#277: Janet Jackson, "Rhythm Nation 1814" (1989)

America turned loose on America -
All living is listening for a throat to open -

The length of its silence shaping lives.

                        -       Claudia Rankine, Citizen



A generation full of courage, come forth with me! We are drawing battle lines, with music by our side, to fight the color lines.

Let’s work together to improve our way of life. Join voices in protest to social injustice. Let it be known:


People of the World! Unite! We hereby form THE RHYTHM NATION.

What We Want
What We Believe

We draw together to fight homelessness, drugs and crime spreadin’ on the streets, we fight for the people who can't find enough to eat, for the kids who can't go out and play: that's the state of the world today, that is why we have come together, this is our struggle.

This is the test: No struggle, no progress.


Lend a hand to help your brother do his best. Things are getting worse! We have to make them better! It's time to give a damn. Let's work together, come on.

Ministress of Information

The Rhythm Nation 1814


In 1989, when Janet Jackson released Rhythm Nation 1814, I was thirteen years old, growing up in a white middle class household in southern Ohio. And therefore I probably have no right to say anything about Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814.

I’d like to talk for a moment about what just happened in this country. When I started out writing this piece, it was a piece of fiction: the story of Miz Jackson and Black Cat, the runaway white rebel who joined the cause to help her black brothers and sisters fight for the Manifesto of the Rhythm Nation. The manifesto is just as you see it above: mostly from Janet’s own lyrics. Then, in the wee hours of the morning of November 9, as the returns for the American election came in and elected Donald J. Trump, who had run a campaignlet’s be frank nowon a platform of racism and xenophobia, as the next president of the United States of America, I realized how tone deaf this piece would turn out to be. How much it felt like appropriation. How much it relied on my being white, privileged enough to have fantasies about white liberals joining the cause, how much it relied on my readers being so, too. So I scrapped it. (The “Miz” in “Miz Jackson” was borrowed from “Nasty Boys,” intended to be an echo of Trump’s own words in the final debate. It was also a nod to an idealistic liberal white revolutionary, Mizmoon Soltysik of the Symbionese Liberation Army, famous for kidnapping Patricia Hearst.)

But I want to let the manifesto stand. Because, initially, the title song on Janet Jackson’s album was a manifesto, and that has to be recognized. When Janet Jackson made this album after 8 years of Reaganomics and the War on Drugs, she was writing lyrics with sincerity about the struggles of black people in America. I’m sure I understood some of the social issues Janet Jackson was singing about in a distant sense as a thirteen year old, but it’s incredibly likely that I was under the impression that I was changing the world just by listening to a Janet Jackson album. But listening to Rhythm Nation 1814 did nothing to change anything. In the 27 years since her album was released, black men and women are still being imprisoned for Reagan’s war on drugs; and if there is no cause to imprison them, they are simply being shot in the street by police officers.

In my original story, I explained the fourth verse of our very own national anthem, in which Francis Scott Key wrote, in 1814:

No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave,
O'er the land of the free, and the home of the brave.

The year of Francis Scott Key’s writing of these words is the reason for the 1814 in Janet’s album title. This was written before the Civil War, before the practice of slavery had been outlawed in the United States. According to some historians, Francis Scott Key was writing in this verse specifically about the Corps of Colonial Marines, escaped American slaves hired by the British to fight against the Americans in the War of 1812 and the Battle of Fort McHenry, about which these verses were written. In this verse, he is actively rooting for the demise of these former slaves. The refrain became our national anthem, sung before ballgames; our national anthem, during which some recently have felt compelled to kneel rather than salute. It’s worth understanding to its complete depths, drilled down to the fourth verse. It’s part of us; just as the slavery described therein is part of us, an undeniable part of the fabric of this country. We as white people need to confront this and own it.

This too: silence is consent.

I’m writing to break my silence.

I read an assortment of Black Panther texts and speeches in preparation for writing the fiction of Miz Jackson’s manifesto. I borrowedor, rather, appropriatedtone and even a few words directly from their platform. Maybe it was Janet’s reference to the “Black Cat” that pointed me in this direction, but it seemed obvious to me that my fictionalization of Janet Jackson’s call to arms—and especially a white liberal’s interpretation of itwould have parallels to that of the Black Panther Party. They were both equally tired of the murder and the destruction of their communities. The Black Panthers rejected capitalism and promoted a socialist agenda for educating and feeding their children: We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace. Janet Jackson wrote pop music that was commercialized and sold but espoused the same message: We fight for the people who can't find enough to eat. Her message was heard in bedrooms across America, but was it heard? How much of a manifesto was it, packaged and sold to little white girls in the Midwest? Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party, spoke on April 27, 1969 (seven months before he, too, was killed in a police raid), of the socialist intent behind starting the Black Panthers’ Breakfast for Children program: “We sayin’ something like thiswe saying that theory’s cool, but theory with no practice ain’t shit.”

Manifestos, like Janet’s about breaking the color lines, with no practice ain’t shit.

Wouldn’t it have been easy to write something light about a Janet Jackson album, take you on an escapade? In my story there were soft moments when Miz Jackson read a letter from her revolutionary lover who wrote “I miss you much.” That was predominantly what I took away from Janet Jackson’s album back when I first heard it. Shot like an arrow going through my heart / That's the pain I feel / I feel whenever we're apart. Making up dance routines and squealing when her slick-looking music videos came on MTV. The privilege of dance routines. But I’m 40 now. I’m a white woman living in America where Donald J. Trump was just elected president by 53% of white women, and if I don’t confront the fact that the ease with which I greeted Rhythm Nation 1814 back in the day is an important indicator of the level to which I need to help change things, then I’m doing nothing to break the color lines Janet sang about. Ain’t shit.

I suppose in the end this is, like Claudia Rankine’s “America turned loose on America,” an essay turned loose on a piece of fiction, or: myself turned loose on myself. We write in order to sort through our thoughts, give them shape. I wrote this in order to confront what is happening in this country as well as what is happening inside me, the white privilege I have grown up with and how to handle and utilize that privilege going forward.

There are things we can do with our energies, and things we cannot help but do, and I cannot help but do this: activate my awareness. Join voices in protest to social injustice. For real this time: more than just listening to Janet Jackson’s album in my bedroom.

Huey P. Newton, speaking to The Movement (a leftist newspaper associated with SNCC and SDS) in August of 1968: “I personally think that there are many young white revolutionaries who are sincere in attempting to realign themselves with mankind, and to make a reality out of the high moral standards that their fathers and forefathers only expressed.” Most liberal whites are predominantly unactivated allies. Some of us think we are being allies, but what have we given so far but words? Am I giving more than words here, more than a shallow assessment of Janet Jackson’s own protest? And by giving words, aren’t we just talking over those we need to be listening to?

Here I am, Janet: I’m listening to your manifesto. I’m ready to struggle and cast aside the ease of fantasy I grew up with. I should have arrived here before, fought harder, truly struggled, not just shouted encouragement on the sidelines of the struggle. I’m reaching out to lend a hand like you asked back when I was thirteen, before I knew how to give it. I was listening, but I wasn’t listening.

That ain’t shit.

—Zan McQuade