D.B. Anderson tells us about the suppression and history of “They Don’t Care About Us”, the anti-racism song Michael Jackson wrote and recorded two years after being strip-searched by police in 1993.
“They Don’t Care About Us” was denounced by The New York Times even before its release, and did not reach much of its intended audience because the controversy caused by the New York Times article would go on to overshadow the song itself. Radio stations were reluctant to play it and one of the short films Jackson created for the song was banned in the US
We also learn that Sony Columbia films bought Jackson’s film acting rights, apparently in order to make sure he could not make a film. And that Jackson recorded two music videos of his song with Spike Lee.
The first version, recorded in Brazil, features the Afro-Brazilian drumming group Olodum. If you’re familiar with the song, this is the version you’ve probably seen. Already in production at the time of the controversy, it uses sound effects to obscure the objectionable words.
But the “Prison” version is a tour de force; Jackson had even more to be angry about. Jackson and Lee chose to film in a Long Island jail, said Lee, because “a lot of people in prison shouldn’t be there. A lot of people are there for a much longer time too. In American prisons, there are more brown and black people than white.”
All Jackson’s frustrations seem to be on display in this raw and angry performance. Behold:
Here’s an extended sound recording of the Olodum song and a video version: