Tricia Rose, professor of Africana Studies at Brown University and author, provided commentary honoring Michael Jackson's legacy, both musical and social, as the featured guest on the The Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC radio on June 26, 2009. Audio here (28:08 min):
Below is a transcript featuring Rose's commentary with relevant links on topics touched upon in the discussion e.g. articles and videos of Jackson's 1992 trip to Africa. Rose successfully addressed misconceptions about Jackson as suggested by the title, including what can be considered 'medialoid' comments by the host Brian Lehrer. The show also included music and other guests calling in with their reflections, which were respectful of Jackson. Time in the audio clip indicated inside square brackets.
Brian Lehrer begins by talking about a NY Post spoof then makes other medialoid comments:
[1:55] Brian Lehrer: "people remembering how much they love Michael Jackson even it they came to dismiss him as too weird for consideration in recent years."
[3:01] BL: He was a pivotal figure in so called 'cross over pop' (then comments on MJ being more light skinned over time and a lot of people being "aghast at the implications.")
[3:15] BL: So where do you begin with Michael Jackson's place in Black history?
[3:18] Tricia Rose: Well I think that Brian, that is really such an important question because where he is situated in the history of African American music, culture and life is really where we should begin. Because too much of our public conversation so far since his passing, and frankly his commercial celebration and mockery in the mainstream media for the past 10 years or so really hasn't been interested in that right?
There really hasn't been enough interest in thinking about what he comes out of, what traditions he channeled, what kinds of black music he transformed, how he related to and drew from gospel, from soul, from rhythm and blues, and from jazz, from funk, to bring an entirely new formation of those musics to the modern world. Using new technologies to bring funk into an electronic era as it were. The way he took dance and transcended from it's earlier eras and brought it into new moments. I mean, he was really just extraordinary in that way.
Now in terms of this public what he looks like question, I'm glad you're asking it because I've been really disappointed watching the mainstream coverage of him because all they're really interested in is Michael Jackson as a strange celebrity, right. First of all, we must remember no one who has lived a life like his could possibly be "normal", whatever that would be. You look at all the major people in the world like this and they tend to be eccentric to one degree or another. I'm thinking here of the recluse, Howard Hughes, Hemingway was a bit odd at the end..There are a lot of people who come to these ways after being under so much pressure.
BL says the media has paid homage to him music and attention to the love for him around the world recently.
[5:35] TR: What I'm saying might seem one sided, but here's why. Because they have no choice, the level of outpouring of love, just to do proper news coverage requires that you address that. So I think that most of that energy is about figuring out how to include what people are demanding gets covered. Now that doesn't mean they don't want to cover it but I think there is this sort of freak factor that people are obsessed with. Now about his skin color...
[6:01] BL: Look, he was highly unusual, more than most world class celebrities.
[6:05] TR: No doubt, no doubt. But this is exactly why literacy about his past, about being raised in a house with maybe a 900 sq ft footprint, with 9 children and 2 parents in Gary, Indiana; in what was ultimately in that moment the way black communities were still segregated even though they were northern and urban. Where there was both promise and incredible fear that those changes for civil rights weren't really going to materialize, right, that particular historical moment. What the industry was like, what radio and entertainment was like in terms of segregation, what era he came up in. All of that and then this incredible global explosion that he precipitates, and to manage all of that.
There's this question about his skin disease and whether or not that is part of why his complexion was changing. Did he have vitiligo? A skin ailment where you lose pigment. He says it, other people say it, other people don't believe him. They think this is sort of racial self-hatred manifesting. I think he had vitiligo and I think part of his facial plastic surgery, which I think is quite evident as well, [claims by the media about the amount of facial changes by surgery may be exaggerated, see a picture of him in late teens beside a picture of him in his late 40s and a picture from 1979 beside a picture from 1997 (39th birthday, Copenhagen HIStory concert), from this post] is about matching skin color with features and an anxiety about the self. And about a sense of..I wouldn't say self hatred, but a feeling he would be more universal if he weren't so African derived looking. And that is a message of American culture for 400 years [link to Is Skin Color Still A Problem In Black America? Ebony. 1984-12. pp.66-68, 70. Includes description of issues faced by light-skinned African Americans e.g. lack of acceptance by other African Americans].
We need to ask when we look at Michael Jackson is what context did we set up to unleash what might have been his personal demons, but to create a setting where those demons would take hold. Because there's nothing unusual about him if you unpack his behavior and look and surgery and even his illnesses and his talent if you don't [sic] understand the history of race and its ideas and its social construction in American society. Once you understand that, he actually makes tragic sense. That's the part that I want to see. Connect him to yourself in that way and still hold him personally accountable for what he might be personally accountable.
[8:40] A listener comments that mentioning Michael Jackson's and Obama's race is an insult because his music knew no color.
[9:05] TR: Somehow to mention race reduces this great figures. But, if you are a person of color, or particularly an African American person, then I think you'd be very surprised to hear that race really doesn't matter. And that to somehow identify the hurdles that race creates is to somehow be an insult.
In order words, it's to say if Michael Jackson were not African American and if he were not bringing African American music, which is the other point here, to mainstream, he would have been, I argue, 2 or 3 times bigger than he already was. He did have to cross over. America has to be honest about this.
Louis Armstrong had to figure out how to make whites feel comfortable in an era of full segregation, all right. This isn't about saying that he could say whatever he wanted at any time, do whatever he wanted, it didn't matter that he was African American. He couldn't speak about certain significant truths about his life and maintain white approval. That is unfortunate. I mean, but the only way we get past that is to be honest and then say wow, what gift.
