Georgetown University professor Dr. Michael Eric Dyson

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Georgetown University professor assess Michael Jackson’s cultural and social legacy.


Tavis: For more on Michael Jackson’s cultural and social impact, pleased to be joined tonight by two of this country’s most distinguished thinkers and critics. Dr. Cornel West, professional of religion at Princeton University, and author of the forthcoming memoir, “Brother West, Living and Loving Out Loud,” and Michael Eric Dyson, professor of sociology at Georgetown University. His latest text is called, “Can You Hear Me Now?” Dr. Dyson, nice to have you on the program, sir.
Dr. Michael Eric Dyson: Thank you, Tavis. Thanks for having me on.
Tavis: And Dr. West, nice to have you on as well, sir.
Dr. Cornel West: Always a blessing, you and Brother Dyson. 
Tavis: Dr. Dyson, let me start with you. I’m wondering whether or not you think it is possible in this moment, so close to Michael’s passing, to be able to properly contextualize what his cultural impact has been or is it going to take some time?
Dyson: Well, obviously it’s going to take time to properly assess the magnitude of his contribution, the depth of his genius and the global impact that he’s had, though I suspect that we can immediately take note of what that means.
They say journalism is the first, if you will, draft of history. Historians from 20, 25 years from now will begin to properly and adequately assess his impact on the music itself. But I think there’s no question that Michael Jackson was the foremost entertainer of his generation; perhaps of all time, arguably, taking the skills of a Sammy Davis Jr., bringing together the street dance of African American urban culture, joining them to the politics of dance, of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly on that sphere alone.
And then what he did with his voice and two careers, essentially divided between his childhood when he’s a young man of eight and nine and 10 years old coming to maturity in, if you will, Gary, Indiana, out of the Black working class, fomenting one of the most powerful musical careers of any group in the aftermath of the civil rights movement and then with that powerful blues-drenched voice giving expression to sentiments and emotions that are far older and deeper and more ancient than him.
And then in his second career giving voice to one of the most delicate instruments that expressed a range of emotions that had a high end in its tenor and falsetto and surprisingly deep vibrato. So I think that Michael Jackson, just as an entertainer, as a figure who embodies the contradictions of Black identity, and the possibilities of R&B music in the ’70s and ’80s will continue to be one of the most recognized and formidable human beings that we’ve ever produced in our tradition.
Tavis: Dr. West, let me pick up on the point that Dr. Dyson makes about the fact – and I’m paraphrasing here – that journalism is, in fact, the first swipe, at least, the first shot one gets at history at trying to properly contextualize or situate one’s place in the world.
Let me ask you in a very forthright way – I’ve got my own beefs but I want to hear your point – whether or not you think the media, to Dyson’s point, has done a good job of contextualizing Michael Jackson’s life and legacy thus far.
West: I think they’ve tried to make an honest effort but it’s impossible to really get at the depth and the complexity of the genius of Michael Joseph Jackson, and I do want to send out my love to the family – mother, father, brothers, sisters, and so forth.
It’s not just a major loss, it’s a monumental loss, and journalism, of course, has the sale of newspapers and magazines. They have to get things out quickly. They can’t be profound in their reflection; they can’t be thorough going in their analysis. But I think the important thing to understand first and foremost about Michael Jackson is that he was the international emblem of the African American blues spiritual impulse that goes back through slavery – Jim Crow, Jane Crow, up to the present moment, through a Louis Armstrong, through a Ma Rainey, through a Bessie Smith, all the way to John Coltrane, Aretha Franklin and Nina Simone.
Michael Jackson was part of that tremendous wave in the ocean of human expression and it happened to be located first and foremost in Gary, Indiana, working class, as Brother Dyson says. But Michael Jackson was someone who was so disciplined, who was so committed to what he was called to do, who did his work and did it well and did it at a level of excellence that the world will always have to take notice, always giving all of himself, like Jackie Wilson, like Coltrane, like Aretha, like Fred Astaire, like those who inspired him.
Most importantly, willing to give everything of mind, body, heart and soul at a level of not even just excellence but of the sublime. That’s Michael Jackson, brother, and he’s a part of me forever.
Tavis: Dr. Dyson, I don’t disagree with Dr. West in his assessment that the media has done a relatively decent job at trying again to put Michael Jackson’s life and legacy in its proper place. And yet, as is always the case, there are those on national television who shall go nameless in this conversation who have been too quick to jump to the controversy, too quick to jump to the troubles and the travails that he had.
And there are those who believe that Michael’s humanity has not been allowed to come through in the way that it should. After Ronald Reagan died there almost seemed to be immediately a moratorium on talking about his policies out of respect for the contribution that he did make in having been president.
