When Michael Jackson was a boy, you didn’t have to say “black is beautiful,” you just had to look at him and you knew. In 1969, as black people were getting comfortable with the idea that African features are gorgeous, he arrived as the perfect punctuation of that idea. He was cherubic with his rich brown skin, a broad nose and a big halo of curls atop his head at a time when the Afro was a powerful symbol of black pride. “People responded viscerally to Michael Jackson’s beauty,” says Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. 1969 was a year after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a time when the black-power and civil rights movements seemed to be disintegrating, but Michael showed up, a soul-music prodigy irrepressibly optimistic and bursting with youthful enthusiasm. “Here was a child who clearly understood the R&B idiom,” says music-industry veteran Gary Harris. “He was some sort of test-tube creation from a mad soul doctor’s lab. If Diana Ross and Stevie Wonder had a child, it would have been Michael Jackson.”
He quickly became the number-one black child star of his era, and of all time. The first four Jackson 5 singles each topped Billboard‘s Hot 100, an unbelievable start. Black people fell in love so hard, he became more than an artist and more like a member of the family. You didn’t want anything to happen to him so much that you felt protective the way you did about a younger brother. “He was ours,” says Q-Tip. “He meant everything to black culture.”
It wasn’t just about Michael. A few years after the Johnson administration declared the black family broken with the Moynihan Report, the Jackson family was large, intact, vibrant, successful and seemingly happy, giving America an idealized image of domestic bliss. Jay-Z told me he grew up pretending to be Michael, singing alongside his two older sisters and brother. “Here you had Michael and four brothers,” says the Rev. Al Sharpton, “all talented and all cute and the strong father and the mother who was matriarchal and Janet, and it was like, ‘Wow, all this talent in this family, showing we could do something.’ We were proud of that.”
Michael had a second family: Motown was a deeply trusted brand in millions of black households. If Berry Gordy said it was good enough to release, you could bet it was great. The Jackson 5 were the last great act to come out of the Detroit label, further proof of Malcolm Gladwell’s theory in Outliers: The Story of Success that life timing is critical to success, that the historical forces swirling around the moment when you emerge can make all the difference. “The Jacksons were the first family in line to truly benefit from the post-civil-rights era with America’s new open-arms policy toward black entertainment,” says ?uestlove. “1969 was the year the social floodgates opened and an 11-year-old led the charge in post-Malcolm/Martin/Motown America. Historians always forget the third-most-important M to help black America get access to the promised land is Motown.”
Thriller came out at the end of 1982, as the affirmative-action generation was beginning to make its move. Jesse Jackson would make a bid for the presidency, Eddie Murphy would launch his assault on the top layers of Hollywood, Oprah Winfrey would start her legendary talk show, and Bill Cosby would create the best-rated sitcom of the decade. Even before all that started, the vibe of black ascensionism was in the air, and Michael saw no reason why race should hold him back from the most elite level of his profession. He decided to ride his excellence to the zenith. Current Motown president Sylvia Rhone says, “Throughout his career, his success dramatically affected my view of what was possible and open for African-Americans.”
Many blacks now compare Michael with Barack Obama – perhaps the highest possible compliment in black America. Not only are they both integrationists and racial harmonists, but they both were determined to reach the top while refusing to let race hold them back. “There’s so many components of why Barack Obama is president,” says Diddy, “and Michael Jackson is one of them. He started a change in the perception of the African-American male on a worldwide level: his strength, always putting himself in a power position, being seen as a hero.” Sharpton echoes the point. “Way before Tiger Woods or Barack Obama, Michael made black people go pop-culture global,” he says. “You had people in France, South America and Iowa comfortable with their kids imitating a black kid from Gary, Indiana. And when some of those people in Iowa grew, they were comfortable with voting for Barack Obama because they got comfortable imitating a black kid named Michael Jackson when they were young. Obama is a phenomenon, but he’s the result of a process that Michael helped America graduate to.”
