Every generation has its moments when a beloved public figure is taken from us. It’s a memory that often is forever etched in our memories. No matter how much time has passed, you can look back and remember exactly where you were when you got the news that made you question if things would ever be the same again. For many of us, Michael Jackson’s death was one of those game-changing moments in time.
It feels like those moments are happening more and more often, especially in the world of black music. But the real tragedy is that we’re not just losing these beloved artists. We’re also losing our culture.
In the last year alone, we’ve lost musical legends like Etta James, Don Cornelius, Donna Summer and, of course, Whitney Houston. Locally, Washingtonians mourned the loss of Chuck “Godfather of Go-Go” Brown who put the nation’s capital on the country’s cultural radar.
Look at how we try to revive the past. It returns in the form of a resurrected Tupac at Coachella, rumors of a Whitney Houston biopic, and the Jackson brothers going on a 16-city tour without their brother Michael. But it’s never the same. With each death, a piece of the public’s artistic imagination and inevitably who we are as a people passes away with it.
While not dismissing the cross-generational greatness that remains in our midst, I can’t help but be concerned for the state of black entertainment. We’re far from a cultural drought, but much of today’s music doesn’t pulsate with the same soul that eras past did.
Much of my disappointment stems from commercial hip-hop. I'm saddened that my nieces don't have an equivalent to Arrested Development rapping about brothas “disrespecting my black queen, holding their crotches and being obscene” on the urban radio stations they listen to daily. Where are the Fugees and Tribe Called Quest for the new generation? Even in the R&B realm — for every H-Town that talked about “Knockin the Boots,” there remained a Boyz II Men that sang about loving someone until the “End of the Road” or the “Water Runs Dry.” There was greater balance, and as a result, we could choose our music a la carte.
Steve Harvey drove this point home in “The Original Kings of Comedy,” when he talked about the difference between Earth, Wind and Fire asking “would you mind if I looked in your eyes till I'm hypnotized and I lose my pride?” and today’s artists asking “who shot ya?” The difference between Lenny Williams crying his way through “Cause I Love You” and today’s artists making music saturated with sex but completely devoid of love.
Much like our food, the music we consume today is engineered through very advanced technology and far from anything organic or homegrown. The commercial, synthetic production of music has gotten so bad that a mainstream artist such as Jay-Z felt the need to call for the “Death of Auto-Tune” as a critique of and challenge to individuals like T-Pain, who popularized the audio-engineering technology.
The artists aren’t the primary ones to blame for this compromise of cultural integrity. The corporate-driven industry isn’t as invested in making timeless music like EWF’s “Love’s Holiday”as it is in keeping up with consumer trends for the purpose of having mass appeal. It’s down to a formula now. Artists are required to have pop crossover in order to be sustainable — even if the culture suffers as a result. Rapper Nicki Minaj is a good example of how a formulaic sound and a sex-driven brand will prosper against all odds. Her crossover single “Starships” debuted at No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100, even though it was, as the magaizine noted, “a departure in sound for the Young Money rapper”.
With that level of calculated success, what will challenge this generation of artists to pursue music with the same global vision that Michael Jackson had? The genius behind “Thriller” crossed every human boundary that divides us. Very few artists can popularize a nation’s culture in the ways in which Michael did. He had his faults (many of them), but he made America look good in the eyes of the world. And he made us, as Americans, feel good about ourselves.
This isn’t to ignore the fact that artists like Rihanna have similar global appeal. But it wasn’t just Michael’s music that was global in scope; his passion for service was as well. MJ was a servant. It’s hard to imagine contemporary artists like Rihanna and Beyonce offering the equivalent to “We Are the World” with the sincerity that Michael’s charity work had. But that may not be a statement about them as much as it is about the difference between Michael’s baby boomer generation, which lived through the civil rights and Black Power movements, versus my generation, which seemingly has a much more self-centered and materialistic strand running through it. Selfish artistry permeates our contemporary cultural landscape because so many of us have taken our freedoms for granted and don’t feel a sense of obligation to live out a life of service.
We can’t bring Michael or any of these artists who have passed back. But we can hope to live in a world where entertainers understand that being the greatest of all time is about much more than just music; it’s also about touching humanity in a way that forever changes people. In the end, how much our culture thrives will depend on how concerned we are about the welfare of our neighbor and the needs of our world.
Rahiel Tesfamariam is a columnist and blogger for The Washington Post and The RootDC. She is the founder/editorial director of Urban Cusp, an online lifestyle magazine highlighting progressive urban culture, faith, social change and global awareness. Follow her onTwitter @RahielT.