Are these persons off the mark, on the mark when they express these consternations I’ve seen on the Internet about his humanity not being able to come through fully because of people going into attack mode on certain parts of his life?
Dyson: Well, it’s a sign of the hopefulness of Black people and the democratic possibilities of America that we’re even outraged or surprised that the same White supremacist impulse in media that is incapable of acknowledging the fundamental humanity of Black people would at this moment acknowledge the central contribution of a person of African decent to the global expression of American culture.
So on the one hand we can’t even expect them to do it because Michael Jackson’s very existence was in direct contradiction to the very forces that attempted to oppress and suppress the very people that he came from, and for which his voice was a monumental proxy.
I think that, Tavis, the reality is that to rush to judgment against Michael Jackson, to talk about some of the negative complicating factors of his evolution as a human being and certainly as an artist is nullified by the overwhelming support that not only African American people but people around the globe have shown in the aftermath and in the wake of this monumental grief.
Michael Jackson fundamentally altered the terms of the debate about African American music. Remember, he was a chocolate, cherubic-faced genius with an African American halo. He had an Afro halo. He was a kid who was capable of embodying all of the high possibilities and the deep griefs that besieged the African American psyche.
So when we saw him – look, signed in 1968, the same year King died, issues the first album from the Jackson 5 in 1969, he helps usher into place the post-civil rights soul expression of African American identity. They didn’t go to rallies, they didn’t speak on television as political figures, but what they did was change the terms of the debate for African American people.
So for America to miss that is to miss the fact that Michael Jackson argued against the very, if you will, deep and profound bowels of White supremacy in the belly of American political culture and he spoke against it not by being explicitly political but by commandeering that work ethic and that genius for which he was legendary, and then putting in the face of America the possibility that your highest expression would come about through the voice and the vocal cords of this young person.
Michael Jackson carried urban America and eventually American society on his vocal cords for a good 25 to 30 years before even hip-hop became the vox populi of America, and then as an adult he shattered racial barriers.
Think about it – in 1980 he had a conversation with a publicist from “Rolling Stone” magazine about putting him on the cover. The publicist declined. Michael Jackson said, “I’ve heard that Black people and Black faces don’t sell magazines, but one day you’re going to beg me to be on there.” He was right.
1983, Walter Yetnikoff, the president of CBS Records where Michael was then placed, couldn’t even get his videos played on MTV. He says, “I’m going to blow your spot up and tell the truth about your White supremacist, apartheid-like behavior if you don’t feature Michael Jackson.”
Michael Jackson goes on, there’s the long-form videos of “Thriller” and “Bad” and “Billie Jean,” resurrect that company – or should I say make it even possible as a fledgling music television channel. Michael Jackson had to beg them to allow him to make them successful and rich.
So I think in summary the reality is Michael Jackson’s humanity is so deep, the implications and inferences of his art so monumentally and magnificently global, that nothing American television could do to besmirch his character could ever, if you will, deny the legitimate genius that he represents and America has responded, as indeed has the globe.
Tavis: That raises this question for me, Dr. West, then. When you talk about Michael’s legacy, which again, as Dr. Dyson so brilliantly lays out, is more than just number one records, more than just being a fashion icon, more than just the videos that he produced and just completely changed the way we do music videos.
It’s more than just that. It is, to Dyson’s point about, if I could put it this way, striking a metaphorical blow against segregation, against White supremacy, against racism, against discrimination.
Two questions – did Michael really do all that? Is that too much for an artist to do? And if it’s not too much for an artist to do, what then ought artists today take from his legacy in that regard?
West: I think, Brother Tavis, that any great artist – it could be Beethoven wrestling with his nephew who was pushed to suicidal attempts. It could be Dostoevsky with gambling habits.
Any great artist is wrestling with their sadness and loneliness, their fears, anxieties and securities, and they’re transfiguring those into complicated forms of expression that affect our hearts, minds and souls and remind us of who we are as human beings, the fragility of our human status and the inevitability of death.
Michael Jackson was a great artist who also happened to be the greatest entertainer, not just of his generation but of the 20th century, with echoes of Fred Astaire and some other great entertainers, that there’s a political dimension to what he did but it was an indirect effect.
First and foremost he was Katherine and Joseph’s child trying to make sense of the world given this immense talent, tremendous discipline and determination to express himself, and most importantly being true to the calling of getting his work done so that yes, he did have those kind of political effects and consequences, but first and foremost, as a great artist who happened to also be a great entertainer, he was able to express himself in such a way that he allowed us to have a sense of what it feels like to be alive.
He had a joy in being alive. There was a joy you felt of him on the stage and making us not just feel good but pushing us against ourselves with the “Man in the Mirror,” looking at ourselves critically, “Black or White,” what does it mean to get caught in a color as opposed to a rich history and culture?
