Michael Jackson was an international superstar, and many in the black community herald him for breaking down racial barriers in the music industry.
Michael Jackson was one of the first black global superstars.
“Michael Jackson made culture accept a person of color way before Tiger Woods, way before Oprah Winfrey, way before Barack Obama,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton. “Michael did with music what they later did in sports and in politics and in television. And no controversy will erase the historic impact.”
As the Jackson 5, Michael Jackson and his brothers “became a cutting-edge example of black crossover artists,” said Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of black popular culture at Duke University’s Department of African and African American Studies.
“You basically had five working-class black boys with Afros and bell bottoms, and they really didn’t have to trade any of that stuff in order to become mainstream stars,” Neal said.
Young Michael Jackson was the first black “bubblegum teen star” in the vein of Monkees singer Davy Jones, Neal said.
Jackson continued as a pioneer in the black culture when he broke barriers by appearing on MTV, and by breaking sales records with the 1982 album, “Thriller.” Timeline: The life of a “King” »
“At the time that he releases ‘Thriller,’ I always argue that MTV was arguably the best example of cultural apartheid in the United States,” Neal said.
The former president of CBS Records, Walter Yetnikoff, remembered with scorn that MTV would not play “Billie Jean” or “Beat It” because it billed itself as a rock station.
Looking back on that era, a 1991 Los Angeles Times article quoted MTV founder and then-CEO Robert Pittman as saying the channel’s format didn’t lend itself to other musical styles, including R&B and country. And Pittman accused his critics of attempting to impose their musical pluralism on the channel’s die-hard rock fans.
But Yetnikoff said he threatened to pull videos of his other artists unless MTV played Jackson’s videos.
Soon Jackson’s videos were heavily in rotation on MTV. Showcasing a black artist paved the way for the popular show, “Yo! MTV Raps,” and other black artists, Neal said.
In turn, Jackson became one of the first African-Americans to be a global icon.
He also influenced a new generation of black musicians, including Usher, Ne-Yo and Kanye West, according to Joycelyn Wilson, a professor of African-American studies at Morehouse College, who specializes in popular culture and hip-hop studies.