Michael Jackson had a complicated relationship with his blackness.
In 40 years in the public eye, Jackson’s skin lightened, his hair changed from Afro to bone-straight perm, and his wide nose was surgically whittled down to a point. His music went from R&B to pure pop and beyond. His close friends included Elizabeth Taylor and Nancy Reagan.
By the time his last smash hit, “Black or White,” was released in 1991, many people wondered if the song title applied to Jackson himself.
But those who knew him well say he always maintained his black identity. And as a trailblazer for a new breed of global multimedia stars, he helped create an era in which race was a piece, rather than the definition, of a person.
“I think that Michael really, in his career, just transcended race. His work and his life was sort of about undefining race,” said Bill Bottrell, who co-produced “Black or White” and worked closely with Jackson from 1986 into the early ’90s.
“He obscured the issue, or obscured it at least as far as he was concerned, or just transcended the issue,” Bottrell said. “I watched him with his friends, they came from all walks of life. He certainly surrounded himself with lots of African-Americans, also a lot of white people, including me.”
Making black music safeJackson grew up in hardscrabble Gary, Ind., performing with his brothers. The Jackson 5 were weaned on rhythm and blues, a name coined in the 1940s to describe the fusion of several black music styles with a new instrument, the electric bass.
The first Jackson 5 album was released in 1969 on the Motown label, which carved a place in history by making black music safe for white people to enjoy. Jackson was an instant child star. In 1975 he moved to Epic Records, a division of CBS, and hit the solo stratosphere in 1979 with his album “Off the Wall,” an irresistible combination of funk and pop music.
It sold 9 million copies, the most by any black performer up to that point. On the album cover, Jackson has a puffy Afro, and his skin is slightly darker than the brick wall behind him.
“There really were two phases to the career of Michael Jackson,” said the commentator and community activist Earl Ofari Hutchinson.
“There certainly was a relationship with and an identification with African-Americans — music, dance, lifestyle, his performances,” he said. “That was essentially black music. That was, quote-unquote, the black Michael Jackson.”
‘He was beyond a skin color’His next album was 1982’s “Thriller,” the biggest record of all time, which has sold 50 million copies worldwide. He was the first black artist to get video play on the fledgling MTV network, and became one of the most famous people on the planet — of any race.
“He was beyond a skin color. It was about the message in his music. That’s why people related to him,” said DJ Spinna, who produces parties in the United States and internationally showcasing Jackson’s music.
Yet the wider Michael Jackson’s fame spread, the whiter his appearance became.
Jackson said he had vitiligo, a disease that produces white splotches on the skin. He compensated with treatments and makeup that turned his overall complexion lighter and lighter, to an extent never seen before in a black celebrity. Serial surgeries kept altering his facial features.
Successful blacks — from Sammy Davis to Oprah Winfrey to Barack Obama — have often been accused of losing touch with their roots. But Jackson also had to contend with historic changes in the music industry: Blacks were finally being marketed to the mainstream, while testosterone-fueled rap music was about to create a new definition of blackness — one that definitely did not include the increasingly pale, androgynous and childlike Jackson.
“The second phase of his career was where it became much murkier,” Hutchinson said. “He became much more ambivalent in the minds of many African-Americans. His music, his whole change in appearance, his fan base became much more eclectic. You just didn’t see African-Americans identifying with him.”
Bottrell was in Jackson’s studio daily as an engineer on Jackson’s “Bad” album, released in 1987, and again on 1991’s “Dangerous.”
“His inspirations were from people of all races,” he said. “People he really admired, his friends. Dick Gregory was one of his friends, I mean, these were some real African-Americans. He could hang in all kinds of contexts with all kinds of people. He seemed to have all these strains of consciousness running through him.”
Downward spiralJackson’s downward slide began when he was accused of child molestation in 1993, and again in 2000.
Hutchinson’s Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable organized a series of meetings in Los Angeles to address concerns about Jackson’s case. Several members of Jackson’s inner circle attended, he said.
“They brought messages back from Jackson letting us know, look, don’t believe what you hear, I still identify with the black community. I’m black and that hasn’t changed, and I want your support.” They also told Hutchinson’s group about large, unpublicized donations to black organizations.
But widespread black support remained elusive, Hutchinson said: “Either you loved him, you identified with him, you saw him as one of your own, as a black performer important to the black community, or you saw him as someone who basically, I don’t want to use the term sellout, but ... as a creature and a creation of the white world.”
All his contradictions came through in the song “Black or White.”
“As long as you’re my baby,” the chorus goes, “it don’t matter if you’re black or white.”
Jackson usually came to the studio with his lyrics written down, Bottrell said, but this time he improvised on the spot. They recorded it in one take.
“It just sort of emanated from him,” Bottrell said. “Clearly he had that theme in his mind when he started singing.”
The song went to No. 1 around the world. The classic video shows Jackson dancing on different continents, and the faces of different nationalities morphing into one another.
And in the end, Jackson transforms into a pitch-black panther.