Michael Jackson took on Sony Music chairman Tommy Mottola this past weekend, accusing the head of his record company of being a racist and part of a racist conspiracy against black artists.
Though it was anticipated that Jackson would challenge standard practices of the music industry and champion artists' rights when he spoke at the Rev. Al Sharpton's National Action Network in New York's Harlem neighborhood on Saturday, his personal attacks against the Sony executive came as a surprise, not least of all to Sharpton himself.
Most of Jackson's comments were constrained to the overall treatment of black artists, the struggle of whom he said he shared. The pop star compared his troubles with his record company to those of artists who struggled financially, saying that there was an "incredible injustice" taking place.
"The recording companies really, really do conspire against the artists," Jackson said. "They steal, they cheat, they do everything they can, especially [against] the black artists. ... People from James Brown to Sammy Davis Jr., some of the real pioneers that inspired me to be an entertainer, these artists are always on tour, because if they stop touring, they would go hungry. If you fight for me, you're fighting for all black people, dead and alive."
But Jackson may have taken a wrong turn when he turned the fight for him into a fight against Mottola. Claiming that Mottola had used the "N-word" to refer to an unidentified black Sony artist, Jackson singled out the company chairman for being "mean ... a racist ... and very, very, very devilish."
Those accusations expanded on previous comments Jackson had made at a fan club event in London on June 15, where he told the crowd, "Tommy Mottola is a devil." At that event, Jackson didn't address any aspects of racism, and he limited his remarks to his troubles with Sony, which he claimed had tried to destroy what was to have been his comeback album, Invincible, by failing to promote it.
According to sources close to the album, Sony spent $30 million to make Invincible and $25 million to promote it; only two singles and one video were released, however. And while Jackson did perform two high-profile anniversary concerts in September that were later televised (see "Michael Jackson Smooth At Tribute, But Wait Was Criminal"), he did not tour to support the album another source close to the project said that Jackson refused to. Jackson also made few public appearances and granted even fewer interviews. Though Invincible sold an estimated 6 million copies worldwide and went double platinum in the U.S., it was not a blockbuster.
Still, the pop star has since escalated his troubles with his album sales and record company into an artist rights' issue, one that garnered him the support of not only Sharpton but also Johnnie Cochran (see "Michael Jackson, Al Sharpton, Johnnie Cochran Take On Labels"). While Sharpton still supports Jackson's view on the record industry overall, Sharpton told the New York Post that he was unaware that the pop star would vilify Mottola, an action he said was unfair and unfounded.
"He was the first record executive to step up and offer to help us with respect to corporate accountability, when it comes to black music issues," Sharpton told the Post. "I have known Tommy for 15 or 20 years, and never once have I known him to say or do anything that would be considered racist. ... I didn't know that Michael planned to personally attack Tommy, but nobody tells Michael Jackson what to do."
For its part, Sony was quick to defend Mottola as well, releasing a statement saying the company was bewildered by the pop star's remarks, which it called "ludicrous, spiteful and hurtful."
"We were deeply offended by the outrageous comments Mr. Jackson made during his publicity stunt this past Saturday," the statement reads. "The executive he attacked is widely supported and respected in every part of the music industry and has championed both Mr. Jackson's career and the careers of many other superstars. In launching an unfounded and unwarranted attack on this man's reputation, Mr. Jackson has committed a serious abuse of the power that comes with celebrity. The bizarre, false statements Mr. Jackson made on Saturday make it clear that his difficulties lie elsewhere than with the marketing and promotion of Invincible."
As the lines get drawn, Sharpton told the Post that he's already received a flurry of calls from top-level artists and producers upset with Jackson and coming to Mottola's defense, including producers Steve Stoute and Corey Rooney (Jennifer Lopez, Destiny's Child, Marc Anthony). It will soon be apparent whether Sharpton can separate Jackson's remarks about Mottola from the broader industry concerns their alliance is supposed to address, such as artist contracts and royalties, when National Action Network's Music Industry Initiative summit takes place Tuesday at NAN's New York headquarters.