A Story of Racism and Discrimination: the Impact Michael Jackson and Prince had on Popular Culture
Who hasn’t heard of these two legends and their supposed battle? All of you, I should think. “MJ’s the best!”, “Oh but wait, Prince is better!!!”. You know the drill. Yet, what if I told you there was no conflict, no hate, just two very powerful people and entertainers who broke down so many social, racial, spiritual barriers that we cannot write them all down? So powerful was their influence that people – mostly white – decided there must be a competition, a conflict of sorts between these two. They even thought that there wasn’t a place for both of these high profile African American performers in the industry that at some point, one must make way for the other.
None of this was true. What was, however, true was that they were African Americans and this drew the line from the beginning, regardless of how talented they were or not. Of course, they knew this, yet they decided that through their work they could challenge the established stereotypes. And so they did.
On August 1st, 1981, Music Television (MTV) was launched and although segregation legally ended in 1964, some 17 years before, MTV would only offer airplay to white rock artists. Maybe MTV’s bosses decided on their own to erect such a colour barrier, yet they did resonate with the general feeling that African Americans were not really welcome on white only stations and to the white audiences, thus, they had to resign themselves to the thought that their artistry was still considered “race music” and it had no place in the mainstream. Michael Jackson and Prince had never done that:they never considered their art limited to a “race” or “ethnicity”, it had no boundaries, the sky was the limit as far as they were concerned. While this was true, it was indeed very threatening to the white establishment and its deep-rooted self-created feelings of hatred towards the African Americans.
They were not supposed to be or do better than their white counterparts, because it was generally believed that they could not. Of course, being held back for so much time by the slavery and segregation laws, it is easy to understand why there was such a thinking in the first place among white people and by 1980s, racism was very much alive in the USA. However, these two artists, while acknowledging and being thankful for their background, destroyed the notion that there was something acceptable and not acceptable for a “black person.” There was not such a thing, the ideas of limiting what African Americans could do were artificially created, in order to manipulate and explain something unexplainable such as racism which, in turn, led to slavery and segregation.
So, their greatest message was that art was art regardless of background and it had a meaning of its own, rather than being connected to race, ethnicity, religion, sex, ideologies and so on. Therefore, these two men went on to embody everything that the white establishment feared. In the beginning and throughout the 1980s, Prince sang and dressed in such a way that raised the question of gender and sexuality:is he a man? Is he a woman? What is he? Who is he? Who does he think he is to do this? What’s the meaning of his songs?And Prince Rogers Nelson sang his way through these questions in his 1984 “I Would Die 4 U” from the “Purple Rain”album:
“I'm not a womanI'm not a manI am something that you'll never understand
I'm not your loverI'm not your friend
I'm your messiah and you're the reason why
I'm not a humanI am a doveI'm your consciousI am loveAll I really need is 2 know thatU believe”
According to the above quoted lyrics, Prince is neither a man, nor a woman, he isn’t even human. Yet, he is a saviour, he is the embodiment of love and also, thinks of himself as a dove as found also in “When Doves Cry” from the same album: “Don’t make me chase you, even doves have pride”.Of course, his lyrics hint at divinity and the dove is the symbol of the Holy Spirit in Christianity - the embodiment of purity, but of white purity. Therefore, through his seemingly harmless and personally assumed song, Prince is telling us that African Americans are whatever the whites are and even more. Although God is not human and cannot be black or white, for centuries, Europeans cringed at the idea that perhaps Jesus could be represented as an African American, Asian or of any other background. If you believe in a higher force, then divinity just exists, it does not belong to any race, colour, ethnicity or religion. And of course, the interpretation of these lyrics could go even further: Prince is not merely a soul with a body, but a god of music, a genius, somebody who rises above any preconceived notion and who gives himself permission to be completely free.
