Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The King is Dead, No More Kings, Please: A Threnody for Michael Jackson

By Rayfield A. Waller

INTERROGATOR (Arab soldier)
My main man. Tell me something,
OK? What is problem with Michael

TROY (Black American soldier)
What do you mean?

The King of Pop. 'I'm bad, I'm
bad, you know it --'
Michael Jackson is Pop King of
sick country.


[Troy is smashed in the face with the clip board by the interrogator. Blood drips
from his nose.]

Bullshit wrong, dude. A black man
make the skin white and the hair
straight. You know why?...Your sick
country make the black man hate hisself...

[from the film “Three Kings,” Screenplay by David O. Russell, 1998]

I meant to say nothing at all about the death of Michael Jackson, ‘King of Pop,” but now only twenty four hours after the news broke, and only five hours after the autopsy has been concluded and the coroner’s preliminary announcement that ‘more tests are needed before a cause of death can be determined,’ I’ve been convinced otherwise.

The LA coroner’s ‘more tests are needed’ is a long recognized code for ‘we might have another celebrity death caused by drug overdose here.’ While a snide undertone in coverage of Michael’s phenomenal talents, energies, and innovation is, predictably, starting to show through in the ironic smiles and crass humor of TV newsreaders. That undertone of contempt in Michael’s case, as in Richard Prior’s case before him, is for yet another dead Black performer’s ‘unfortunate flaws’ and ‘idiosyncrasies’.

Yet, as the above crib from the film, “Three Kings” implies, these very ‘flaws’ are endemic to the effects, of America’s film and music industry’s racism, on Black men and women who live inside the great meat grinder of the entertainment industry. The effects, if not the actual flaws (like Bird’s and Lady Day’s heroine addiction or Gil Scott Heron’s crack dependency), can be seen from Bill Cosby’s seething misanthropy disguised as humorous high jinks, to Will Smith’s obsessive-compulsive crossover mentality which leads him to do film after mundane film depicting Black men bent on ‘saving’ everyone (I Am Legend being the ultimate in that franchise), to Denzel Washington’s seeming inability to articulate anything culturally or politically critical and coherent in interviews other than his ceaselessly maudlin charity pitches, to Dave Chappell’s startling, self imposed exile from the same industry that had made him wealthy but clearly also had frightened him to the depths of his soul, to Oprah Winfrey’s manic agoraphilia and Angela Basset’s lonely crusade to hold onto her dignity against the misery and humiliation Halle Berry surrendered her body to in “Monster’s Ball” (Hollywood’s obligatory fetishisizing of the Black female body in proscribed, denigrating nude scenes, and prostitute, junkie, schoolmarm roles).

There is a familiar, racist double standard apparent in media voyeurism rather than any honest assessment of Michael’s talent. While Elvis’ physical addictions and psychological problems were and still are discussed in addition to his skills and his artistic significance, Michael’s shortcomings are treated as a negation of his expertise and historical genius.
This truculent lack of real or thoughtful context in both overt and slyly implied critiques of Michael’s sanity, his ‘morals,’ and his ‘self hatred’ (reflecting the sort of brazen contempt for his humanity that even the bloated, drug addled Elvis Presley, who did not have to suffer following his even more ignominious death at ‘Graceland’) has convinced me that I should write, to point out that lack of context. It only dehumanizes Michael to leave out that context, namely, America’s ferocious hatred of roots culture, of Black folk sources, and of the Afro-Soul origins that Michael drew from just as Sam Cook, and Ray Charles, and Al Green, and Cleavon Little, and Sammy Davis, and Bill Bojangles Robinson all had drawn from it. The hatred is equaled only by America’s simultaneous hunger for and desire to consume and exploit those sources, those roots.

The American entertainment industry is basically a public pillory, and no Black artist, no matter how rich and famous goes unscathed by the vicious duplicity of the industry’s failure to compensate Black artists equally, its subtle and gross humiliations of the Black image and disrespect for Black genius, its simultaneous praise and insult (and Michael, like so many brilliant Black performers, had grown toward the end to be no longer quite so rich, and less famous, more and more infamous). More and more over the coming days and weeks we will see it emerge: the implied, sometimes even literal smirk of ‘entertainment reporters’ and their sarcasm in mentioning Michael’s obvious psychoses, reflected in his peccadilloes with children, his addiction to Demerol and to plastic surgery, and his funny habits with elephant man bones, llamas, and Ferris wheels. That sarcasm—and the sublimated racism that it arises from, emerges as plain as the lack of a nose on Michael’s 49 year old face as these ghouls have been breaking the news of Michael’s death while transitioning into the sickening redundancy phase of their 72 hour news cycles, in which they will be re breaking and re breaking the news, shattering it, crunching it, and turning the shards into smithereens with relentless wall-to-wall coverage of the same old tired set pieces (here we are in front of the gates of the house where Michael died, the home he was renting in The Hollywood Hills that one or two ‘reporters’ have slipped up and referred to as ‘Neverland,’ an estate where Michael no longer lived; here we are in front of the coroner’s office; here we are in front of the Apollo theater where Al Sharpton belts out a spontaneous eulogy; now here we are back at the house again, still not ‘Neverland,’ and not located in ‘Brentwood’ as a dyslexic British reporter yammers, clearly reliving the heady days of the ‘OJ Affair’; always we are ‘out in front’, never inside, always fixedly gazing at a façade, as if meaning is about to emerge. but it never does; always we’re treated to a forest of microphone stands and to the same tired, chewed up looking cadre of ‘international journalists’ –i.e., glorified Paparazzi—droning on and on, and from the same Hollywood script at that).

The King, in short, is dead. But before the next Michael comes along to take his place in the public pillory of race, entertainment culture, and is chewed up and spat onto the plastic surgeon’s gurney, a few words from the REAL sponsor of the whole performance:

Even in this age in which Brittany Spears and Justin Timberlake announce their gratitude to Michael Jackson for providing the template they drew on to forge their careers, the abysmal ignorance of roots culture still motivates an equally abysmal disrespect for Blues, Jazz, Soul, and Hiphop, by implying for example that certain rap artists are taking their rap sensibility from popular mainstream film, television, and theater pieces like “Bring In Da Noise…” and that the monetary and psychic deprivation of Black artists like Michael can be lain at the doorstep of Motown (little by little, callow newsreaders and liberal talk show hosts are beginning to cite their freshly enlightened awareness of the injustice of the music industry through their single viewing of the single source, “Standing in the Shadows of Motown,” and the story of The Funk Brothers).

At the time of its 1990’s premiere of course, “Bring In Da Noise” was in fact, widely regarded in uptown Manhattan, in Detroit, Philly, LA, and Cleveland, as a bastardization of African American step art-dance, of Brooklyn radio-chant, and of James Brown-to-Ohio Players-to-Cameo-to-Jungle Bothers Black Funk roots culture. A lot of Black people across the country (Detroit, Chicago, Oakland, LA, Philly, etc.), not just in New York (Harlem, Bed Stuy, Bronx, ‘Strong’ Island, etc.) were sickened whenever we saw such drivel advertised incessantly on TV and Gods help us, even traveling throughout the country busting up into our communities, bringing out the corny white suburbanites who cruised into the theater districts under police guard to vicariously experience urban culture.

“…Funk…” is symbolic of many derivative cultural products manufactured in America, from minstrelsy to burlesque to John Phillip Sousa to Al Jolson, from Bing Crosby to Vaudeville to Elvis to Jerry Lee Lewis to Dinah shore to Madonna to Justin Timberlake. The simulacrum comes to be considered to be original (*groan*), not derivative, not a rip-off of the rural slave and urban wage-slave and Black street culture that it really is. Such theft feels to Black artists and writers like “Miss Saigon” must have felt to Asian Americans. The idea that the simulacrum is becoming the original is actually a sentiment which is gaining force in the culture right now with Hiphop just as it did earlier in the twentieth century with Jazz (by 1970 many Americans were convinced Jazz was a white art form courtesy of Benny Goodman, just as by 1950 they’d been convinced that Rock and Roll was invented by Jerry Lee Lewis).

I hung out with white cultural critic, Eric Lott (author of ‘Love and Theft’) when he was visiting the University of Miami a few years ago when I was an English professor there, and he remarked that he found it frightening how the culture was redefining cultural theft of Black art forms as ‘anti-racist’, ‘integrationist’ and progressive gestures, while simultaneously defining critiques of this long standing American crime as ‘racist’ (in other words, the victim who complains of being victimized is the real troublemaker here). To my dismay and my alarm, I ‘ve been noticing over the years while teaching at U Miami, FIU, at Barry University, and now at Wayne State University in Detroit, that my students have no idea that the white pop artists they love are actually culturally cleansed imitations of people like Aretha Franklin, Barry White, and Martha and the Vandellas (60’s and 70’s Black pop icons) via Peabo Bryson, Whitney Houston, Sister Sledge, and Anita Baker (the 80’s Black pop icons) and then later Bobby Brown, Ready for the World, Queen Latifah, and Roxanne Shante (the 90’s Black pop Icons). Sadly, they not only don’t know who Martha and the Vandellas are; they haven’t even been exposed to Queen Latifah! (They think she’s an actress, if they ever heard of her at all). Eminem (who is actually a quite talented Marshall Mathers underneath the candy coating) is only the latest evolution of an undeniable and inevitable process of taking rap, funk, and Hiphop away from African American roots sources, and culturally cleansing it (Backstreet Boys, Shakira, Brittany Spears, et al).

