Martin Luther Jackson?

July 21, 2002|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

WASHINGTON - You cannot libel a recording industry executive.

At least, that's my humble opinion, based on the 18 years I spent reporting on the $14 billion-a-year business of pop music. I saw gall that would shame a TV preacher, greed that would make an Enron executive blush. So from where I sit, you can say pretty much any nasty thing about the industry and its leaders that your heart desires. Because, as your lawyer will tell you, it ain't libel if it's true.

That's why I wasn't particularly mortified when Michael Jackson took a swipe at Sony Music Chairman Tommy Mottola during a rally at Sony's New York headquarters this month. The self-proclaimed king o' pop, angry that modest sales of last year's Invincible album proved him rather vincible after all, laid the CD's failure at Mr. Mottola's feet. He called the music company chief "devilish."

If anyone had a right to be insulted, I figured it was the devil.

The problem is that Mr. Jackson didn't stop there. He also called Mr. Mottola racist. It is apparently Mr. Jackson's contention that the label failed to promote his album properly because he is black. In supporting him, Mr. Jackson told the crowd, they fought for "all black people, dead or alive."

As a black person of the alive persuasion, let me respond in words of one syllable: ha ha ha.

Not that there isn't racism in the pop music industry. To the contrary, from Elvis to N'Sync, race has always been a subtext of song, a key factor in determining who got airplay, promotion or pay. Consider just one of a thousand examples: In the early '80s, MTV was notorious for its whites-only policy. Meaning its refusal to air videos by black artists. Sony reportedly threatened to withhold all of its artists from the video channel if it did not play one black singer in particular. His name was Michael Jackson.

So no, I have no problem with someone raising the issue of racism in pop music. What I question here is the source, the timing and the motive.

Michael Jackson's contract with Sony is said to give him the most generous royalty structure of any major artist in history. The label is reported to have spent a whopping $55 million to produce and promote Invincible. It's hard to see evidence of anti-Jackson bias in that largesse. Apparently, it hasn't occurred to the "king" that maybe consumers didn't buy his CD because they were unimpressed with it. Or else, were unwilling to spend their money with an accused - albeit never convicted - child molester.

I'm sorry, but you don't whiz away 55 million bucks to support someone you hate. Truth is, this industry loves neither black nor white half as much as it loves green.

What's most galling about this is the idea of Michael Jackson as civil rights leader. Here's a man who's spent years in a full flight from the fact of his blackness, who has never seemed to embrace or even want to be part of the African-American community, who has disfigured himself with medical and cosmetic procedures that seemed specifically designed to erase from his face every last lingering trace of Negro. Now he thinks he's Malcolm-freaking-X?!

Not in this lifetime.

"I know I'm black," Mr. Jackson told the audience at a later Summit for Fairness in the Recording Industry convened by the Rev. Al Sharpton.

He's black, all right. Because his album stiffed. Like O.J. Simpson when the cuffs went on, he rediscovers his ancestry when that ancestry becomes convenient to him.

And pathetic as that is, the real tragedy here is that Mr. Jackson's self-serving, shameless and transparently cynical accusation trivializes the issue of race. Makes it easier for minds to close and hearts to harden the next time real racism rears its head.

A black music executive told Billboard magazine, "You could throw a dart at the R&B chart and find almost any artist who would have more resonance on this issue than Michael Jackson." Better they should save the darts for the singer himself.

Martin Luther Jackson should take his own advice. Just beat it.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears Sundays in The Sun. He may be reached via e-mail at lpitts@herald.com or by calling toll-free at 1-888-251-4407.

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