One of Michael Jackson’s most famous lyrics proclaims, “It don’t matter if you’re black or white.” But when it comes to the late singer’s identification with African Americans, that declaration becomes much cloudier.
Jackson’s massive popularity was continually shadowed by his evolving physical makeover from a dark-skinned boy with obvious ethnic features to a lighter-skinned man who had extensive plastic surgery on his face and nose, prompting concerns among African Americans and others that Jackson was trying to deny his heritage.
His high-profile relationships with white actresses, his marriages to Lisa Marie Presley and Debbie Rowe (who are both white) and suspicions that he wasn’t in fact the biological father of his light-skinned children further divided African Americans. Some felt alienated by the singer’s actions; others dismissed them as the acceptable eccentricities of a creative genius.
Even as large multiethnic crowds gather to celebrate and mourn Jackson, his cultural identity remains an uneasy debating point. That delicacy was front and center during Friday rehearsals for Sunday’s “BET Awards,” a previously scheduled celebration of black artists that will now be dedicated to Jackson.
Said Stephen Hill, BET’s co-president of entertainment: “I would hate for someone to think that changes in appearances would be linked to a distancing from the black race. Most of Michael Jackson’s actions contradict that.”
Ne-Yo, a scheduled performer at the awards show who has often been compared to Jackson, added, “People can be so judgmental. An artist is under a magnifying glass. Michael was never trying to get away from his blackness. Everyone knows about his troubled relationship with his father, and that’s why he changed his appearance. As far as him shying away from the black community, he was simply moving toward people who were showing him love. He wasn’t getting a lot of love from the black community.”
Lee Bailey, who runs the Electronic Urban Report, a website devoted to news about black celebrities, said many still feel alienated by Jackson’s actions.
“There have been detractors in the black entertainment community who felt that Jackson forgot his blackness as he got older,” he said. “They would say, ‘How could those kids be his? They’re white.’ Many were troubled by him.”
Author and political analyst Earl Ofari Hutchinson added, “There is a tendency for many African Americans to say, ‘This guy was a sellout, he was a traitor,’ and even now you can hear that mix of anger and resentment and revulsion and disappointment. People remember those early years with Motown and the Jackson 5, when they were African American superstars. Then they saw how Michael changed his image and they were angry, saying, ‘This is not the Michael Jackson we grew up with.’ ”
But other industry insiders defended Jackson and called assertions that he had turned his back on black people ludicrous. They praised him as a staunch supporter of African American businesses and causes who always identified himself as a black man.
Linda Johnson Rice, chairman of Johnson Publishing Co., which publishes the black-themed Ebony and Jet magazines, recalled Ebony’s exclusive 2007 interview with the press-shy Jackson on several topics, including the 25th anniversary of his album “Thriller.”
“Michael always had a strong connection to the African American community,” Rice said. “His relationship with our company demonstrates that. When he decided to speak publicly after 10 years of not giving any interviews, he chose to do that with us.”
Rice added that Jackson had a solid relationship with her father, the magazines’ late founder John Johnson Jr., and recruited him as a business advisor. BlackWeekly.com pointed out that Jackson had donated more than $300 million to African American charities over the years.
Many in the entertainment community said that though Jackson often divided blacks, his star power eventually transcended misgivings.
BET’s Hill pointed out that during Jackson’s glory days, when he would release a new video to MTV, he would always make sure that BET would be able to premiere the video at the same time: “BET was always at the same table. He made sure of that.”
Rob Weisner, Jackson’s former manager who is producing the awards show, has been angered by discussions questioning Jackson’s racial identity.
“Everything we did was geared toward a mass audience, and it worked,” he said. “It was never about race. Michael was bigger than that. He transcends all that. ‘Thriller’ sold 50 million albums, and no one will ever be able to do that.”
Ultimately, Jackson’s star power, not his race, was the defining factor among most blacks, said Bailey of the Electronic Urban Report.
“The bottom line was, this is Michael Jackson,” he said. “He was given a pass. When someone has a God-given talent that is so exceptional, that puts them in a whole other category. By and large, black people never stopped embracing Michael Jackson. He still enjoyed a great deal of support, and they were looking forward to this tour, because it was about getting a second and third chance.”