Through her recent A&E doc­user­ies, Janet Jack­son took us behind her vel­vet rope and it was a real prin­ciple of pleasure. 

The young­est of the Jack­son fam­ily took us through the treach­er­ous jour­ney that ulti­mately led her to become not only a pop icon in her own right but also a free black woman who kept on keep­ing on.

Wheth­er it was through her own per­son­al struggles, her tumul­tu­ous rela­tion­ships, innu­endo about her and her fam­ily, or the infam­ous and way blown out of pro­por­tion incid­ent at the 2004 Super Bowl, Janet sur­vived and persevered.

What kept her going was her unquenched desire to prove that she belonged and that she was a true force to be reckoned with and was doing so on her terms against the back­drop of a world that con­stantly tried to pit her against her fam­ily and espe­cially her late broth­er Michael.

It was that desire that made her the tem­plate for what would later become #Black­Girl­Ma­gic.

All of which got star­ted in Min­neapol­is when she hooked up with legendary pro­du­cers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis who were the cre­at­ive forces behind Prince.

They would help her find her voice and of which came her first of many mega hit albums Con­trol which show­cased a young black woman that was doing things her way.

Fol­lowed by the socially con­scious Rhythm Nation: 1814, the sizz­ling, sen­su­al and rhyth­mic­ally seduct­ive janet, the deeply per­son­al and vul­ner­able The Vel­vet Rope, and the upbeat and radi­ant All for You, Janet was a super­star of epic pro­por­tions that found a place in the black fem­in­ist tradition.

Through­out the years Janet has also found a home in the world of hip hop.

Her entire body of work plus the fact that she was born in 1966 has giv­en her hip hop sensibilities.

Her most not­able moment came in her icon­ic per­form­ance in the 1993 clas­sic Poet­ic Justice which she star­ted oppos­ite Tupac and was dir­ec­ted by the late great John Singleton.

She also forged col­lab­or­a­tions with the likes of Chuck D, Q‑Tip, and Jer­maine Dupri, whom she was in a very high pro­file rela­tion­ship with in the late 2000s.

Janet has also not been the least bit shy of speak­ing truth to power when it came to tack­ling issues of racism, sex­ism, homo­pho­bia, and trans­pho­bia through her lyr­ics and her actions.

If any­thing, this doc­user­ies show­cased her human­ity in ways that haven’t been seen before and it is a must see and thanks to stream­ing tv, you can watch it at any time.

In order to get a broad­er sense of the leg­acy of Ms. Jack­son if you nasty, I talked to Phill Branch, Pro­fess­or of Prac­tice­Gouch­er Col­lege in Com­mu­nic­a­tion and Media Stud­ies, focus­ing on race and eth­ni­city in journ­al­ism and the arts and host of the pod­cast Isol­a­tions Be Like who’s cur­rently teach­ing a course entitled “On Janet Jack­son: Race, Gender and Being in Control”.

What do you think we will get out of this docuseries?

I think we get to see the flip side of fame and being a cul­tur­al icon. We will also get con­text. It used to be extremely dif­fi­cult to reach the level of fame that artists like Janet Jack­son did in the 80s and 90s. You actu­ally had to be so good at what you did, that people would get up, get dressed, travel, take out real money and buy your work. It wasn’t clicks.  You had to do real num­bers to main­tain. Put­ting Janet’s career in per­spect­ive will rein­force how import­ant she was for the music industry and pop­u­lar culture.

What is Janet’s place in the culture?

Janet is roy­alty. If you look at award shows where she just shows up to present and you look at an audi­ence filled with people who are stars in their own right, los­ing their minds over her, it shows you her place in the cul­ture. We’re talk­ing about an artist who’s been on three icon­ic tele­vi­sion shows, who has dropped cul­ture chan­ging music and visu­als and who cre­ated the format we see to this day in pop star tours. Then, there are the films  — “Poet­ic Justice” is a clas­sic. She got an Oscar nom­in­a­tion from that film with “Again.” And, if we go to her vari­ety show appear­ances from when she was a kid and who she’s shared the stage with — Cher, Betty White, etc., none of her peers come close. Period.

What is it about Janet that makes us drawn to her?

Because the Jack­son fam­ily always seemed so much lar­ger than life, Janet’s girl next door appeal made her everybody’s sis­ter.  The smile, the quiet voice, all worked. By the time we get to “Con­trol” we’ve seen her grow up and the shift is excit­ing. We were here for it and just locked in. I remem­ber watch­ing the “Pleas­ure Prin­ciple” with my dad one day when I was kid and he was all excited like he knew her. He was proud.

Where do you think Janet sits in the black fem­in­ist tradition?

Her pub­lic declar­a­tion of inde­pend­ence through her art, image and her work with social causes, in an industry that lit­er­ally wants you to just shut up and per­form is some­thing worth explor­ing. “Con­trol” did the kind of num­bers that usu­ally pushes labels to make artists safer. Janet’s con­certs were filled with all kinds of people. Every­one loved her. Did she give us a “Con­trol 2?” No. She came out talk­ing about, “Bigotry, no.” on “The Know­ledge.’ She made a whole mes­sage album, as a Black woman, at a time when the gate­keep­ers could totally shut you down. She, then, fol­lows that up singing an anthem for Black people and Black women, in par­tic­u­lar. At the peak of her career, with fans across the racial spec­trum, she’s singing about how insti­tu­tions hide his­tory from Black folks and that she stands tall with pride as a Black woman. We don’t talk about this enough, her consciousness.

Describe her rela­tion­ship with the LGB­TQ+ community?

One of the com­plic­ated about being a Black, gay boy and young man, was bop­ping around to music, or watch­ing com­edy, or look­ing at movies filled with people whose work I enjoyed, but who I could tell hated parts of who I was. With Janet, I nev­er had that worry and I can’t really tell you why. Over time, she openly expressed loved for the LGB­TQ+ com­munity, and with the Rhythm Nation album she makes it clear that she’s not with put­ting folks down. So when you look at the audi­ences at her shows, that’s what you see, people who loved the music and who felt respec­ted and appre­ci­ated. Then, we got “Togeth­er Again” which became an anthem for so many in the com­munity.  None of it felt like PRIDE month pan­der­ing, where a star shows up dressed in a cos­tume and blow­ing rain­bow bubbles. It always felt real.

The fol­low­ing two tabs change con­tent below.
I am a viol­ence pre­ven­tion edu­cat­or, act­iv­ist, journ­al­ist, aspir­ing film­maker, adjunct pro­fess­or of social justice and civic engage­ment at Domin­ic­an Uni­ver­sity in River Forest, Illinois. I am based in Chica­go, Illinois.

About Zachary Draves

I am a violence prevention educator, activist, journalist, aspiring filmmaker, adjunct professor of social justice and civic engagement at Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois. I am based in Chicago, Illinois.