group of three selectmen voted to reject permits for the town of Foxborough, MA, essentially barring the Jacksons' Victory Tour from performing there. Fans responded angrily and cried racism, as the town had already hosted performances from David Bowie and The Police in the same stadium in the previous year.
HE KNEW in 1985, when Southern NAACP leader Melanie Lomax accused five performers, including Michael Jackson, of racism, in that he and other performers surrounded themselves with non-black managers, attorneys, etc. Norman Winter, Jackson's publicist at the time, responded that Jackson was "'color blind' and that he donated all the proceeds of his 1984 tour to charity. A third of it went to the United Negro College Fund."
HE KNEW it 1988, when Jackson wrote a letter to his cameraman for Moonwalker, William Pecchi. Pecchi had numerous conversations with Jackson, and told him that he was brought up in a racist home and environment. Jackson writes,
"Maybe I look at the world through rose colored glasses, but I love people all over the world. That is why stories of racism really disturb me. You hurt my heart and soul when you told me of your boyhood in Texas. Because in truth I believe all men are created equal. I was taught that and will always believe it. I just can’t conceive of how a person could hate another because of skin color. I love every race on the planet earth. Prejudice is the child of ignorance. Naked we came into the world and naked we shall go out. And a very good thing too, for it reminds me that I am naked under my shirt, whatever its color. I’m sorry to bring up such past news, but in the car I was hurt by what you said. I’m so happy that you have managed to overcome your childhood past. Thank God that you’ve graduated from such beliefs of ignorance. I’m glad I’ve never experienced such things. Teach your kids to love all people equally. I know you will."
Photo/story credit: rhythmofthetide.com
Above all, Jackson knew institutionalized racism/racial profiling/corruption was involved in the Santa Barbara District Attorney's office, both in 1993 and in 2005.
It is little wonder that Michael Jackson used his art to express his frustration with racism, and his hope that there would be a change within the world. Jackson's Black or White states he's "not going to spend my life bein' a color". They Don't Really Care About Us proclaims "Tell me what has become of my rights/ Am I invinsible because you ignore me?/Your proclamation promised me free liberty." The single HIStory in the remix, plays part of Martin Luther King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech, "I am happy to join with you today in what will go down as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation." Jackson used MLK's words and referenced him often, because HE KNEW that still, it mattered if you're black or white.
HE KNEW in 2001, when he dedicated his Invincible album to the memory of Benjamin Hermansen, a teenage homicide victim, whose death was spurred by racism. HE KNEW in 2002, when Michael called Tommy Mottola a racist and accused the record industry of withholding royalty payments. HE KNEW in 2004, when Michael accused MTV of being "lazy racists" because they aired Eminem's offensive video of Jackson, called "Just Lose It."
Michael Jackson KNEW skin color still mattered, and yet he used every opportunity to speak out about racism and hoped for change. Perhaps most relevant to the Trayvon Martin death case are Michael's words from a 2002 speech, in which he stated:
"We must learn to live and love each other before its too late. We have to stop! We have to stop the prejudice, we have to stop the hating, we have to stop living in fear of our own neighbours."
Millions of fans have heard Michael Jackson's words over the years and tried to live by them. It's too bad George Zimmerman did not, or would not, listen to to them as well.