Michael's New Racial Makeover -- Phony Or For Real?

It was a sight that few ever imagined they'd see. There was one-time pop king Michael Jackson standing at the podium at the Rev. Al Sharpton's National Action Network's headquarters in Harlem, sounding every bit like another Jackson -- Jesse, that is -- at his racial saber-rattling best. With a grim-faced Sharpton hovering behind him and an audience of 300 cheering black supporters in front of him, Jackson unleashed a volley of racial invectives at his record company, Sony Music Entertainment Corporation, and bosses of the record industry.

He branded them racist, devilish, and accused them of shamelessly exploiting black artists. But Jackson's move raises more questions about Michael Jackson than it does about the record industry's alleged vile practices.

Is Jackson's newfound racial militancy really a heartfelt effort to make the record industry atone for racism? Or is this a case of an aging, fading, pop star playing the race card to grab a headline, curry favor with blacks and in the process shake down a record company?

Jackson claims that Sony cheated him out of millions in royalties, did scant promotion of his latest album, Invincible, and generally treated him like a house servant.

Legions of black blues, R&B and jazz artists have wound up on skid row or died paupers while white artists from Elvis to the Beatles -- often with the connivance of record companies -- have reaped king's ransoms copying their music, style, lyrics, mannerisms and movements in the recording studio and on stage.

But in the more than three decades that Jackson has been in the music business, he has had ample opportunity to publicly speak out against the ripoff of black artists by some record labels. He hasn't.

Why would he? Jackson could hardly be called a down and out black hard-luck case. The music industry has spent a fortune promoting and marketing his music, and has made him virtually a worldwide household name. Even though Sony ignited his wrath for its alleged shabby treatment of Invincible, it still spent about $25 million to make it. This is not exactly garbage change.

To hear Jackson tell it, Sony practically dumped the album in the trash can before it hit the record shelves. But if the album had anemic sales, it's probably not because Sony failed to put its marketing muscle behind it. It's because Jackson has long since tumbled from the top of the record-selling heap. That happened because he has made a virtue out of being an eccentric reclusive, stopped making cutting-edge music and stopped touring.

A good contrast to Jackson is rap artist Eminem. He appears in movies and ads, regularly tours and puts out edgy, pulsating music. He is an artist for these times, much as Jackson was for his times. The problem is that those times were two decades ago.

Residual bitterness over his ordeal a decade ago may also fuel some of Jackson's public racial anger. He learned the bitter lesson that his wealth, success, fame, Casper-the-ghost-looking bleached skin, nose job, eye shade, straight hair and gyrating hips didn't immunize him from being tarred by the press and many in the industry as a child molester. As a black man who made his living grabbing his crotch before millions and delighted in surrounding himself with packs of children, it was easy for some to think the worst about him.

Then again, maybe Jackson on the backside of his career has truly cast an eye on his social legacy and figured that he has nothing to lose by speaking out. He's made all the money he needs to live in style and comfort for several lifetimes. He knows that his every word and act is still instant news, and will be applauded by hordes of blacks and fans. So why not use his name and fame to strike a blow for black artists past and present by blasting the record industry moguls?

If that's his motive, then no matter how vehement the debate over the merit of his case against the record companies, he deserves some credit. But since there's really no way to tell whether his fight against the industry is driven by race pride or a personal vendetta, let's eye him closely and see just where he takes his newfound race crusade.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson (EHutchi344@aol.com) is a columnist and is the author of "The Crisis in Black and Black" (Middle Passage Press).

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