Docteur ès anthropologie, université de Chicago
This essay examines how the visual representations of “Remember the Time” express themes of Afrocentric discourse and social commentary on the racial marginalization that was taking place at the time, particularly in the entertainment industry. Drawing from the previous scholarship related to Afrocentric discourse along with the previous scholarship on the cultural politics of Michael Jackson’s work, this essay argues that the representations of “Remember the Time” created an ideological space where commentary about the validity of African American culture (through its connections with culturally advanced ancient empires) and critiques of racial marginalization could be expressed in mainstream popular culture.
Keywords: Michael Jackson, Afrocentric discourse, “Remember the Time”, Black popular culture
On February 2, 1992, Michael Jackson fans everywhere found themselves waiting again in front of their televisions for the world premiere of the video for his latest song, “Remember the Time”. Since the blockbuster success of the “Thriller” video, Jackson would continue to use the short film/world premiere formula to promote his new projects. For his 1991 Dangerous album, the music video for “Black or White” premiered in November of 1991 on four different channels (MTV, BET, VH1 and FOX) to the highest Nielsen ratings at the time. Similar to “Black and White”, “Remember the Time” was slated for a February 1992 release in a worldwide premiere across several networks (ABC, NBC, FOX, BET and MTV). However, the premiere of “Remember the Time” would be the first time that an artist would utilize a large-scale production with an all-Black cast, Black director (John Singleton) and Black music producer (Teddy Riley) to address the controversial subject matter of the racial identity of Ancient Egyptians. Set in ancient times, the video features Eddie Murphy and supermodel Iman as Pharaoh Ramses and Queen Nefertiti on a multi-million-dollar set depicting the opulence of Ancient Egyptian royalty.
Despite its monumental efforts, the critical reception for “Remember the Time” would not be favorable. Mainstream entertainment critics would call the video “an elaborate piece of dress-up for Jackson and his buddies” and likened his depictions of Black Egyptian royalty to “a Sheba cat food commercial”. In contrast, Jet magazine would run the video as the cover story for its mid-February Black History Month issue praising “Remember the Time”’ for a storyline that recalls “a time when Blacks ruled one of civilization’s greatest empires”. Together the African American historical depictions of “Remember the Time” and its vastly contrasting reception raise interesting questions about the role that the video played in representing the Afrocentric discourse of the 90s as well as the motivations Michael Jackson may have had for creating these representations.
This essay will examine how the visual representations of “Remember the Time” expressed themes of Afrocentric discourse and social commentary on the racial marginalization that was taking place at the time, particularly in the entertainment industry. Drawing from the previous scholarship related to Afrocentric discourse as well as the previous scholarship on the cultural politics of Michael Jackson’s work this essay argues that the representations of “Remember the Time” created an ideological space where commentary about the validity of African American culture (through its connections with culturally advanced ancient empires) and critiques of the racial hierarchies that existed in the entertainment industry could be expressed in mainstream popular culture.
The first section of the essay, “The Rise of Afrocentrism and Michal Jackson’s Early 90s Coming of Age”, discusses the development of Afrocentric discourse beginning with the influences of W.E.B. Du Bois’ early 20th century work and continuing to the rise of Afrocentrism in popular culture during the time that “Remember the Time” was released. This section also discusses what music critics have called Michael Jackson’s “coming of age” during the early 90s and the way that his development as an artist reflected the themes of Black heritage and Black social consciousness represented in Afrocentric discourse.
The second section, “Michael Wanted to Do Something to Show Us as We Are-Very Beautiful People”: “Remember the Time as Vehicle of Afrocentric Discourse” will examine the way that representations of Ancient Egypt in the “Remember the Time” short film/video reflected Afrocentric ideologies of the Black racial identity of Ancient Egyptians as well as Afrocentrism’s aim to challenge the erasure of Black history in world historical contexts. This section also discusses the way that Michael Jackson’s self-representation reflected what musicologist Brian Rossiter terms as Jackson’s conflicted positioning between “fixed racial solidarity and postmodern subjectivity”. Lastly, this section examines the reviews of “Remember the Time” in light of the way that celebrations of Black heritage and Afrocentric identity logics (particularly representations of Black Ancient Egyptians) were received in the larger media contexts of the 1990s.
Through an analysis of the cultural and political representations deployed in “Remember the Time”, this essay seeks to illuminate the way that popular culture phenomena such as the music videos of a pop icon can be a critical site for understanding the way that cultural identity, heritage and social commentary are continuously negotiated and reproduced within a variety of cultural landscapes.
The rise of afrocentrism and Michael Jackson’s early 90s “coming of age”
The significance of Nile Valley civilization is that it set a standard of performance untouched by the other civilizations of the world, and people are reluctant to give an African credit for a creation that happened in Africa… (John Henrick Clarke)
Funk is the force I exert, Egyptian, African…Yo Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, step off!
The representations of Ancient Egypt in “Remember the Time” are closely connected to the ideologies of Afrocentrism that were pervasive in popular culture during the late 80s and early 90s. Building from the works of African American scholars throughout the 20th century, the Afrocentrism of the late 80s and 90s was mainly concerned with acknowledging the otherwise silenced contributions of Black history to American history as well as world history. A key area of analysis within the Afrocentric model is the racial identity of Ancient Egyptians as well as the role that Ancient Egypt played in the development of world civilization. By the early 90s the racial identity of Ancient Egyptians had become an issue of public debate garnering attention from news and media outlets with headlines asking “Afrocentrism, Balancing or Skewing History?” and “What Color Was Cleopatra?”. It is within this popular culture landscape that Michael Jackson’s Dangerous album emerges during a time that music critics describe as Jackson’s artistic “coming of age” because of the album’s more adult-oriented themes of sexual expression and social commentary. Among the songs on Dangerous that represent this artistic “coming of age”, “Remember the Time” is particularly unique in the Afrocentric influenced representations of Ancient Egyptian royalty and opulence that Jackson chooses for the song’s short film/music video.
The historical inquiries that characterize Afrocentrism have long been a part of Black scholarship, beginning with the early works of W.E.B. Du Bois and continuing through the Civil Rights/Black Power era into the Black consciousness resurgence of the late 80s/early 90s. In his early 20th century investigation of African American contributions to world history, Du Bois often discussed the Black racial identity of Ancient African civilizations, particularly Ancient Egypt. During his time as editor of the NAACP’s Crisis Magazine, Du Bois featured an image of an Egyptian pharaoh in a 1911 issue with hieroglyphs and the caption “Egyptian Portrait of One of the Black Kings of the Upper Nile, Ra-Maat-Neb, Builder of Pyramid no. 17”. As part of his argument that Ancient Egyptians were of African/Black racial descent, Du Bois often drew from the ancient Greek historian Herodotus who often described Egyptians as dark skinned with curly hair in his accounts. Du Bois also noted the appearance of Egyptian monuments and temple art as having “distinctly Negro and mulatto faces” as evidence that Ancient Egyptian populations were largely people of African descent.
In the following decades, Black scholars would build on the works of Du Bois, continuing to document the historical contributions of Ancient Egyptian civilization and assert the black racial identity of Ancient Egyptian people. Similar to Du Bois, Carter G. Woodson’s The African Background Outlined cites the “negroid features” of Egyptian monuments along with accounts from Herodotus that describe Egyptians as “black and curly-haired” to establish the black racial identity of Ancient Egyptians. Along the same lines, J.A. Rogers would include the Ancient Egyptian multi genius pyramid builder Imhotep along with other pharaohs and Egyptian queens in his 1946 work World’s Great Men of Color.
During the Civil Rights/Black Power Movement era, Black scholars would continue to explore the historical contributions and racial identity of Ancient Egyptian civilization highlighting the erasure of Black history from both American and world historical narrative. In his 1954 work Stolen Legacy, Guyanese American historian George G. M. James argued that the Greek philosophies originated in Ancient Egypt. The full title of the book, Stolen Legacy The Greeks Were Not the Authors of Greek Philosophy, But the People of North African, Commonly Called the Egyptians, reflects James’ overall premise that the Ancient Egyptians’ contributions to world civilization have been largely erased from the historical narrative.
According to James, the erasure of Black history from the world historical narrative directly influenced the racist marginalization of Black people worldwide. “We sometimes wonder why people of African descent find themselves in such a social plight… but the answer is plain enough” James states. He continues with the assertion that “the unfortunate position of the African Continent and its peoples appears to be the result of misinterpretation…i.e. the historical world opinion that the African Continent is backward, that its people are backward and that their civilization is also backward”. Though many of James’ claims that Ancient Greeks actively erased their Ancient Egyptian influences from history have been heavily contested by scholars of classical civilization, his overall premise of misrepresentation of African culture speaks directly to the erasure of Black historical contributions to world civilization that would become a foundation of Afrocentrism.
During the 1970s, the works of John Henrik Clarke and Chancellor Williams continued to challenge the Eurocentric erasure of Black history and asserting the Black racial identity of Ancient Egyptians. In a 1975 review essay entitled “Three New Approaches to African History” for The Black Scholar, historian John Henrik Clarke cites the Black Power and Black Studies movements as major influences of the growing interest in Black history during that time. Clarke also advocates the works of scholars that illuminated the historical contributions of Africa and argued that Ancient Egypt was an African civilization. For Clarke, rectifying these historical distortions was not only an academic endeavor, but also a method of dismantling institutionalized racism in American society. Among the scholars that Clarke discusses in his review, Chancellor Williams’ Destruction of Black Civilization would become a central work in Afrocentrist theory. In a chapter entitled “Ethiopia’s Oldest Daughter Egypt”, Williams argues that the early populations of Ancient Egypt migrated from the southern regions of Africa as evidence of Ancient Egypt’s African origins. Williams also criticizes modern historians for “blotting out” the history of Africa, often depicting Egyptians with “Caucasoid” features that erased the contributions of Black civilizations from world history.