Furthermore, in 1992, in his “My Name Is Prince” from the “Love Symbol Album”, he sings that:
“My name is Prince and I am funkyMy name is Prince, the one and only
When it comes to funk I am a junkyI know from righteous, I know from sinI got two sides and they're both friends
Don't try to clock 'em, they're much too fastIf you try to stop 'em they kick that assWithout a pistol, without a gunWhen you hear my music you'll be havin' fun
That's when I gottchaThat's when you mine”
Time and again, he confuses and amazes the audiences and leaves it spellbound as to who he really is and what is he like in real life. Yet, what they do not understand is that for Prince, this is real, this is how he leads his life:as a musical genius and nothing can come between him and his artistic expression. No matter how many controversies he stirs up, he will continue to be who he is, whatever that may be. Probably he hasn’t fully decided yet or maybe he is just intent on showing us his many alter egos, yet one thing is certain:he is not limited to a certain external idea of what an African American artist should be, for all intents and purposes, he is free and always unmistakably himself. He never gives people the time to adjust, he is always innovating, creating, reshaping in an unconditioned state from within or outside. This is the message of his 1997 track “Don’t Play Me”:
“Don't play me, I'm over 30 and I don't smoke weedI put my ass away and music I've playedAin't the type of stereo you're tryin' to feed
Don't play me, I've been to the mountain topAnd it ain't much you say, don't play me
Don't play me, I'm the wrong color and I play guitarMy only competition is, well, me in the pastTime and time if time existed movin' ever so fastDon't play me.”
On the other side, Michael Jackson was very much disappointed in the sales of his first album “Off the Wall” which was, by all means, an amazing start for the ex-Motown child-prodigy in 1979. Yet, the sales were not as expected and the album managed to win only a Grammy for Best Male R’n’B Vocal Performance for “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough”. Jackson was upset with the labelling of his music and that he didn’t win Record of the Year. Therefore, he simply decided that this could not happen ever again – his music would never again be automatically labelled as only Rhythm and Blues and he would outsell everything up until that point and afterwards. Easy to decide, hard to make it come true, but not for him. Probably unbeknownst of himself, his next album “Thriller” (1982) would indeed sell more than every artist before him did. As of now, it is speculated that it passed the threshold of 100- million worldwide.
If until then, people saw him as a child-prodigy and a talented singer and songwriter, this album and subsequent videos would put him on the map of becoming the first real megastar – a term commonly known as invented to describe Jackson’s prestige and visibility at an international level. The videos – short films for Jackson – became iconic and set the bar for whatever came after him. Therefore, an African – American became the highest embodiment of music and talent who divided the music into what was before and after him. People compared him to Elvis Presley and The Beatles, yet he and his brothers as The Jackson 5 broke the Beatles’ records when he was just a child. Thus, there was more to him than this, he was unique, just like Prince, he was different, people could not pinpoint him, could not explain him. And his lyrics did not help solve the mystery either:
“'Cause this is thriller!Thriller night!And no one's gonna save youFrom the beast about to strikeYou're fighting for your lifeInside a killerThriller tonight, yeah.
All through the night I'll save you from the terror on the screen, I'll make you seeThat this is thriller, thriller night'Cause I can thrill you more than any ghost would ever dare tryThriller, thriller nightSo let me hold you tight and share a killer, thriller here tonight!”
The video tells the same story. Yet in it, Michael, the little Motown genius, is now portrayed as a 25-year-old handsome man who becomes a monster, the embodiment of white people’s fears.If white America has been culturally conditioned to see a sexy young black man as monstrous somehow — as threatening or alien or anything less than fully human — then he gives us a monster: a werewolf, a zombie. So again, Jackson captures our conflicted emotions about him and reflects them back at us. But throughout Thriller he shifts back and forth, back and forth, familiar to alien and back again. Each time he shifts into a monster, we — as a culture, but white teenaged girls, especially — are able to express some of the conflicted feelings we’ve been repressing about him, about seeing a young black man as sexually desirable and sexually taboo, as physically attractive and physically threatening, as exotic and fascinating and kind of scary. And each time he shifts back, we’re reassured that he’s still that same sweet-faced Michael Jackson we’ve loved since he was a boy. Thriller was the metaphor for society into which Jackson was locked up with people’s prejudices of himself as a person and an African - American, so, in turn, he became the one to torment people and make them feel uncomfortable with their prejudices.
On the same album, unlike Prince, in the track “Human Nature”, Jackson describes himself as a human and pleads with people to realize that, in his sister’s words, "in completedarkness we are all the same, it is only our knowledge and wisdom that separates us, don't let your eyes deceive you."
