What Michael Jackson drew together and overcame

The mystery of Michael Jackson dissolved in the BET Awards ceremony broadcast only 3 days after his unexpected and shocking passing. No one was interested in his sad, bizarre obsessions and outbursts. All that mattered was a great figure of the African Diaspora had passed from the scene.

My choice of words here, African Diaspora over African-American community or America or the world stage, is deliberate. Michael Jackson managed to merge the ’sense and sensibility’ of Africa into the American melting pot without losing any of the Africaness inherent in the African-American aesthetic.

In the show, a tribute to the O’Jays included the march to the front row by the performers. My wife exclaimed, “They’re going to church!” I doubt many Whites (or better, non-Af-Am, but that’s clumsy so I’ll just say White but know I include all of our people who are not of the Af-Am tradition and community) recognized that move, so typical in Black churches, of performers moving out to the audience. The purpose is to involve esp those not “saved” and hopefully to move them to be saved, to get the Holy Ghost and “shout”.

Even the vocabulary is not known to most Whites, words like “shout” which refers to the ecstatic “dancing in the spirit” which marks the possession of the worshipper by the Holy Ghost. “Get the Holy Ghost” means the same thing, as does “get or move in spirit” or “be moved by the spirit”. Since these words mean something as well to Whites, there can be misunderstandings.

This element of worship service behavior points up two things, one obvious if you know the signs and one a kind of personal take on things on my part. The first is that the majority of Black people do not make a firm distinction between religion and everyday life. Mixing worship style and vocabulary is common. There are limits, as when Ray Charles brought church music, particularly Holiness church music, into the secular arena; Black church people were upset but Ray won out and that church sound is now ubiquitous, whether Whites or Blacks are playing/singing the music.

This invocation of spiritual elements in a non-church setting often goes unnoticed by Whites who are unfamiliar with Black worship styles and the divisions based on class within the Black religious community. Some of Rev. Wright’s words and behavior reflect his appeal to the working class and poor Blacks of Chicago, most of whom have their origins in the South. Obama, despite having been raised entirely outside that culture, has clearly absorbed it, to a surprising extent, in my estimation.

The second observation is difficult to delineate but I believe that a good deal of the expressiveness of Black music has to do with this very blurring of the line between the sacred and the profane. As a jazz musician or hip-hop artist “does his thing”, an element of religious fervor sneaks in. In so-called “soul music” it is done consciously, with church chords and rhythms punctuating and carrying the performance. One notes this is Afro-Cuban music or “salsa” or “Latin jazz” as well when the rhythms of Santeria interrupt and solo, often on the sacred bata drums, offering a very distinctive sound that provokes in insiders a sense of the sacred.

It is this tapping into mana, plugging into the Holy, that gives much Black music its impetus, its verve, its seriousness and its joy, its ecstasy. And what Michael Jackson did was bring African sense and sensibility into a cross-over performance, i.e. a performance so designed that it allowed Whites to access it. The subtleties of that are a little beyond me and Quincy Jones probably had a lot to do with it on top of what Barry Gordy did. Barry Gordy’s whole business thrust was cross-over b/c he knew that was where the money was.

Elvis capped a centuries-long tradition of the melding of the two musical sources: Europe and Africa. He brought what to most Whites, incl a junior-high schooler like myself in 1956, was Black music. He was clearly rockabilly and his gyrations were nothing Black people would recognize as the smooth dance styles typical of Black acts like Jackie Wilson, but if you had heard little Black music, it sounded very, very different. Elvis was Black enough that the DJ had to give the name of his high school so people would know he was White (high schools were still segregated at that time) and many Black initially bought his records.

The big taboo was the hip movements. This was nothing new to Whites; they did it in swing and jitter-bug dancing and in Latin dances, but somehow Elvis attached it to that driving back beat and it set little White kids on fire. Many of us quickly went on to Little Richard and other early Black rockers and never returned to rock and roll. Most Americans began a process lasting over a decade of getting used to this new music that was Black in origin but was being played by everyone.

And this is where Michael Jackson came in with the Jackson Five and Motown. Being kids, their moves and sounds were more acceptable to Whites and before America knew it, Michael broke away and began his rise to the very pinnacle of popularity. He never left those Af-Am roots but managed to parlay his cute little Black boy image into a kid image. Perhaps his album Bad was an attempt to lash out at this image, complete with references to Black thug life. I am sure this was all mixed up with his color and physiognomy with its multiple plastic surgeries. The bizarre behavior was abetted by sycophants but no one was able to reach him and heal him.

No for a minute do I underestimate the force of all those performers who brought a little bit of Af-Am culture into the broader society. I’ve seen recently very Anglo kids (the ’very’ meant to indicate how deeply they participated in the Euroamerican culture with little influence from other cultures in this country) perform in ways that a couple of decades ago only Hispanic kids raised around Black kids could carry out. Country performers like Roy Clark have long jammed with Black musicians after hours and even long-distance admirers of Black music have effected a Black style, like the Welshman Tom Jones and the British band, the Beatles in their German period. These artists had to get their Black music almost entirely off records; they could not, like Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis or Carl Perkins go to Black churches in their towns. Recent stylists like Joss Stone from the U.K. continue this tradition.

Nevertheless, most of the artists who carry on this tradition do come out of the Black church. While growing up in suburban neighborhoods and attending integrated schools, many Black children return to the old neighborhood to attend church, there where the culture is at its strongest. Nowadays, I see churches with largely Black congregations mingled with a variegated population. Amid the congregation, children will find older children who will initiate them into the culture. White and Hispanic kids will become part of these worship services, as has been happening all along but in larger numbers now.

Maybe now I have it. What Michael did was stylize the forms of the Black aesthetic so as to present it to White audiences stripped of its religious overtones, overtones of ecstasy and possession, so alien to the Euroamerican aesthetic. Just as Gloria Estefan’s Rhythm Is Gonna Get You invoked a Santeria ceremony so Sam and Dave invoked the ecstatic emotion of the Black church dressed up as entertainers and changing the words. While big, those acts which imported the soul of African worship into secular music never reached the heights. Michael did.

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