It was also in the 1970s that variations of the term “Afrocentric” began to emerge in the discourse of Black scholars. As S.C. Ferguson points out in Philosophy of African American Studies, John Henrik Clarke used the phrase “Afro-centric point of view” in 1971 to describe the perspective that Black historians should take in their efforts to illuminate the historical contributions of African descendant people. In the 1973 inaugural issue of The Afrocentric World Review, education scholar Anderson Thompson discusses “Afrocentricity” as an ideological plateau founded on “Black ideas” and the empowerment of African descendant people. It is evident in the early uses of the term how closely akin Afrocentrism is to the ideologies of Black Power and Black nationalism in its efforts to challenge the racist marginalization (both ideological and real life) experienced by Black people.
Shortly after the 1970s emergence of the term “Afrocentrism”, Molefi Kete Asante published Afrocentricity: A Theory of Social Change in 1980 and later The Afrocentric Idea in 1988 giving broader visibility to the term as an ideological movement. In his works, Asante defines Afrocentricity as the practice of “placing African ideals at the center of any analysis that involves African culture and behavior”. For Asante, a primary goal of Afrocentric analysis was to directly challenge Eurocentric perspectives that exclude “the historical and cultural perspectives of Africa”. Along the same lines as the scholars before him, Asante argued that challenging Eurocentric perspectives included the work of researching the African origins of Ancient Egypt and its contributions to world civilization. To this end, Asante called upon the early scholarship of Du Bois as well as the works of Senegalese historian/anthropologist Cheikh Anta Diop and Congolese Egyptologist Theophile Obenga to address the erasures of Eurocentric historical narratives regarding Ancient Egyptian racial identity and influence on world history.
Along with a chronology of the development of Afrocentric discourse, it is also important to note the moral work that claims of Black Ancient Egyptians and challenges to the erasure of Black history represent. As anthropologist David Scott points out, discursive traditions like Afrocentrism are critically hinged on moral constructions of identity/difference and community. In his analysis of Black Diaspora criticism, Scott notes that historically constituted figures of heritage and race (such as “Africanisms/African retentions” and “slavery”) are often deployed to signify broader themes of dispossession and entitlement as they relate not only to the past but also dynamics of power and authority in the present.
In the case of Afrocentrism, the historical contributions of Black Ancient Egyptians are critical because they directly challenge the conceptions of Ancient Greek origins of civilization that undergird marginalizing White racial hierarchies. As both John Henrik Clarke and George G. M. James illustrate in their analyses, illuminating the Ancient Egyptian origins of civilization for Afrocentrists is also an act of dismantling racist notions of White/Greek superiority and Black/African inferiority. Moreover, African American heritage connections to Black Ancient Egyptians symbolically link African Americans to identity narratives of acknowledgment, power and authority that were previously denied to them in the White/Greek origins of civilization construct. Subsequently, the Afrocentrist linkage between African Americans and Black Ancient Egyptians becomes an ideological groundwork where claims of entitlement to equal rights, social acknowledgement/respect, equitable living conditions and equal access to societal opportunities (housing, employment, education) can be mobilized.
The growing visibility of Afrocentrism as a scholarly movement during the 1980s and 1990s garnered attention from a wide range of locales in academia as well as popular culture. In August of 1991, the New York Times ran an article entitled “Afrocentrism- Balancing or Skewing History?” which questioned the validity of Afrocentrism, particularly as urban public schools were beginning to embrace Afrocentric curriculum models. The article offers a range of perspectives from a White high school history teacher who described Afrocentrism as inaccurate “wishful thinking”, to an African American school administrator who supported Afrocentrism based on her criticism that standard high school history texts only taught slavery as Black history. A month later, Newsweek dedicated its entire September 23rd issue to the debates surrounding Afrocentrism. With a cover image of Cleopatra wearing an Afrocentric earring and headline asking “Was Cleopatra Black?”, the issue features the viewpoints of scholars across academia including the supporting research of Black Athena author Martin Bernal as well as the strong criticism of Harvard African American Studies professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
In terms of the popular culture landscape, Afrocentrism had gained much traction in the proliferation of Black bookstores throughout the country as well as the worlds of hip hop. During the late 80s and early 90s, Black bookstores became more prevalent in urban communities making the works of scholars like W.E.B. Du Bois, John Henrik Clarke, Molefi Asante, George G. M. James, and Chancellor Williams available to audiences far beyond the boundaries of academia. At the same time, Afrocentrism was also growing in popularity in the still budding musical genre of hip hop. As culturally conscious hip hop music became more popular in the late 80s and early 90s (with the music of artists such as Public Enemy, Queen Latifah, Rakim, Brand Nubian and X-Clan), Afrocentrism became a common theme within the rap genre. As a result, rap artists would include lyrics about Black history and Ancient Egypt in their songs while wearing Kente cloth, African-inspired jewelry and Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs.
