Freeing Society in “They Don’t Care about Us” by Michael Jackson

by Monica Stancu

In Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison, Michel Foucault argues that there is a direct connection between the modern legal system and power relations. According to him, the legal system, with its police, prisons and constant surveillance of the population represents a manifestation of power and is used as a political tool to further restrict and repress society. Foucault’s philosophical principles may be applied to the reading of Michael Jackson’s controversial video, They Don’t Care about Us (1996), which was set in a prison. In the video, the singer claims that the dominant class in America uses its political power to abuse and manipulate the people by keeping them not only in a physical jail, but also in a “metaphorical” psychological jail by withholding information and making false accusations.

Jackson challenges the assumption that the police functioning as representatives of the state apparatus are safe and honorable while the inmates are dangerous and immoral. He echoes Foucault’s argument that “we should rid ourselves of the illusion that penalty is a means of reducing crime” (Foucault 24). The singer reverses the roles by turning the police into the villains and the prisoners into the good guys, suggesting that they were wrongfully sent to jail. Jackson plays the role of a prisoner arguing that the rights and the freedom guaranteed by the Emancipation Proclamation are no longer valid in America: “I am the victim of police brutality, now…tell me what has become of my rights”.

Since Foucault asserts that power depends on the possession of certain knowledge, Jackson empowers our society by raising awareness and revealing to the public the social problems caused by racist politics: on the walls of Jackson’s cell there are reflected news reports that depict poor, hungry and crying black children and violent street scenes where cops viciously attack black people. The public physical punishment carried out by the police against minorities, reminds one of the spectacles of punishment in the 18th century. In contemporary Western society, this type of public punishment is unacceptable as revealing it makes the executioners ashamed.

Michael Jackson’s use of real footage is an appeal for people to stop being passive and to revolt against the injustice provoked by American political interests. He refuses to be controlled and shut down: Jackson starts screaming, getting on the table and agitating the other inmates; in the end, we see him running free outside the prison.

Michael Jackson concludes that equality and freedom will not be willfully granted. The oppressed have to free themselves by refusing to be disciplined and by understanding that if they are united they will have more power that the oppressive dominant class. ▢

Monica Stancu graduated from the University of Bucharest, Romania with a degree in American Studies. She is the recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship and is currently a graduate student studying Women’s History at Sarah Lawrence College.

“They Don’t Care About Us”
Michael Jackson

Skin head, dead head
Everybody gone bad
Situation, aggravation
Everybody allegation
In the suite, on the news
Everybody dog food
Bang bang, shot dead
Everybody’s gone mad

All I wanna say is that
They don’t really care about us
All I wanna say is that
They don’t really care about us

Beat me, hate me
You can never break me
Will me, thrill me
You can never kill me
Jew me, sue me
Everybody do me
Kick me, kike me
Don’t you black or white me

All I wanna say is that
They don’t really care about us
All I wanna say is that
They don’t really care about us

Tell me what has become of my life
I have a wife and two children who love me
I am the victim of police brutality, now
I’m tired of bein’ the victim of hate
You’re rapin’ me of my pride
Oh, for God’s sake
I look to heaven to fulfill its prophecy…
Set me free

Skin head, dead head
Everybody gone bad
trepidation, speculation
Everybody allegation
In the suite, on the news
Everybody dog food
black man, black male
Throw your brother in jail

All I wanna say is that
They don’t really care about us
All I wanna say is that
They don’t really care about us

Tell me what has become of my rights
Am I invisible because you ignore me?
Your proclamation promised me free liberty, now
I’m tired of bein’ the victim of shame
They’re throwing me in a class with a bad name
I can’t believe this is the land from which I came
You know I do really hate to say it
The government don’t wanna see
But if Roosevelt was livin’
He wouldn’t let this be, no, no

Skin head, dead head
Everybody gone bad
Situation, speculation
Everybody litigation
Beat me, bash me
You can never trash me
Hit me, kick me
You can never get me

All I wanna say is that
They don’t really care about us
All I wanna say is that
They don’t really care about us

Some things in life they just don’t wanna see
But if Martin Luther was livin’
He wouldn’t let this be

Skin head, dead head
Everybody gone bad
Situation, segregation
Everybody allegation
In the suite, on the news
Everybody dog food
Kick me, strike me
Don’t you wrong or right me

All I wanna say is that
They don’t really care about us
All I wanna say is that
They don’t really care about us

All I wanna say is that
They don’t really care about us
All I wanna say is that
They don’t really care about us

All I wanna say is that
They don’t really care about us
All I wanna say is that
They don’t really care about us

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