No. 192/July 2002:

VINCIBLE…. There's zero credibility in Michael Jackson's complaint that a Sony Music conspiracy produced all his woes--from child molestation charges to royalty injustices. But the very real impact of Jackson's ugly stunts and ludicrous fantasies is to poison the story just as the public finally begins to understand the music world's plantation economics.

Michael contends that in order to effectively fight the undeniable oppression of black recording artists, all black musicmakers need to fall in line with him. Yet he didn't make this public demand of the whites he actually hangs with--Elizabeth Taylor, McCauley Culkin, or 'N Sync--even though that's the more powerful group.

In his essay on "racial solidarity in the guise of black nationalism," African-American South Carolina gubernatorial candidate Kevin Gray describes a pattern by which bourgeois African-Americans, who ordinarily despise poorer blacks, demand solidarity only when their interests are threatened. Michael Jackson turned his back on Gary, Indiana, his majority-black hometown, when deindustrialization devastated it and he's never even whispered support for black rappers from Tupac on down when they've been censored, arrested, or even murdered.

Music industry racism isn't just some dusty old tale from back in the day, as can be seen in the way the entire industry uses rappers as the focus of music censorship. But the dialogue about the music cartel's scandalous economics ought to stay focused on the more fundamental truth, which is that one class of people, all relatively poor, are oppressed by another, far richer class. Just as the cotton industry cheated white sharecroppers as systematically as black sharecroppers, white artists and black artists have been equally cheated by the music industry.

You can't make sense of label chicanery using a racial framework, because the basis of the thievery is class. A label charges a veteran artist's royalty account $10,000 for "A&R" every time one of his masters is used in a TV show or a movie. That artist is white. EMI pays Mariah Carey more than $50 million for making one flop album and promising not to make any others. Carey is black.

Michael Jackson, who obsesses over his own history, can find the real story written in his back pages. When his first record contract came to an end, Jackson and his family lost the rights to his master recordings and even to the Jackson 5 name. His old label sued Michael and the other Jacksons and the settlement cost the group more than half a million bucks, most of it in waived royalties, back when half a million meant something to a superstar.

The old record label was Motown, which was owned by black people and run by a black man. That doesn't mean that Michael Jackson didn't get ripped off. In fact, Motown paid only a 5% royalty to the Jackson 5, so you could say it ripped him off ten times as much as Sony did. Is Berry Gordy a racist?


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