It is within this very popular culture landscape that Michael Jackson releases Dangerous, nearly ten years after the blockbuster success of the iconic Thriller album and four years after the release of the Bad album in 1987. In her extensive review of the Dangerous for the Bloomsbury 331/3 series, musicologist Susan Fast describes the album as Michael Jackson’s “coming of age” due to its “grown up sentiments” of sexual desire, spiritual reflection and interest in Black heritage. Though it can be argued that indicators of Black heritage long existed in Jackson’s work (wearing the Afro hairstyle and dashikis in his earlier career, traveling to Africa with the Jackson 5 and as a solo artist, and Manu Dibango’s (“Soul Makossa”) influence on ”Wanna Be Starting Something”), it is clear from the “Remember the Time” short film/video that Jackson’s “coming of age” involved making themes of Black heritage more central to his creative expression.
Given its prevalence in popular culture when the Dangerous album was released, it appears that Afrocentrism was a major influence on the themes of Black heritage associated with “Remember the Time”, particularly its focus on Ancient Egypt. In her discussion of the “coming of age” expressed on Dangerous, Fast associates the themes of Black heritage on the album with Jackson’s “new racial politics” of explicitly invoking Africa through themes of recalling and celebrating origins. As Fast points out, Jackson invokes Africa with these recalling and celebrating origins in the short film/videos for both “Black or White” and “Remember the Time”. In “Black or White”, Jackson invokes Africa as he dances with African warriors among the many ethnic groups that appear in the video’s dance montage. “Black or White” also invokes themes of recalling experiences of racial oppression in the scene where he sings “I ain’t afraid of no sheets” as he marches defiantly in front of images of the Ku Klux Klan and a burning cross.
While these scenes from “Black or White” are certainly references back to the themes of Black heritage that Fast discusses, the visual grammar and performance aesthetics of “Remember the Time” seem to pull specifically from the ideological components of Afrocentrism. As I will discuss in the next section, “Remember the Time” pulls heavily from Afrocentrist ideologies about the Black identity of Ancient Egyptians as well as the Afrocentrist charge of challenging the erasure of Black historical contributions to world history.
‘Michael wanted to do something to show us as we are–very beautiful people’: “Remember the time” as vehicle of afrocentric discourse
From its opening frame to its ending scenes, “Remember the Time” is centered around a visual grammar and performance aesthetic that invokes Afrocentric discourse. As the video begins, the opening frame displays the song title in a font reminiscent of the 1950s/1960s epic historical dramas including The Ten Commandments and Cleopatra that utilized white actors to portray Ancient Egyptians. It is important to note the video’s reference to The Ten Commandments and Cleopatra because as will be discussed later in the essay, “Remember the Time” is in critical dialogue with the white representations of these historical dramas. Immediately following the title card, a digitized hourglass morphs into the stone sculpture of Pharaoh Ramses II at Abu Simbel, the iconic bust of Queen Nefertiti, the Sphinx and the Great Pyramids of Giza.
These images not only signal the Ancient Egyptian setting of the video, but they are also key visual images used in Afrocentric discourse. The image of Ramses II shown in the opening scene has the broad facial features that Afrocentrist often characterized as Black facial features. In his discussions of the Black African heritage of Nile Valley civilization, Senegalese paleontologist Chiekh Anta Diop often used visual imagery of Pharaoh Ramses as evidence of the “African physical features” of Ancient Egyptians. Similarly, Afrocentric scholars also frequently used the racial identity of Egyptian queens including Nefertiti, Cleopatra and Nefertari to argue the Black identity of Ancient Egyptians overall. Though the video gets the union of Ramses II and Nefertiti wrong, (Ramses II’s queen was actually Queen Nefertari), the representation of Nefertiti in “Remember the Time” may be linked to the popularity of Queen Nefertiti in Afrocentric jewelry (in the form of Nefertiti head pendants and earrings) and fashion at the time.
The video continues with scenes from inside the palace of Pharaoh Ramses, a wall relief image of a brown-skinned Ancient Egyptian, domestic cats and a lion cub lounging on the lush palace furnishings. In the next scene, the camera pans up in a long shot of Queen Nefertiti (played by supermodel Iman) dressed immaculately in royal robes/headdress, fanned with ostrich feathers by well-dressed servants. On the throne, Queen Nefertiti is accompanied by Pharaoh Ramses (played by Eddie Murphy), also dressed immaculately in royal robes/headdress and drinking from a golden chalice. As she looks out over all the opulence of the palace, she says to the king, “I’m bored, I want to be entertained. Can my pharaoh find some way to entertain his queen?”. At this time, Pharaoh Ramses summons a djembe drummer and a palace page appears (played by NBA star Magic Johnson) to announce a lineup of royal entertainers. Despite their best efforts, the royal entertainers (a juggler and fire eater) do not please the queen and she orders them to be executed as the palace page looks on fearfully. The last of the entertainers in the lineup is a mysterious hooded figure who walks in unannounced. When Pharaoh Ramses leans forward and asks “And what is it you’re going to do?” The mysterious figure performs a disappearing magic act and morphs from gold dust into Michael Jackson.