Michael was also a boardroom killer. In the decades before him, black recording artists were, as James Brown observed, in the show but not in show business. Many ended up losing the copyrights to their own songs and pocketing a fraction of the money their music brought in. Jackson knew all about that history. “He knew Berry Gordy made his money off copyrights,” cultural critic Nelson George says. “He knew the value of songs. That’s something he understood.” In 1984, when the ATV music-publishing catalog, which contained 251 Beatles songs, including “Yesterday,” “Let It Be” and “Hey Jude,” as well as work from Bob Dylan, went up for sale, Jackson went after it. After 10 months of negotiation, Jackson purchased the catalog for $47.5 million. His stake is now worth more than 10 times that, and the move was easily his shrewdest business conquest – and the asset that kept him afloat during his financially troubled last years. It proved his savvy, separating him from all those previous black artists who lacked the power to control the music business. But more than that, the symbolic power of Jackson owning the Beatles’ music cannot be overstated. Not only did he become as big as the Beatles, he bought them too. A century after American whites owned blacks, a black performer owned the product of the most elite white group in the world. It was an amazing turnabout, and one blacks took special pride in. A few nights after Jackson died, I was in L.A., searching the radio for an MJ song, when I came across “Strawberry Fields Forever” on an oldies station. I said, “Fuck it, Mike owns this. Same difference.” And I listened.
By the Nineties, Jackson no longer looked like a black person – after a series of surgeries, his facial features and skin color had become more and more Caucasoid. George says, “I don’t think there was any question: There was disquiet in the black community about the color thing. It was an issue. People didn’t wanna go out and say, ‘He’s fuckin’ becoming white,’ but people were like, ‘What’s that about?'” As Jackson was literally assimilating, we struggled with his choices but never symbolically tossed him out of the race, even though he seemed to be trying to surgically remove himself from it. “The reason black folk never turned their backs on him,” says Georgetown professor Michael Eric Dyson, “is because we realized he was merely acting out on his face what we collectively have been tempted to do in our souls: whitewash the memory and trace of our offending blackness.” Still, we struggled to understand why. Some have said he no longer wanted to see his father in the mirror, but there seem to be deeper forces at play. “I think he wanted to be a symbol of universalism,” Gates says, “and he erroneously thought his skin color, hair texture, the length of his nose and shape of his chin inhibited that. You could say he was appealing to the universal, but there’s no way of escaping, even giving him the benefit of the doubt, that it’s a function of Negro self-hatred and self-loathing, which is a function of slavery, Jim Crow, segregation and racism, which made blacks hate the very things that make them beautiful.”
Those who knew Jackson well say he wasn’t trying to surgically remove himself from the race. Producer Teddy Riley, who worked on Jackson’s Dangerous album, says, “Of course he loved being black. We’d be in sessions where we’d just vibe out and he’d say, ‘We are black, and we are the most talented people on the face of the Earth.’ I know this man loved his culture, he loved his race, he loved his people.” ?uestlove adds, “As a fellow child of a taskmaster, no one knows self-distorted insecurity like I do. A person ashamed of his roots would never have made a gazillion odes to Africa as he’s done.” And even as his face got whiter, his music stayed black and rooted in the R&B tradition he mastered as a kid.
The day he died, it seemed something on this realm changed. “When I got the news,” Nas says, “the weather around me immediately changed drastically. It suddenly rained so hard. Wind blew like crazy. Clouds did something different. It was as if you felt him leaving the world.” People struggled to wrap their heads around the magnitude of his death. Q-Tip says, “This is the biggest loss since, dare I say, Martin Luther King. He moved the culture that much. He moved the needles that much.”
Now that he’s gone, everything Wacko Jacko has been rightly hushed, and everything that made him the King of Pop has taken over the mind space he fills. “When you have a body of work that great, it’s not about you personally,” former Motown CEO Andre Harrell says. “It’s about your body of work. We’re not gonna concentrate on the negative, we’re gonna deal with the music. It took his death to get all the personal stuff out of the way and really get back to the reason why we’re interested in loving him.” In death, his songs have been liberated from his eccentricities like ghosts released from a haunted mansion, free again to fly through the air and spread joy. And because the music business can no longer create a star as big as he was at his height, it seems likely that he’ll be the King of Pop forever.
This story originally appeared in our 2009 special commemorative issue on the life of Michael Jackson.