Now, Michael did do an amazing job of creating the perfect kind of cross-racial exchange. So I think your guest or what the person writing in was getting at is that he was able to not use race in a negative way but to speak through that suffering in a way that brought people together. He was a brilliant medium of that.
[10:34] BL: Of course he was pivotal in integrating MTV once upon a time when it was a bastion of White artist music videos because they just couldn't ignore Beat It because it was so good.
[14:00] TR: Part of it is we don't even know in many ways in this country what black music is. It's saturated everywhere in our popular landscape but in fact we don't recognize the hallmarks of it or know that tradition. And we've deprived our young people and even our adults of a certain cultural musical literacy. You can't share if you don't know what you're sharing and you can't exchange things if you don't know what you invented and what you didn't. So part of the problem here is that he was segregated and separated from that history as he managed what was either a self-imposed racial problem or a physical, technical, medical racial problem. And it's unfortunate the way we deal with celebrity separates people from these traditions.
MTV not alone, BET, we just need more knowledge. These artists are richer if we know their histories and pasts and relationships. The Beatles, Elvis, everybody. We need to know the history from which they come. Their talent is made even greater in the face of that.
[17:30] BL: Was MJ a precursor to hip hop in any way?
[17:41] TR: He's a precursor in many ways. He was one of the first to take break-dancing seriously and bring it to the mainstream in his early videos. And he was particularly inspired by the dance I think, partly because of where his gifts are and also the use of rhythm. But, you know, the rich polyrhythmic call and response layering in his music was so interesting because it was both ancient and modern in black musical traditions. So he was especially interested in hip hop because of it's modernity, it's focus on the technology about it. No one saw there to be this huge gap. Now he was not a rapper per say, but in terms of the kind of music that he wanted to inspire, there was a great connection.
Now there's a big gap and that is that hip hop is not known for it's love ethic. You know, hip hop as a genre struggles to continue the explicit focus on love as a basis for justice. It doesn't articulate that as well as the rest of the black musical tradition does. So when you really think about Michael just listening to him, my family and I, my husband who has been a Michael Jackson fan extraordinaire and my stepson who grew up on him entirely, has almost every single record; I realize how much Michael is about love and justice and the way those things are attached.
That's really the power of what he brought and I think in some ways he has a lot to teach the hip hop generation about how you can have a profound love ethic for humanity, for yourself, for relationships, for family and still be incredibly funky and cutting edge and exuberant. You see what I mean? It's not one or the other. And Mike is just a genius at helping us see that.
Leon Wynter, author of American Skin comments:
[20:41] It's funny the comments you just read about confusion essentially and race and culture and identity here...
[21:41] American music, American popular culture has always from the start been a miscegenated affair. Something that's always been developing but with the imposition of the fact that larger white American could not be allowed to opening identify. And the triumph, the importance, which I wrote about, I made so important in my book was: Michael Jackson was the first, sort of brought along the Jackson 5, the first black act, whose commercial might was so great, that literally a Fortune 500, a Fortune 100 company, Pepsi was willing to bet the farm saying that we have no problem pushing 100% identification, we don't care which kids have his poster on the wall...
[23:10] TR: To claim there are Black musical traditions does not mean they are exclusionary. That would be saying like there are European musical traditions, of course they borrowed from various parts of the world, but they have points of origin and they have identities. In fact, you can't make sense of the power of their hybridity and change in the world unless you understand some of their origins. That doesn't mean you hold onto origins as a purity factor, that's absurd. And that I would never argue.
There's no doubt many cross racial exchanges have built all the music of America. But it has elements of those traditions, particularly those fostered by people of African descent, have legacies and traditions. And those legacies and traditions have not just been randomly expressed. They have been cultivated and they have been institutionally despised.
Now individuals are not responsible for that but our institutions are. For example, you look at music departments around the country today. The study of African American music is quite limited in that tradition. The study of European music is rather extensive. So what we have here is a cultivated illiteracy of about these traditions which then force us into a conversation about the only way to talk about who we are is in terms that don't acknowledge the specificity of what we brought.
Now I'm all about the exchange, personally, publicly, politically, musically but I don't see one as antithetical to the other. And I don't see why we have to deny that power of the fact that soul, R & B, all the traditions that Leon mentioned, come out of mostly segregated black communities with traditions that are profoundly valuable. I think we can have both.
[26:48] BL: The BBC reporting from Africa today. It says in Nigeria, a presenter on Radio Continental broke down live on air and could not continue her program. A woman in Ghana burst into tears in the capital, [Accra, when told by a BBC reporter about the musician's death]. In 1999, he was presented with a lifetime achievement award by South African icon Nelson Mandela [at the Kora All Africa Music Awards. He first visited the continent at the age of 14 as the lead singer of the Jackson Five. Emerging from the plane in Senegal, he responded to the welcoming drummers and dancers by screaming: ''This is where I come from."] In 20 seconds, was he big in Africa?
* Rebuttal to the lies in the aforementioned BBC report about Jackson's 1992 Africa tour in this 16 Mar 1992 Jet magazine article "Eyewitness Report on Michael Jackson's Tour Inside Africa" and May 1992 Ebony magazine article "Michael Jackson: Crowned In Africa, Pop Music King Tells Real Story Of Controversial Trip" by Robert E. Johnson (photos by James Mitchell).
* Also, video footage of the Africa tour
and a report by the tv show A Current Affair which includes clips from the video, which they call "Michael's Video Scrapbook."
[27:09] TR: He was huge in Africa. He was a symbol really of how racial traditions can be transcended when they're negative but musical and cultural traditions can bring us together when we're connected. So he was big around the world for peace, for justice, for love and for the incredible power of the funk.