Upon the appearance of Jackson, the opening synthesizer and drum intro of “Remember the Time” begins. Jackson is dressed in modern clothes that are embellished with Egyptian symbols (the golden wings of the goddess Isis on his shirt and a sheer Ancient Egyptian inspired loincloth over his pants). Jackson sings the first verse of the song to a visibly smitten Queen Nefertiti as he approaches her on the throne and kisses her hand. This infuriates the pharaoh who then summons palace guards to capture Jackson, which leads to a chase throughout the palace grounds for the remainder of the video.
Similar to the title card and opening images, the opening action of “Remember the Time” also reflects a visual grammar that indexes Afrocentric discourse. The shot of the wall relief image of a brown-skinned Ancient Egyptian again reflects the claims of Afrocentric scholars that Ancient Egyptians were African descendant people. This is also reinforced by the casting of the video with all African American lead actors as well as all African American extras in the roles of palace guards and servants. Where epic historical dramas such as The Ten Commandments and Cleopatra often casted white actors (Charlton Heston, Yule Brenner, Elizabeth Taylor) in the roles of Ancient Egyptians, “Remember the Time” may well be one of the first instances where an all African American cast was selected to portray Ancient Egyptians.
The all African American casting of “Remember the Time” is also significant to the way epic historical dramas portray Africans as the conquest of “white” Egyptians. For example, in an early palace scene of The Ten Commandments, Moses (portrayed by Charlton Heston) presents Pharaoh Seti with the Ethiopians (portrayed by African American actors) that he has conquered in battle. Though the pharaoh accepts them graciously, they are still portrayed as prostrating subordinates. In many ways, the opening palace scene of “Remember the Time” mirrors The Ten Commandments palace scene (Michael Jackson is even dressed similar to the Moses character portrayed by Heston), but it places black actors in the roles of Ancient Egyptian royalty. Subsequently, the portrayal of black actors as Ancient Egyptians in contrast to the traditional casting of white actors in films like The Ten Commandments not only challenges the portrayal of white Egyptians by scholars and textbooks but also the representation of white Egyptians in popular film.
It is also interesting to note the inclusion of contemporary speech idioms in the opening sequence of the video, when Magic Johnson responds to the queen’s harsh execution of the juggler and the fire eater. After the execution of the juggler, Magic Johnson’s character says “ohhh kayyy” and then when the fire eater is decapitated off camera, Magic Johnson’s character responds, “whew, that’s cold”. In both of these instances, the character’s responses insert the contemporary presence of African Americans into the Ancient Egyptian narrative of “Remember the Time” much in the same way Afrocentrism envisions an African American heritage that is connected with Ancient African civilizations particularly Ancient Egypt.
The second part of the video is a series of scenes that take place as Michael Jackson is chased through the palace and surrounding grounds by Ramses’ guards. During the chase, Jackson encounters different groups of people from market vendors to harem girls, all portrayed by African American actors. The main feature of this part of the video is a striking scene of the queen resting in her opulent quarters, still mesmerized by Michael Jackson’s magician character when he appears at the end of her bed singing. In the next scene, she looks out from her palace quarter at the Great Pyramids of Giza when Jackson appears behind her and they share a kiss. The focus on the queen Nefertiti character in “Remember the Time” is reminiscent of the representations of Egyptian queens in epic historical dramas, particularly the 1963 portrayal of Cleopatra by Elizabeth Taylor. One of the most expensive movies made during the time of its production, Cleopatra showcased the opulence of Ancient Egypt in stunning visual spectacle and elegant costume design. In many ways, the queen’s quarters scene of “Remember the Time” engages representations of Cleopatra by placing Somalian supermodel Iman in the role of Egyptian queen Nefertari and surrounding her with comparable visual spectacle and elegant costume design. There are also parallels in the unrelenting disposition of Queen Nefertari and that of Cleopatra in the 1963 film. In this case, “Remember the Time” creates a striking, powerful and unrelenting representation of an Egyptian queen, but in contrast to epic films before it, does so in the figure of an African woman.
Afrocentrism’s focus on Ancient Egyptian Queens is illustrated in the article “Out of Egypt, Greece” article from the September 1991 “Was Cleopatra Black?” issue of Newsweek. Newsweek most likely chose to lead its inquiries of Afrocentrism with questions about Cleopatra because claims about the Black identity of Egyptian Queens were a leading point of controversy at the time. In “Out of Egypt, Greece”, Sarah Begley quotes several different opinions from both supporters and critics of Afrocentrism’s claim about Cleopatra and the racial identity of Egyptians. Of note is the response of Black Athena author Martin Bernal who comments that though Ancient Egyptians were probably a mixed racial population “few Egyptians could have bought a cup of coffee in America’s Deep South in 1954”.
