I’ve always been drawn to the most wounded people … those who struggle to put themselves back together yet also manage to change the world, because I long to do it myself. This is why I am so captivated by Michael Jackson.
Funny thing is, when I first started looking at how “messed up” Michael was, I was surprised that popular notions of what was “wrong” with him were either severely warped or outright lies, while his real challenges were rarely mentioned.
I was also shocked as I pulled together a list of his accomplishments. Why was this man seen as just an entertainer, when he had transformed our world as much as Dr. King, in his own way?
I want to walk you through this, because it helps you get a sense of his vast power, and why he was such a threat to the powers that be.
Wounds and Hurdles:
I want to acknowledge up front I’m white, and that it’s a difficult thing for white people to comment on the history and challenges of black folk because we so often get it wrong. Most white folks (and perhaps younger people of color) don’t know this history because these are some of America’s buried secrets, and we hold tight to our culturally-installed blinders keeping us ignorant. But we need this knowledge to understand the power of MJ’s example.
However, if you’re white, please remember this: the entire Jackson family has been put through hell because of their courageous and successful challenge of racial barriers in the heavily segregated music industry. Their accomplishments have been ignored and belittled while they have been harshly criticized for anything and everything. Even so they still stand with dignity, and many of them continue working to make this world a better place.
Given mainstream America’s vicious attacks against this family and other people of color, and given the high levels of hidden violence within white communities, white individuals have no moral standing to criticize the Jacksons or demonize any member of that family. My goal is to share understanding and compassion for all they have lived through, so that we can fully recognize and celebrate their successes.
So where did Michael come from? What hurdles did he have to leap?
Family and Early Years
- Ancestry: Michael was a descendant of slaves and native peoples on both sides of his family. This matters: historical trauma is passed down to descendants, but the wealth stolen from indigenous and black Americans can not be passed through the generations.
- Segregation: His family could not enter some restaurants or pools in Gary, IN due to their color; his people were fighting for their rights, economic survival and basic human dignity.
- Poverty: His family of 10 barely survived on his father’s income from the steel mill, and gangs were taking over his neighborhood. At times his parents were deeply concerned for the children’s safety.
- Trauma: Michael’s father ran rehearsals with a belt across his knee in case one of his kids messed up. Beatings were frequent, and during a one of them, Michael remembers his mother screaming “No, Joe! You’re gonna kill ‘em!”
- Non-stop rehearsals: From age 5, Michael and his brothers were rehearsing, traveling and performing relentlessly, often getting just 3 hours of sleep a night before waking up to go to school.
Motown and Later Years
- Malcolm X, MLK, JFK and Robert Kennedy had all been assassinated by the time the Jackson 5 signed with Motown. This was chilling for everyone longing for equity and justice, and particularly so for black America.
- On tour in the south, a limo driver left KKK paraphernalia where the boys would see it.
- Around 1980, a man assaulted Michael in an Alabama store, kicking him and yelling “I hate all of you niggers” . MJ ended up curled on the floor, bleeding and crying.
- A cop stopped Michael in 1981 because his Mercedes “looked stolen”, then threw him in jail for an outstanding ticket.
- Michael and family were repeatedly excluded from the media (they were told, “Black faces don’t sell magazines.”)
- Michel and family were also denied performing opportunities because they were black.
- The music industry sucked up millions off of performers, but left them penniless and exhausted. This was particularly true for black artists.
Health and Looks
- Looks mean everything in showbiz. As a child, Michael was relentlessly teased about his nose, and when he reached his acne-prone teens, the kidding, combined with disparaging comments from his fans, meant he went on stage feeling ugly.
- In his mid-20’s, Michael developed a severe case of vitiligo, an autoimmune disease that destroys the skin’s pigment. This caused rumors that Michael changed his color because he “hated his race”.
- Michael also had lupus, a painful joint disease, he was severely burned while filming a commercial, and injured his back when staging collapsed and fell 60 feet. He relied on drugs to control the pain from those injuries.
- High adrenaline levels following concerts made it impossible for Michael to sleep. He was given false information by doctors, leading to use of a dangerous general anesthetic to get rest during concert tours.
- Despite bodyguards, MJ often had to run for his life from over-zealous fans.
- Even with intense security precautions, simple outings to a store, or speaking at events, sometimes became impossible.
- The tabloids discovered they would double or triple sales if Michael was on the cover, so when there was no news, they made it up.
- People often tried to extort Michael and launched an endless stream of frivolous law suits against him (around 50 a year), keeping a whole team of lawyers busy.
- And then there were the allegations and trial, the flagrant trampling of his rights, and the continued press insinuations despite being declared innocent on all 14 counts. (I’ll do a separate blog on that topic).
- Michael feared that his children would be kidnapped, and took even greater security precautions to protect them.
Michael’s life had a million challenges and contradictions. Consider the entertainment industry, where self-preservation and self-destruction dance toe-to-toe, black artists and black sexuality are exotic yet reviled, empowerment and exploitation can share the same stage. Many of the people with the capacity to bring his magic and vision to life were tied to the mafia or were sharks looking for a good meal.
Yet despite these deep wounds and professional challenges, Michael continued to dream big and bold, and he brought those dreams to life. What follows is a brief summary of how Michael changed the world.
