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THE NATION

Michael Jackson Says He's Not in Harmony With Sony

Music: Singer, in Harlem with the Rev. Al Sharpton, accuses the firm of racism toward blacks. Company denies the charge.

July 07, 2002|MAGGIE FARLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — Michael Jackson threw down a glove on Saturday in his dispute with Sony Music, calling its treatment of black artists racist. Sony executives termed the accusation "bizarre" and hinted that Jackson is losing touch.

In an appearance with black activist Rev. Al Sharpton in Harlem, Jackson portrayed himself as the latest in a long line of victims of corporate exploitation. He joins other recording artists such as the Dixie Chicks and Courtney Love in challenging what they call the industry's unfair accounting practices. The Dixie Chicks, who had accused Sony of ''systematic thievery," last month settled their dispute with the firm and agreed to a new contract.

"The record companies really do conspire against the artists," said Jackson to a crowd of admirers at Sharpton's National Action Network office. "Especially the black artists."

Jackson, whose seven releases under Sony have sold more than 100 million units, announced two weeks ago in London that he intended to leave the company as soon as he finishes his contract. He owes the company a greatest hits compilation with three new tracks--songs he said he has recorded but has not handed over.

Jackson says Sony didn't do enough to promote his latest album, "Invincible," which had such disappointing sales that critics called it "Invisible." But on Saturday, with the help of Sharpton and an earlier endorsement from lawyer Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., Jackson attempted to escalate the artists' rights movement--and his right to a bigger share of profits --into a civil rights issue.

"When you fight for me," Jackson said, "you're fighting for all black people, dead and alive."

Sony executives say Jackson is free to go at the end of his contract and were bewildered by his attacks. "Mr. Jackson's comments today were ludicrous, spiteful, and hurtful," a Sony Music representative said Saturday. "It seems particularly bizarre that he has chosen to launch an unwarranted and ugly attack on an executive [Sony chairman Thomas D. Mottola] who has championed his career and the careers of so many other superstars throughout the years.... Today's false statement makes it clear that Mr Jackson's difficulties lie elsewhere than the marketing and promotion of 'Invincible.' "

Jackson's associates also have blamed Sony for blocking the release of a charity single made to benefit victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, "What More Can I Give." But the Sony representative said Sony doesn't have rights to the song, and that Jackson and the single's producer appear to be wrangling over its release.

Jackson's friction with Sony has drawn not only the attention of civil rights leaders, but of an intensely loyal international fan club as well. Several hundred devotees who had gathered to present him with a Fan Appreciation Award staged a protest in his support Saturday in front of Sony's headquarters on Madison Avenue. While they waited for Jackson to show up, they danced to tracks from "Invincible" behind police barriers and waved banners portraying Mottola as the devil.

Tanya Spencer, 32, sat on the curb with her 4- and 11-year-old daughters, tired from a vigil that started at 3 a.m. to ensure a good spot at Jackson's Harlem appearance. It paid off. "I kissed him," she said, "and he gave my girl a hug. Spencer didn't particularly like the results of Jackson's serial plastic surgeries, she said, but didn't begrudge him. "If you're a true fan, it's just like being a married couple. You're supposed to love the person for better or worse, straight from the heart."

Helene Bayle, a 23-year-old student who started a Jackson fan club in Europe, flew from France for the event, and said others had come from Israel, Spain, Germany, Italy and Switzerland. She opened her blue leather wallet to show off pictures of her with Jackson. "A sudden arrangement of police officers in the street signaled the crowd that Jackson was about to arrive, and they started up with a chant deriding Sony. Then he was there, riding atop a red double-decker tourist bus, shielded from the sun by a black umbrella, and flashing peace signs, one hand clad in a black glove. Sharpton stood at his side.

The fans burst from behind the barricades and, screaming, followed the bus down the middle of Madison Avenue. They were chased in turn by 22 surprised police officers. The bus hit a young woman who darted in front of it trying to get a better glimpse of Jackson, injuring her shoulder. The bus then turned the corner to circle back for a second round of drive-by admiration.

People walking in Midtown paused, though just barely, to take in the bizarre parade. "Michael Jackson?" said Angela Gutierrez. "That's all? I thought it was some kind of attack."

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