In this presentation, Professor Tamara Roberts, UC Berkeley, suggest that instead of reading Jackson’s artistic journey as one from black to white, we instead look at the ways he muddied the divide between dominant conceptions of what constitutes “white” and “black” music. To explore this idea, she discusses some of Jackson’s musical strategies that diverge from the standards of the various African American traditions he incorporated into his work. Instead of simply performing pop music that is “whiter,” Roberts argues that Jackson’s work can more productively be read as a particular vein of more experimental, “Afrofuturistic” musical practice.

What is popular music? Is it white or black? Do African American practices become more “white” as they enter the music economy? Or does the extended reign of hip-hop indicate that, really, pop music has just been “black” all along? Is there a racial connotation to the notion of the “mainstream”? As the King of Pop and oft-discussed racial chameleon, Michael Jackson is perfectly poised as a figure through which to investigate these questions.

From the beginning of the popular music industry, genres have been divided into race-based categories despite the long history of cross- and interracial musical practice in the U.S. Jackson participated in various segments of the industry since his childhood and performed music from a variety of traditions, including styles branded as white. In addition, his unique choreography, dramatically shifting appearance, and non-normative gender presentations had Jackson crossing racial, gender, and sexual boundaries throughout his career.