In the Record Industry:
- At a time when blacks were considered less than, Michael proved blacks were equal to (and sometimes better than) whites by repeatedly breaking records (e.g. for the most Grammies, the most hit singles, the best-selling album, the biggest endorsement deals, record contracts and tours).
- He broke through segregation in the mainstream media (e.g. he integrated MTV, which had refused to play artists of color during prime viewing hours. This was a major hurdle for black performers).
- He got a mainstream record company to promote his records in the same way white artists were promoted.
- Michael learned the music industry’s game and bought the Beatles catalog, bringing him a stable financial base and more artistic independence.
In the Culture:
- The Jackson 5 gave voice to black pride in a way that reflected connection and aspiration, rather than opposition and resistance. This opened doors to deeper relationship and trust with otherwise nervous white people across the country, particularly among young people. (Irritating, but true.)
- At a time of great racial polarization, he nurtured the idea that race should not matter and he refused to be boxed into “being a color”, while simultaneously protesting structural racism and making the struggles of Black people visible.
- In a culture determined to keep each race “in its place”, Michael’s constant metamorphosis of color and face and deepening immersion in black music and culture radically challenged color lines and notions of identity.
- In a culture determined to keep the genders separate and unequal, Michael’s confusing use of makeup, hair styles, soft off-stage voice and other female signifiers expanded the boundaries of masculinity.
- In a culture that condemned men’s expression of most emotion, he demonstrated on stage how sexy, stirring and safe it could be for a man to express tenderness and vulnerability.
- Although he was straight, his combination of strong masculine, androgynous, and angelic feminine expressions opened up space for queer and transpeople, while completely confusing the homophobic mainstream.
- In a culture that saw people as separate and unrelated, Michael championed the idea that we are all connected.
- In a culture that saw difference as dangerous, he modeled how to be different in a way that was fun, sexy, and financially successful.
- In a time of couch potatoes, he inspired individuals to take responsibility for the world.
- In a culture rife with cynicism, he donated more money to charity than any other entertainer had ever given, with little or no fanfare.
- During a famine in Africa, he helped get the world to care and significantly reduced the numbers of starving people (some say by half).
- In a culture that drove people into the ground with work, he shared his joy at being alive and doing what he loved.
- In a time of “me”-worshiping, he focused on how much “we” can accomplish together.
- Years ahead of other artists, he showed us how the environment was being devastated and encouraged us to love, nurture and restore nature.
- In a culture that denigrated nature, his videos revealed nature’s majesty and healing power.
- At a time when spiritual seekers were beginning to abandon the world as an illusion, Michael was encouraging us to engage the world … because God is in everyone and everything.
- At a time when many activists had forgotten the sacredness of the world, he created change in collaboration with Spirit, to stunning effect.
- In a culture drunk on power and militarism, Michael repeatedly encouraged individuals to confront the military, while he also humanized the soldiers and encouraged them to lay down their weapons.
- He intentionally transformed military symbols into his iconic trademarks of love.
- He celebrated sexual connection and sexual energy as part of a larger revolt against puritanical sexual repression, and the repression of black male sexuality in particular.
- In a society that punished any step outside the box, he celebrated authenticity.
- In a world that set strict limits on what is possible, Michael said everything is possible.
- In culture flooded with fear, indifference and hate, he cultivated love.
- He did this ALL OVER THE WORLD.
Joe Vogel sums it up beautifully: “Jackson’s work was about liberation. He wanted to free what was bound, transform what was petrified, and awaken what was dormant. He wanted to break through any obstacle that constrained the imagination, any chains—psychological, social or political—that imprisoned the body or the mind. This is what art meant to him personally, and it was his intended effect on his audience as well.”
That Michael blasted open doors for artists of color in the heavily segregated music industry is huge, and deserves its own exploration. Like his other accomplishments, it had a massive ripple effect out into global cultures.
Changing the culture is, according to systems and social change analyst Donella Meadows, the second most powerful form of social change in the world (way more effective than changing laws and regulations). When we change our ways of thinking—when we write a new story about who we are as people—old oppressive structures can crumble seemingly over night, as did the Berlin wall.
Michael’s overall impact on the culture was utterly earth-shaking: as an adult he did 3 global tours reaching 12.4 million people. Half a billion people watched his “Black or White” video premier. Then there was his radio and other video airtime, and tours as a kid and young adult.
The breadth of his accomplishments reflects Meadows most powerful form of social change (in my understanding of her work): the idea that everything is possible. Who could believe that a working-class black kid with little formal education could have achieved so much, against such great odds? Michael believed it. If he could imagine it, he knew he could accomplish it.
Yes, his life was brutally hard in so many ways. Yet look at the meteoric mark he left on the world.
If he could do it, we can too; Michael believed that as well, and kept calling on us to join him. In the next couple of blogs, I’ll look at how Michael accomplished all he did … how he gathered his power (and we can too), used it to heal the world (and we can too). How he weathered the storms and healed the trauma he suffered, to go on and accomplish even bigger change (and we can too, all in our own way).
I invite you to join me on this journey…
Note on SOURCES: I am not an academic, but I love acknowledgement of sources. I am compiling the (massive) list of sources for this article and will post it when it is finished. In the meantime, feel free to ask where I found something! My gratitude goes out to everyone who has helped publish this information. Very little of it came from mainstream media.
Did I miss something in this article? Please let me know!