Following the queen’s quarters scene in the video, Michael Jackson’s magician character encounters a troupe of palace subjects who join him in a choreographed dance sequence. As with the other actors in the video, the palace subjects are an all African American troupe of dancers dressed in the same modernized Ancient Egyptian costuming as Michael Jackson and wearing a variety of natural braid hairstyles. The visual spectacle of this dance sequence also acknowledges hip hop as a viable performance genre in the popular culture landscape. Still in its formative years during the early 90s, the genre of hip hop was often dismissed as a passing fad among established R&B artists and musicians from other genres. By the early 1990s, hip hop collaborations with R&B and other music forms were slowly emerging onto the popular music scene, but it was still largely considered an outlier format reserved for urban youth. As the most iconic entertainer of the 1990s, Jackson’s inclusion of a hip hop dance segment in Remember the Time performed by young African American dancers acknowledged the validity of the hip hop genre as well as the growing Afrocentric consciousness of young hip hop audiences.
In the remaining scenes of the video, Jackson spins out of the dance sequence to find himself back in the palace and nearly face to face with Pharaoh Ramses. The close up of Jackson encountering the pharaoh provides a closer glimpse of Ramses’ ornate costume which also resembles elements from the costuming of Yule Brenner’s Ramses in The Ten Commandments. As Jackson turns to escape, he is met by the three palace guards who have been chasing him through the video, again the camera provides a quick close up of the muscle-bound guard characters dressed in Egyptian regalia. When the guards close-in, Jackson spins away into gold dust narrowly escaping as the sound of drums close out the frame. Similar to the opening scenes of the video, the ending scenes reflect Afrocentric claims regarding the Black racial identity of Ancient Egyptians. In this case, the lingering close ups of Ramses and the palace guards reinforce the video’s overall theme of placing Black characters into the context of Ancient Egyptian opulence, directly engaging the whitening of these images in both scholarly discourse and popular film.
Additionally, Jackson’s magical transformations at the end and throughout the “Remember the Time” short film/video raise interesting questions about symbolic power and self-representation. Though he is dressed in the same Ancient Egyptian regalia as the other characters, the combination of his costume with contemporary clothing (gold turtleneck and black pants) as well as his magical abilities to transform/transport himself set him apart. This representation of Jackson invokes the idea that although he is certainly a part of the identity logics that acknowledge Black heritage and the African origins of Ancient Egypt, he is also something else with transformative qualities that can perhaps identify with Black heritage identity logics and transcend them at the same time. Fast likens Jackson’s performance in “Remember the Time” to that of the West African trickster (Esu), who gets the better of his opponents through strategies of “indeterminacy, open-endedness, ambiguity and disruption”. While Fast aptly applies this analysis to Jackson’s magical character in “Remember the Time”, it seems that it can also be applied to his larger relationship to the underlying Afrocentric themes that the video engages.
In regard to Michael Jackson’s self-representation and proximity to Black identity logics, Brian Rossiter suggests that Jackson’s foray into Black nationalist subject matter began after his 1993 child abuse allegations on the HIStory album. In his discussion of the lyrical content and video representations of “They Don’t Care About Us”, Rossiter argues that Jackson utilized Black nationalist themes to identify himself with the African American community and present himself as a victim of injustice in relation to the allegations. However the self-representation and proximity to Black identity logics through Afrocentric discourse in “Remember the Time” reveal a deeper layer to what Rossiter terms as Jackson’s conflicted positioning between “fixed racial solidarity and postmodern subjectivity”.
In this case, Jackson’s representations of Black nationalist inspired Afrocentric discourse imply that he was willing to identify himself with the African American community well before his child abuse allegations. Yet, his liminal trickster-like positioning in the short-film/video’s plot and real-life distancing from its Afrocentric content (during the time of its release only director John Singletary commented on the representations of Ancient Egyptians as Black in interviews, not Jackson) suggest a desire to both embrace Black heritage/identity logics and simultaneously transcend the marginalizing racial categories that these logics are based upon. Much like his Egyptian magician character, in this regard, Jackson may have been well ahead of his time. Though scholars and activists alike have long argued the socially constructed nature of race, it is only recently that this concept has been seriously engaged in the mainstream.
The critical reception of the “Remember the Time” short film/video also tells an interesting story about the way that Black heritage and Afrocentrism inspired identity logics were received in larger media contexts. In his Baltimore Sun review, J.D. Considine refers to “Remember the Time” as a “forgettable video” only amounting to “an elaborate piece of dress up for Jackson and his buddies”. Of the video’s production quality and special effects in its depiction of Ancient Egypt, Considine notes that “Remember the Time” is “more elaborate than most of what you’ll see on MTV, but not by much”. Along the same lines, New York Times critic Jon Pareles describes the Ancient Egyptian theme of “Remember the Time” as “desperate extravagance”, noting that the short film/video’s “nod to Afrocentric contentions that Egyptian culture was created by blacks” looked like a “Sheba cat food commercial”.