Not long after Lott had finished his visiting lecture at U Miami I was amazed to see in the Miami Herald (Sun Jan 19, 2003, Herald, pg. 9M, by Herald Music critic, Evelyn Mcdonnell), an article on composer Jon Larson, author of “Rent”, that mentioned the touring show, “Bring Da Noise,” while criticizing Hiphop impresario, Russell Simmons. The article featured the headline, “Copycats getting accolades for their predecessors’ creativity” as well as a caption beneath a photo of a white minstrel figure and a Black B Boy (‘Russell Simmons Def Poetry Jam’ takes its cues from Bring In ‘Da Noise, Bring In ‘Da Funk’). This sort of thing creates the impression that Jon Larson is an originator of Black urban Hiphop culture while Russell Simmons is an imitator getting rich off Larson’s art. The photo of the white minstrel figure and the Black B Boy figure reinforced this fallacious idea, because the juxtaposition of the photos made it seem as if Larson IS the white originator (the ‘white negro’ as it were) and that the Black B Boy figure is Russell Simmons. This is a typical kind of visual and semiotic distortion engaged in by unconscious editors.

On closer reading, the article was not really even about what the head announces—rather it was an homage to Jon Larson. The article carefully draws a distinction between Larson and the “Bring Da Noise…” ilk, and furthermore it attempts to do a subtle critique of those within the hiphop movement who profit off hiphop’s whitewashing. Yet, even such a rare thing as a major daily critic writing a piece approaching the entertainment industry critically and analytically, is erased by the inevitable meat grinder of context (heads and captions carry on their own discourse which is gleefully oblivious of the point being made by the author).

There is in fact a sub genre of pop music criticism that positions Russell Simmons as somehow being an outsider to the Hiphop movement when in fact he was right there at the founding along with Cool Moe Dee, DJ Herc, Grandmaster Flash, Eric B and Rakim, Mel-Mel, and all the rest—even Fab Five Freddie, clown that he was, was indisputably in the creative core of the music’s origins, and hell, I know close friends of some of these people, and I know that Russell paid dues, and did in fact economically support the music and support some of these artists in the 80’s). The positioning of such a crucial figure, however commercialized, as an outsider and imitator while positioning Larson as an originator, was galling to me, and far too representative of the backward notions of American Kulture.

The article, finally, offers a coherent defense of the Newyoricans poets’ movement of the 80’s and 90’s. Yet, this gesture’s meaning is lost in the appending of this portion to the larger issue of Larson. Thus are the sins of journalism: shallow treatment, hapless captioning, lack of historical detail and clarity. The article would have been decisively more credible had it been more clear and direct. When I called an editor at the Herald to ask why more figures within the movement were not mentioned, such as Pedro Pietri (“The Masses Are Asses”), I was refused access to even the voice mail of Evelyn Mcdonnell. Emails I wrote to her were never acknowledged, and I have no idea if they reached her. Ultimately, I felt, Mcdonnell was trying to say something in that piece about art and CLASS identity, transcending race: that the urban movements of the 80’s (which included Hiphop but also included the Newyorican school, urban chic movements, the poetics revival of the St. Marks Poetry Project, which I once did a reading for) fed into some of the off-off Broadway rebirth that gave us “Angels In America” (that Jon Larson can be contextualized by the new poetics of the 80’s). That multiculturalism is exactly what Hiphop began as in the late 70’s and early 80’s. The promise of all this cultural genesis was destroyed by the hijacking of Hiphop carried out by record companies and by individual Black thugs who gave us so-called ‘gangsta rap’ in the 90’s.

In an early 2003 NPR interview of Hershey Felder (who played George Gershwin a one-man theatrical piece which toured in the early 90’s) Felder recounted how Gershwin encountered Maurice Ravel and wanted to study with him, and Ravel admonished him by saying, ‘why would you want to be a second rate Ravel when you are a first rate Gershwin’? And indeed, Gershwin was little appreciated or understood in his lifetime, despite great commercial success. He was under appreciated as an ARTIST. People like Dvorak, Ravel, and Stravinsky would come to America, and would wonder why Americans were so far behind in understanding and appreciating AMERICAN musical forms as they themselves DID (the Blues, R&B, Soul, Rock and Roll, etc.) I have taught two very important books in the past few years. One is called “Blues People” by Leroi Jones, and the other is “The Death of Rhythm and Blues” by Nelson George. I once talked with Jones (Baraka) when he did a reading at Cornell University in the early 90’s, where I was a graduate student, and I got to talk with Nelson in the late 80’s when he visited Cornell. Both Nelson and Baraka mentioned Jon in conversation as a figure of importance in a multivariate, energetic, and far too brief period of American working class urban culture, which Americans have yet to take seriously or understand.

But then, they still have not really dealt seriously with figures such as Irving Berlin, Hoagie Carmichael, Gershwin, Sondheim, or for that matter, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, and Charles Mingus. I know that my students have never even heard of most of these people. It’s a sad state of affairs, since the rest of the world knows and loves all these people I have mentioned. Perhaps this is one reason the rest of the world dislikes Americans so much. We have so many riches, yet seem not to care about it or show any gratitude for being so blessed.

And the death of a Michael Jackson becomes just another occasion to sell soap with the promotion of spectacle, rather than taking advantage of the opportunity being presented by the event of his death, to examine the historical, political,and cultural context of his life, in all its glory and all its pain.

May he rest.