“If they say, why, why? Tell 'em that is human natureWhy, why does he do me that way?If they say, why, why? Tell 'em that is human natureWhy, why does he do me that way?”
However, on what could be his most famous song, “Billie Jean”, he takes it a step further and becomes the objectof adoration and what is more, of obsession for women and perhaps men to the point he is portrayed as a monster, unhuman. Unbeknownst to him at the time, this would become the curse of his every-day life. As with Prince, people were unable to label him, to put him into a well-known category and be ok with it, because he could not be and refused to be categorized. He and Prince were always, unmistakably, themselves.
“She told me her name was Billie Jean, as she caused a sceneThen every head turned with eyes that dreamed of being the oneWho will dance on the floor in the round”.
On his next album entitled suggestively BAD (1987), MJ decided to further explain himself to a bewildered and confused audience:
“Well they say the sky's the limitAnd to me that's really trueBut my friend you have seen nothin'Just wait 'til I get throughBecause I'm bad, I'm bad, come onYou know I'm bad, I'm bad come on, you know!”
Fast forward to 2001, in the “Unbreakable”song from “Invincible”, Jackson acknowledges that while he became everything the white establishment feared, he rose above those limitations and prejudices and managed to be what he has always been: himself.
“You can't believe it, you can't conceive itand you can't touch me, 'cause I'm untouchableand I know you hate it, and you can't take itYou'll never break me, 'cause I'm unbreakableNow you can't stop me even though you thinkthat if you block me, you've done your thingand when you bury me underneath all your painI´m steady laughin', while surfacing”.
In the end, both Prince and Michael created powerful, influential on-stage personas who delivered electrifying performances, witty lyrics and memorable grooves. They became master manipulators and made the world believe whatever they wished by taking their prejudices and projecting them back onto the audience. Jackson broke down his own records – nobody came close to them ever again - whereas attendance and earnings from tours was concerned and Prince became arguably the most prolific musician in popular music, the first African American to have a song, a movie and an album at number one in the charts.
They are powerful household names in the entertainment industry and went beyond it. Performers – African American and white alike - nowadays cite them as influences, yet nobody comes close to their artistry. Why? Because they constantly and relentlessly challenged the audience, having them on the edge of their seats, never comfortable. They were never able to fit them into categories of preconceived notions of what artists or African Americans should be. They superseded this thinking and they followed Albert Camus’ words that "The only way to deal with an unfree world is tobecomeso absolutelyfreethat your very existence is anact of rebellion."
And so, their art became increasingly more uncomfortable as time drew on: it managed to bring up a mirror to the society which, in the beginning, was very keen on dismissing their music as “race music”. In 1983, MTV was effectively obliged by CBS director Walter Yetnikoff to offer airplay to Jackson’s Billie Jean, the racial barrier had been broken down forever and everybody else took advantage of this move. Prince, Lionel Richie, Donna Summer and so on were all on MTV’s daytime heavy rotation and entered the living rooms of every American with a TV set.
Whatever we may think of their music or of them personally, it is clear that their art and individuality effectively erased prejudices and started anew by offering something very intriguing and interesting in return: gender benders, music geniuses and wonderfully crafted songs to become the soundtrack of a generation.
In the end, I will leave you with some more socially aware lyrics (go listen to the songs if you haven’t done that already):
“Tell me what has become of my rightsAm I invisible because you ignore me?Your proclamation promised me free liberty, nowI'm tired of bein' the victim of shameThey're throwing me in a class with a bad nameI can't believe this is the land from which I cameYou know I really do hate to say itThe government don't wanna seeBut if Roosevelt was livin'He wouldn't let this be, no, no”
Michael Jackson – They Don’t Really Care About Us (HIStory, 1996)
“Cinnamon girl of mixed heritageNever knew the meaning of color lines911 turned that all aroundWhen she got accused of this crime
So began the mass illusion, war on terror alibiWhat's the use when the God of confusion keeps on telling the same lie?
Cinnamon girlCinnamon girl
Don't cry, don't shed no tearsOne night won't make us feel, 'cause we know how this movie's ending”
Prince – Cinnamon Girl (Musicology, 2004)