In contrast to the scathing reviews of the Baltimore Sun and New York Times, Jet magazine would run “Remember the Time” as the issue’s cover feature, praising the short film/video for a storyline that “recalls a time when Blacks ruled one of civilization’s greatest empires”. The cover of the issue shows Michael Jackson, Eddie Murphy and Iman posing regally in the costumes that they wore in the short film/video. As Pharaoh Ramses, Murphy is seated in a similar throne-like chair and holds the ceremonial crook and flail of Ancient Egyptian royalty. In his interview for the article, director John Singletary states “Usually in big spectacles when directors do Ancient Egypt, they don’t show or tell the truth, they don’t show the beauty of Black people…Michael Wanted to do something to show us as we are–a very beautiful people”. In regard to the short film/video’s all African American casting, Singleton responds “We’re happy this is an all-Black thing”.
These contrasting reviews of “Remember the Time” reveal the strong contentions associated with recalling Black heritage and celebrating origins, even in the seemingly benign context of a pop music video. The Baltimore Sun and New York Times articles’ references to the Ancient Egyptian themes of “Remember the Time” as “an elaborate piece of dress up”, “a Sheba cat food commercial” and “desperate extravagance” suggest that representations of Ancient Egyptians as Black people were so unthinkable by the mainstream, they couldn’t even be accepted as a viable music video fantasy. Along the same lines, Jet Magazine’s focus on the video’s attempts to address the often-racist erasure of African Americans from history reveals how bereft of equitable mainstream representation African Americans were at the time, not only in history books, but also in popular culture contexts. Again, it appears that “Remember the Time” was ahead of its time in its efforts to offer large scale production-level representations of Black heritage. Though Eddie Murphy’s Coming to America preceded “Remember the Time” in a similar effort to portray Black heritage and African royalty, these themes would not be fully realized in mainstream media until the blockbuster success of Black Panther in 2018.
“Remember the Time”’s unprecedented representations of Black Ancient Egyptians in the music video of a megastar who was at times perceived as racially ambiguous makes for a fascinating case study of the way that popular culture can be a critical site for understanding the ways that identity, heritage and social commentary are continuously negotiated and produced. The Afrocentric identity logics present in “Remember the Time” reveal the ways that Jackson continuously negotiated his own identity as a music icon and Black man in America. Much like the liminality of his Egyptian magician character, Jackson’s negotiation of his identity always seemed to be operating as a “both/and” response to the racial solidarity/ postmodern subjectivity paradigm.
In addition to self-representation, “Remember the Time”’s collective efforts of a Black singer, Black producer, Black director, Black choreographer and Black cast to celebrate the African heritage of Ancient Egypt speaks volumes about the pervasive impact that Afrocentric discourse had on 1990s popular culture. Where Afrocentric scholars were deploying figures of “Black Egyptians” and “historical erasure” to call attention to the dispossession of African Americans, “Remember the Time” furthers the dialogue to include the erasers and racial hierarchies that existed in contemporary entertainment and popular film. Subsequently, as a vehicle of Afrocentric discourse, “Remember the Time” mobilized ideologies of racial equity (when it comes to celebrating contributions to world civilization) and social justice (when it comes to raising the visibility and increasing opportunities for Black artists to present their own heritage narratives in the entertainment industry) that are just now being engaged some thirty years later.
Although the public fervor over Afrocentrism has long subsided along with the frenzied anticipation for Michael Jackson videos, there are still signs of lasting impact when it comes to the ideologies of Afrocentric discourse and the representations of “Remember the Time”. During the recent BET Awards, singer Little Nas X’s performance of “Call Me by Your Name” included the Ancient Egyptian motif that he described as a tribute to Jackson’s “Remember the Time”. Dressed in an updated gold version of the opulent regalia of “Remember the Time”, Little Nas X danced with an accompanying troupe of mainly African American male dancers. At one point the dancers break into the same choreography as the ensemble scene from Jackson’s video. However, in this case Little Nas X deploys signifiers of Ancient Egypt and Black consciousness to celebrate his identity as a gay man, ending the performance with an impassioned kiss between him and one of his male dancers.
Lil Nas X’s use of “Remember the Time” representations teaches us that the identity logics associated with Afrocentrism and Black consciousness are ever changing and ever evolving to address issues of marginalization and entitlement in the present. As social hierarchies and their subsequent acts of marginalization continue to emerge, the identity logics and narratives of cultural consciousness illustrated in “Remember the Time” will likely continue to be a source of inspiration, providing strategies of representation for future generations of artists to engage.