What does it mean to talk about the future with “Maybe Tomorrow.” We can go on and on with his artistic expressions. At the deepest level he’s a human being who made sense of the world at the highest level of excellence and people will talk about him in the same way they talk about all the great artists down through the corners of time, my brother.
Tavis: That raises a fascinating question, Dr. Dyson, whether or not Dr. West in fact is right about that. One could argue that in many respects, both socially, certainly economically, and even politically, one could argue that Elvis Presley, in some regards, is bigger in death now than he was in life. Given the way that we see this story being spun, being told at the moment, is that possible for Michael Jackson?
Put another way, not that he needs to be, but for the purposes of our conversation to be redeemed, as it were, even in death?
Dyson: Well, there’s no question about it; your point is brilliant. Elvis Presley did – died at 42 years old, under similar conditions, frighteningly and hauntingly so. And the parallels between Elvis and Michael Jackson as incredible artists is evident. But I think that where Michael Jackson even transcends Elvis Presley, Elvis Presley emerged on the underside of, but within the context of the dominant race in this American society, so that no matter he was a poor, White, working class human being who expressed the ethos of his time and articulated the sensibilities and possibilities of an America that was indebted to segregation, he appealed to Black music, channeled it through his own vocal cords, and therefore exploited the infinite and intimate possibilities of Black identity in the midst of a White supremacist culture.
Michael Joseph Jackson’s genius was the ability to be the raw article himself – the real article himself. He is part of the African American people who were marginalized. Elvis had a step up. Elvis had a stepstool, if you will, to success because he came from the dominant culture. They identified with him. Michael Jackson had to come further and go deeper into the pit of possibility of American democracy and of cultural expression.
His music was not seen as an intimate and organic development of American society. As a result of that, he had to challenge the White supremacist barriers that kept him from being even recognized as a human being, number one, and then the art form that was usually commodified by and appropriated by the dominant White culture and then used to its advantage.
Michael Jackson already, in his music, took back the prerogative of expressing an African American identity by an artist in the 20th century so that when you see Michael and Elvis on the same track, I think ultimately Michael Jackson begins to moonwalk away from Elvis Presley’s wiggle, and he begins to express one of the most profound articulations of human possibility that we’ve seen in the 20th century.
And don’t forget, Tavis, here was a man who went through enormous changes. When you saw the movie “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” that was Michael’s story write large. Born as an elderly person, Benjamin Button was, in the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel and in the film starring Brad Pitt, he dies as a newborn child. Michael Jackson’s childhood was one of enormous, prodigious production.
He was a child prodigy, he was a wunderkind. He was a chocolate genius who was capable of, as a child, evoking emotions that were far beyond his age. Think about his recitation at 10 years old of Smokey Robinson’s “When I Had You.” That was so monumental that, like Aretha Franklin, when Otis Redding heard her sing his “Respect,” he said, “That woman done took my song.”
I know Smokey Robinson, when he heard 10-year-old Michael Jackson sing that song, (laughter) said, “That man done took my song.” So here was a man who was denied his childhood, who was an adult, and then when he became an adult tried to salvage, with disastrous consequences, to a certain degree, his own childhood.
Maybe F. Scott Fitzgerald’s words can be twisted – there are no second childhoods in America, but Michael Jackson gave us, out of the depth of his suffering, a transcendental possibility of looking at Black identity through the prism of Black art, and therefore the universal application of our humanity has been untouched. Elvis Presley can’t see that.
Tavis: I want to play a clip here from James Ingram on this program not too long ago, in fact. Then I want to get a response from Dr. West on a particular question I have for him. But first a clip from the great artist, James Ingram. You know him for so many hits and Grammy awards in his own right, brought to us, introduced to many of us by the great Quincy Jones, who of course worked with Michael Jackson on “Thriller” and other albums.
But James, on this program not long ago, I asked him what it was like working with Michael when Michael recorded the song “PTY,” “Pretty Young Thing,” one of my favorites on the “Thriller” album, written by James Ingram for Michael Jackson. Here’s what James had to say about that recording session.
[Begin interview clip]
James Ingram: “PYT.”
Tavis: “PYT,” “Pretty Young Thing.”
Ingram: Yeah.
Tavis: Tell me about that song. I love it.
Ingram: Well, the thing was, when we went – we’re in the studio, right?
Tavis: Right, right.
Ingram: This is my first time seeing Michael sing, right? And so I’ve never seen anybody do this.
Tavis: Right.
