Charlottesville and the resurrection of Michael Jackson's 'They Don't Care About Us'
Written by Mike Smallcombe the author of Making Michael, a book on the career of Michael Jackson. Find out more here.
“The song is about the pain of prejudice and hate and is a way to draw attention to social and political problems. It is about the injustices to young people and how the system can wrongfully accuse them.”
Those are the words of Michael Jackson, the late King of Pop. He’s talking about arguably the most controversial song that he recorded in his entire career, ‘They Don’t Care About Us’.
Initially written for the Dangerous album, the track ended up on HIStory, which was released in June 1995 and includes several songs with heavily personal themes.
And now, more than 22 years later, a video for the song which was deemed so controversial that it was banned from television, is at the forefront of public attention once more. It’s all because of the recent events in Charlottesville, which have sparked a heated debate on US race relations.
People fly into the air as a vehicle drives into a group of protesters demonstrating against a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville
Violent clashes in Virginia culminated with a woman's death and nearly 20 wounded, after a car ploughed into a crowd at the far-right rally.
And on Wednesday the country’s own President, Donald Trump, caused outrage when he appeared to defend the organisers and equated the white supremacists on the right to the “alt-left.”
This isn’t, of course, the first time that ‘They Don’t Care About Us’ has become a theme for those protesting against racial hatred. In 2014 and 2015, during the Black Lives Matter movement, ‘They Don’t Care About Us’ was sung by thousands of people marching through the streets of cities across America, and also London.
Back then it was all about the lyrics, protesting against racial discrimination, but now it’s one of the song’s two videos which is gaining renewed attention and relevance.
Michael in a scene from the prison version
Aside from the video for ‘They Don’t Care About Us’ which was filmed in the Dona Marta shantytown in Rio de Janeiro - the version those who are familiar with the song are more likely to have seen - there’s also a ‘prison’ version.
Both versions, directed by Spike Lee, were initially going to be edited together into a single video.
Read next: Michael Jackson and This Is It: The story
Michael was unhappy elements of the Brazil version, so he had Lee put together a full prison version, which was shot in a studio in New York.
But then the prison version was banned by many music channels due to its contents, which were deemed to be too violent, so Michael replaced it with a full Brazil version.
Watch the prison version:
Confusing, but the main point here is that since the events in Charlottesville, the shocking, true-to-life images in the video such as the Rodney King beating, genocide and execution and Ku Klux Klan gatherings have really struck a chord.
References to the prison version have appeared all over social media in recent days, and violent and heated debates have erupted in the video’s comments section on Michael’s official VEVO YouTube account.
A tweet claiming that we now “know why” it was banned from television has also been retweeted more than 120,000 times.
The song might be popular now, but commercially and critically, it was a completely different story 20 years ago.
In March 1996, the track was released as the fourth commercial single from the HIStory album. But radio stations in the United States were reluctant to play it due to - yes, seriously - a controversy over those now iconic lyrics.
Critics who obtained pre-release copies of the album in June 1995 highlighted that the lyrics in question, ‘Jew me, sue me, everybody do me, kick me, kike me, don’t you black or white me’, could be interpreted as anti-Semitic.
Some Jewish groups condemned the lyrics and considered them offensive, although Michael’s manager Sandy Gallin, himself a Jew, said it was ‘the most ridiculously misconstrued interpretation’ of a song he had ever heard.
Naturally, Michael said he was ‘angry and outraged’ that he could be so misinterpreted. “My intention was for this song to say ‘No’ to racism, anti-Semitism and stereotyping,” he explained. “Unfortunately, my choice of words may have unintentionally hurt the very people I wanted to stand in solidarity with.” To quell the controversy, Michael made the decision to modify the lyrics slightly and re-record that part of the song. And then, nine months later, came the prison video saga. The damage was done.
As a result of the misconception over both the lyrics and the video, ‘They Don’t Care About Us’ only peaked at number 30 on the Billboard 100. It was also panned by several critics, mainly white, including writers for The New York Times and The Seattle Times.
But while it may not have been appreciated in all quarters in 1995 and 1996, over the past three years ‘They Don’t Care About Us’ has finally reached the levels of significance Michael would have hoped it would. Maybe not on the music charts, but certainly in the streets across the world.
If only Michael was still with us, as we see yet another of his momentous and defining musical messages hit home.
Written by Mike Smallcombe the author of Making Michael, a book on the career of Michael Jackson. Find out more about the book here.