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Molefi Kete Asante, The Afrocentric Idea, Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1998 (1988).
Sharon Begley, “Out of Egypt, Greece”, Newsweek, September 22, 1991.
Martin Bernal, Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press, 2002 (1987).
David Brackett, “Black or White? Michael Jackson and the Idea of Crossover”, Popular Music and Society 35, no. 2, 2012, p. 169-185.
Andrew Broertjes, “‘He’s Sending His People Messages Out of His Pain’: Michael Jackson and the Black Community”, Popular Music and Society 36, no. 5, 2013, p. 677-698.
Collier, Aldore. “Michael Jackson’s New Video ‘Remembers the Time’ When Blacks Were Kings and Queens”, Jet Magazine, February 17, 1992.
John Henrik Clarke, “Three New Approaches to African History”, The Black Scholar 7, no. 1, 1975, p. 42-48.
J.D. Considine, “‘Remember the Time’ is a Forgettable Video”, Baltimore Evening Sun, February 3, 1992.
W.E.B. Du Bois, The Negro, New York, Cosimo Classics. 2007 (1915).
W.E.B. Du Bois, The World and Africa. New York, International Publishers, 1996 (1946).
Susan Fast, Dangerous, New York, Bloomsbury Press, 2014.
S.C. Ferguson, Philosophy of African American Studies: Nothing left of Blackness, New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.
George G. M. James, Stolen Legacy: The Egyptian Origins of Western Philosophy, Brattleboro, Echo Point Books and Media, 2019 (1954).
Michel Marriott, “Afrocentrism: Balancing or Skewing History?”, New York Times, August 11,1991.
Wilson Jeremiah Moses, Afrotopia: The roots of African American Popular History, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press. 1998,
Jon Pareles, “Review/video; Michael Jackson’s Costly New Promotional Clip”, New York Times, February 4, 1992.
Runoko Rashidi, “Ramses the Great: Black Man of the Nile and Pride of Africa”, Atlanta Black Star, January 14, 2016.
J.A. Rogers, World’s Great Men of Color, New York, Touchstone, 1996 (1946).
Brian Rossiter, “‘They Don’t Care About Us’: Michael Jackson’s Black Nationalism”, Popular Music and Society 35, op. cit., p. 203-222.
David Scott, Refashioning Futures: Criticism after Postcoloniality, Princeton University Press, 1999
Chancellor Williams, The Destruction of Black Civilization: Great Issues of a Race from 4500 B.C. to 2000 A.D, Chicago, Third World Press, 1987.
Carter G Woodson, The African Background Outlined, Baltimore, Black Classic Press, 2015 (1936).
 J.D. Considine, “Remember the Time’ is a Forgettable Video”. Baltimore Evening Sun, February 3, 1992; Jon Pareles, “Review/video; Michael Jackson’s Costly New Promotional Clip”, New York Times, February 4, 1992.
 Susan Fast, Dangerous, New York, Bloomsbury Press, 2014.
 Brian Rossiter, “They Don’t Care About Us”: Michael Jackson’s Black Nationalism”, Popular Music and Society 35, op. cit., p. 204.
 Susan Fast, op. cit.
 W.E.B Du Bois. The Negro, New York, Cosimo Classics. 2007 (1915); W.E.B Du Bois. The World and Africa, New York, International Publishers, 1996 (1946).
 Carter G Woodson, The African Background Outlined, Baltimore, Black Classic Press, 2015 (1936).
 George G. M. James, Stolen Legacy: The Egyptian Origins of Western Philosophy. Brattleboro, Echo Point Books and Media, 2019 (1954), p. 10.
 Chancellor Williams, The Destruction of Black Civilization: Great Issues of a Race from 4500 B.C. to 2000 A.D., Chicago, Third World Press, 1987.
 S.C. Ferguson, Philosophy of African American Studies: Nothing left of Blackness, New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.
 Molefi Kete Asante, The Afrocentric Idea, Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1998 (1988)
 David Scott, Refashioning Futures: Criticism after Postcoloniality, Princeton University Press, 1999
 Susan Fast, op. cit., p. 1.
 Susan Fast, op. cit.
 Runoko Rashidi, “Ramses the Great: Black man of the Nile and Pride of Africa” Atlanta Black Star, January 14, 2016.
 Sharon Begley, “Out of Egypt, Greece”. Newsweek, September 22, 1991.
 Susan Fast, op. cit.
 Ibid., p. 63
 Brian Rossiter, op. cit.
 Ibid., p. 204
 J.D. Considine, “‘Remember the Time’ is a Forgettable Video”. Baltimore Evening Sun, February 3, 1992.
 Jon Pareles, “Review/video; Michael Jackson’s Costly New Promotional Clip”, New York Times, February 4, 1992
 Aldore Collier, “Michael Jackson’s New Video ‘Remembers the Time’ When Blacks Were Kings and Queens”. Jet Magazine, February 17, 1992.