Ingram: Michael did this. He was like, (singing) “Where did you come from, baby, and ooh, won’t you take me there right away with you, baby? (Unintelligible) you’ve got to be (unintelligible) fly with me. Don’t you know now it’s -” I said, “Oh, my God.” (Unintelligible) we’d be holding our breath trying to get everything on that microphone. I’m like this – (singing) “Ya mo b there.” (Laughter)
And so Michael came out sweating that thing. He said, “I’m I singing all right?” I said, “Michael, you kill me singing it however you want to sing it.” (Laughter)
Tavis: So he’s dancing and singing in the studio.
Ingram: I’ve never seen nobody in my life – and I’ve been into a lot of sessions, right – I’ve never seen nobody. Everybody’s trying to hold their breath for the mic. Michael don’t care. (Laughter) Michael is the genius that he is, brother.
[End interview clip]
Tavis: It’s a great story, Dr. West and Dr. Dyson, about Michael being the only cat in history that would dance in the studio while he was recording the track for release. What breath control; what a genius he was. Let me ask you, Doc, right quick, before my time runs out. You made a point earlier about the joy that Michael Jackson brought to us, and Dr. Dyson takes me in this direction to ask you now whether or not we did not allow him that same joy in his life.
What I mean to suggest is we’re such fans of his every time he walked out the house, whenever he came out to do anything, one could argue that we did not allow him, even at 50, not just, to Dyson’s point, to have a childhood, but to have a life that he could live out publicly anyway.
West: That was very real. I think those who choose to find joy in serving others, those who choose to find their voice, to pursue their vocation and to act on their vision oftentimes have to sacrifice much, my brother. It’s almost like a crucifixion in terms of the cross you have to bear.
And we reap the fruits of the resurrection in terms of the power that emanates from his sacrifice. He sacrificed his childhood because he loved us so, and he didn’t just entertain us, he sustained us. I can’t conceive of myself without “Who’s Loving You” by the young Michael. By “I’ll Be There,” you see.
One can go on and on and on, so that in that regard it’s part and parcel of the calling of the great artists, oh brother. I don’t know of a great artist who did not sacrifice and thereby have to wrestle with the depths of loneliness and sadness, and I pray for all the great artists. I thank God Brother Prince is still around, you know what I mean?
But at the same time, think of his sacrifice, which we know not of, but it just goes hand-in-hand with any of us who are determined to find joy in serving others. Long live the genius, the legacy, of Michael Joseph Jackson. There’s no one like him, there will never be anyone like him. We shall keep track of his art and his music even as we pray for his humanity, and most importantly, the living – those who love him, ourselves and his blessed family.
Tavis: Got a minute to go, Dr. Dyson. If Dr. West is right, in fact, about the fact that any great artist has to offer up some sacrifice to be the great artist, was it worth it for Michael Jackson?
Dyson: Well, there’s no question. I think that he did derive an ultimate sense of joy and satisfaction in what others enjoyed from him that was denied to himself. There’s no question that the transcendent art that he created was a means, an instrument, a vehicle for others to experience what he didn’t.
His own father told him, teased him that he was ugly. Michael reconstructed his face and deconstructed the African features into a spooky European geography of fleshly possibilities, and yet what we couldn’t deny, that even as his face got whiter and whiter his music got Blacker and Blacker. His soul got more deeply rooted in the existential agony and the profound social grief that Black people are heir to.
And what he did was he allowed us, through his voice and his instrument, to see a glimpse of the heaven that he himself was denied. That sacrifice was the ultimate source of redemption that he gave to us, and as Dr. West has said, we celebrate that genius, we thank him for the sacrifice, and we love his soul, wherever he resides now, in a heavenly place that he gave to us before he left here.
Tavis: Georgetown Professor Michael Eric Dyson –
West: And Brother Dyson and I were blessed to see it together. We saw it together at the Meadowlands, remember, brother?
Dyson: Yes, we did, in 1989, brother.
West: Oh, we saw it at the Meadowlands, and it was “Man in the Mirror” with the candles in the dark.
Dyson: Yeah, we’re right there, brother.
West: Never forget that, brother.
Dyson: We’re right there, we’re right there.
West: We were right there, man.
Tavis: They are two of America’s best social and cultural critics – Michael Eric Dyson, professor at Georgetown; the new book, “Can You Hear Me Now;” Cornel West, professor at Princeton. His upcoming memoir, “Brother West, Living and Loving Out Loud.”
Love you both, glad to have you on. No other conversation on TV like it tonight, and I’m glad to have moderated. Thanks for honoring me by coming on. I appreciate both of you.
Dyson: Thank you so very kindly.
West: It’s a blessing – it’s a blessing, my brother.

Tavis: At the core of Michael Jackson’s legacy will of course be the extraordinary songbook that became the soundtrack of so many of our lives, and while we will celebrate and cherish his music for generations to come we also mourn the passing of a man who is now gone too soon.

Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm