Upon learning of music super­star Michael Jackson’s death, legions of fans around the world gath­ered to remember the self-​​proclaimed King of Pop, singing his songs and imi­tating his iconic moon­walk. Jackson spent four decades in the public spot­light: lately, as much for his legal bat­tles as for his song­writing and vocal tal­ents. Emmett Price, chair of the African-​​American studies depart­ment and asso­ciate pro­fessor of music, dis­cusses Jackson’s lasting impact on our cul­ture and his place in music history.

Jackson sold more than 750 mil­lion albums over a nearly four-​​decade career. Where does he rank among music’s all-​​time greats?

As a child sen­sa­tion, he cap­ti­vated audi­ences of all ages. As a young man, he worked hard to develop his vocal skills, his song­writing tech­nique and his inno­v­a­tive approach to dance. As a mature artist, he inter­nal­ized social ills and the unjust and inhu­mane treat­ment of others while pub­licly offering solu­tions filled with polit­ical cri­tique, demands for social jus­tice and cries for peace. Add it all up and you can see that Michael Jackson is one of the most pro­found, pro­lific and provoca­tive cul­tural icons of the twen­tieth and twenty-​​first centuries.

Jackson’s con­cept videos for songs such as “Billy Jean,” “Beat It” and “Thriller” were said to rev­o­lu­tionize the music video industry. Why haven’t more artists been able to dupli­cate Jackson’s success?

Michael Jackson was what I like to call a “cham­pion of pos­si­bil­i­ties.” He did what most would deem impos­sible and he did it in grand fashion. From his acting in “The Wiz,” to music sound­tracks, to phil­an­thropy and social move­ments, to the cre­ation of Cap­tain EO and the Nev­er­land Ranch, Jackson was a for­ward thinker who achieved and kept moving for­ward. Even in the midst of great cyn­i­cism, tremen­dous scrutiny and in the line of utter hatred, he con­tinued to push the enve­lope of cre­ation in a direc­tion pre­vi­ously unchartered.

From the early ’90s onward, Jackson’s legal bat­tles dom­i­nated the head­lines, while the atten­tion given to his music receded. Some may have won­dered whether his off-​​stage trou­bles dimin­ished his pop­u­larity, but the public’s reac­tion to his death seems to say otherwise.

Michael Jackson’s death reveals the irony and schiz­o­phrenic nature of the Amer­ican con­science through the lens of media. Alive, he was one of the most hated and despised indi­vid­uals to walk the earth, but we loved his music. In death, he is one of the most loved, cher­ished, admired indi­vid­uals to have walked the earth, and now we really love his music. This has more to do with the decep­tive prac­tices of the media than it has to do with Jackson him­self. The over-​​sensationalized cov­erage by the media cre­ated a sit­u­a­tion where even he could not effec­tively speak for him­self. Unfor­tu­nately, in his death, his tremen­dous legacy is over­shad­owed by the con­stant media cov­erage of his pri­vate struggles.

Jackson was the first black pop star to gain fame on MTV. What did this mean to the African-​​American community?

Every now and then we are blessed by the pres­ence of one who makes a defin­i­tive con­tri­bu­tion to the greater good of humanity. Jackson bridged dif­fer­ences by focusing on humanity, jus­tice, peace and the greater force of love. His overall mes­sage illu­mi­nates the fact that, although there are many things about each of us that are dif­ferent, we have much more in common. The Black com­mu­nity, in all of our diver­sity, rec­og­nizes Jackson as an example of what our young boys and girls can be when we peel back the thick skin of racism, hatred, prej­u­dice and sys­tem­atic oppres­sion and nur­ture the great­ness that lies within.

Which one of his albums has been your favorite and why?

Like many in my gen­er­a­tion who grew up along­side Michael and watched his trans­for­ma­tion from the little guy in the Jackson 5 to his rise to solo stardom, the amazing recording that came from the part­ner­ship of Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones, “Off the Wall,” will for­ever be the one that did what it did for me. This was and will remain a musical and cul­tural classic. With songs written by Jackson, Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney, and with musi­cians on the album such as Larry Carlton, George Duke, Greg Phillinganes and Larry Watson, this is one of the greatest albums ever because it has mes­sage, move­ment, mood, mys­tique and musical mastery.