Opinion: Mahalia Jackson Internationalized Black Music

By Norman (Otis) Richmond aka Jalali | Thu 18 October 2012

Norman (Otis) Richmond explains how before The King of Pop, Michael Jackson, internationalized Black Music, another Jackson named Mahalia had already conquered the world.

The woman who became known as the “Queen of Gospel” had knocked them out in Egypt, Liberia, Syria, Lebanon, England, Israel and even India. She met and performed for India’s third Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi (19 NOV 1917 – 31 OCT 1984). India, according to Dr. Gerald Horne, was one of colonized Afro-Americans’ biggest supporters in their struggle for national liberation. Horne writes about “the rich history of ties between African Americans and India before India’s independence in 1947.” His book, The End of Empires: African Americans and India, makes a strong case for this point of view.

A year earlier, in 1970, she had traveled to Liberia and performed for President William Tubman. She received Liberia’s award of high distinction: The Grand Banner of the Order of Africa.

Jackson remembered when she was a little girl, her father pointing out the flags waving over ships that docked on the Mississippi River—almost in their front yard—in New Orleans. The flags represented England, France, Germany, Italy, Egypt, Denmark, Sweden; she had never dreamed she would visit these spots, be paid for performing, and treated like royalty.

Martin Luther King, The Drum Major for Justice, pointed out, “A voice like hers comes along once in a millennium.” An argument can be made that Jackson was King’s musical lieutenant. In the mid-1950s, she began singing for the Civil Rights Movement. She was recruited by Rev. Ralph Abernathy. At the March on Washington in 1963, she sang in front of 250,000 people “How I Got Over” and “I’ve Been ‘Buked and I’ve Been Scorned” before King made his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. She also sang “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” at his funeral after he was assassinated in 1968. Jackson sang to crowds at the 1964 New York World’s Fair and was accompanied by then “Wonder Boy Preacher” Al Sharpton.

While King represented the American Dream and his contemporary, El Hajj Malcolm El Shabazz (Malcolm X) represented the American Nightmare, both respected Jackson. Malcolm even tipped his hat to Jackson. In the Autobiography of Malcolm X, he and co-author Alex Haley discussed music. Malcolm talked about gospel singers like Sister Rosetta Thorpe and The Clara Ward Singers. He made special mention of Mahalia Jackson, and talked about her in glowing terms in his autobiography which he completed shortly before his February 21st 1965 assassination. Malcolm singled out Ms. Jackson saying, “Mahalia Jackson was the greatest of them all” and went even further to say that she was “The first Negro that Negroes ever made famous.”

Mahalia Jackson

Born as Mahala Jackson and nicknamed “Halie”, Jackson grew up in the Black Pearl section of the Carrollton neighborhood of uptown New Orleans, Louisiana. Possessing a powerful contralto voice, she was one of the most influential gospel singers in the world, and was heralded internationally. She recorded about 30 albums (mostly for Columbia Records) during her career, and her 45 rpm records included a dozen golds—million-sellers. She became the first gospel singer to perform at New York’s Carnegie Hall. She had her own radio show and appeared in films like St. Louis Blues and Imitation of Life.

Jackson had a profound impact on Jamaican music. When I began as a journalist Jackson’s name constantly came up every time I asked the question, “Who influenced you?” The next question I asked, “Why did Jackson influence you?” “She stood for truths and rights!” was how all the I-Threes (Rita Marley, Jody Mowatt and Marcia Griffiths) and Toots Hibbert, the front man of the Maytals replied.

After her whirlwind life and times Jackson was laid to rest in the city of her birth. Civil Rights leaders and entertainers delivered eulogies and praises. Belafonte, speaking at Jackson’s New Orleans burial said, “She was the single most powerful black woman in the United States, the woman-power for the grass roots. There was not a single field-hand, a single black worker, a single black intellectual who did not respond to her civil rights message.”

Norman (Otis) Richmond

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She was the single most powerful black woman in the United States, the woman-power for the grass roots. There was not a single field-hand, a single black worker, a single black intellectual who did not respond to her civil rights message.

Harry Belafonte

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