MJ: Commodified Soul, Popularized Music and Revolutionized Black Culture
by Selam Aster
Michael Jackson would’ve been 53 today. Although he is deceased, his legacy becomes that much more significant in the cannons of cultural history with every passing year. It wasn’t only Jackson’s contribution to music that was significant but also his contribution to racial justice which is less recognized but equally as important. Jackson’s ability to communicate the souls of black folk through his music, with Jackson 5 and later, upped the ante for how Black culture was consumed around the world.
When I think of Michael, I think of Black people’s greatest asset: soul. In an era where capitalism rules, all assets are commodified for survival. As anyone who is familiar with the story of the Jacksons knows, Michael didn’t choose to sell his soul/music, but his talents represented a resource that his father and family couldn’t afford not to exploit on the marketplace. And so Michael did what he had to do. He fulfilled his passion and, at the same time, demonstrated the exponential value and power of Black music. His passion and his music resonated with a huge and die-hard world wide audience, and in effect, changed the way not only everyday people thought of the boundaries of race but also how businesses and companies viewed African-Americans.
Today, there’s no question how powerful Black music is. At the MTV Video Music Awards last night, the nominees and winners were dominated by pop and hip-hop artists. At the height of Michael’s career, you’d be hard pressed to see more than two soul or rap musicians performing at the same awards show.
Michael represents the best of Black people: the rhythm, the soul, the inventiveness, the imagination. So why is it looked down upon when young kids want to emulate him and so many others like him. It is unspoken but many children are steered away from the arts and lower-income Black children are especially sent a subliminal message that to strive to be a working musician is stupid, that it’s best to want to become a lawyer, doctor or any other Huxtable-approved profession. But to tap into one’s talents should never be looked down upon.
We must see it for what is; and that is that soul is a commodity. There is a certain rhythm, a certain essence that is unique to Africa and its descendants. So today on Michael’s birthday, I hope that people just don’t celebrate his music but celebrate the beauty of Black and the power of soul music, as evidenced by one of its greatest artists.