In recent months America has become embroiled in unprecedented civil unrest, the likes that have not been seen since the turbulent 1960s. It is both an awakening and reckoning for this country, steeped in its 400+ years of unresolved, systemic racism and injustice against African Americans.
Amid these intense days of marches, protests, violence, and tears, there is no shortage of celebrities weighing in, mostly in solidarity with Black Lives Matter. Social media has become even more of a volatile landmine than usual, as posts and tweets are subject to immediate misinterpretation that can quickly piss off the passes – unintentionally. Music icon Madonna knows about this all too well as she has found herself thrust into the conversation more than once, facing a public backlash of misdirected anger.
In a Tweet from earlier today, Madonna once again got some folks riled up and she chimed in to share her angst pertaining to injustices against brown citizens.
At first glance, I will admit this tweet from the Queen Mother of Pop initially gave me pause. It felt for a moment to be self-serving and self-aggrandizing – two things Madonna has been accused of being once or twice in life.
Suddenly though, I realized how spot-on she was as she referenced her video for “Like a Prayer” and drew a parallel between the controversy it caused and the public’s response at the time.
In her tweet, she wrote,
“The Past Catches up to the future…….
This video was made 30 years ago and caused so much controversy Because —-
1. I depicted police brutality and an arrest of an innocent Black Man.
2. I went to a church to pray for justice and discovered a Black Saint
3. That Saint was crying-he had feelings
4. I kissed that Black Saint
5. I did my best to get him released from prison for a crime he did not commit.
My contract with Pepsi. was cancelled
We all have such a long way to go but this long-overdue Revolution that is happening right now in America is so great to not only witness the Change but to see all these great young leaders emerging.
I remember the outrage from that “Like a Prayer” video. It’s worth noting that at the time, I thought the video’s most provocative imagery was that of crosses set aflame as Madonna danced around in lingerie in a filed. If felt beyond blasphemous. However, devout Catholics seemed to take more offense that Madonna depicted a saint portrayed by a black man, and she dared to kiss him and his feet. Madonna’s video was aligned with a major Pepsi endorsement with a commercial that all seems now to have both been ahead of their time. It was revolutionary, forcing the often-glossy world of pop music to have more grit, substance and to take a meaningful stance on matters of race and bias.
It’s fascinating to think that Pepsi paid Madonna millions upon millions for that endorsement but somehow had not seen the finished product until it was too late, or that is what they would have us believe. As the firestorm arose, it got so bad that the beverage giant cut all ties and told her to keep the money as it prayed for the controversy to pass. It’s ironic that Pepsi’s first mega-celebrity commercial debacle before this also involved a black man and fire, unfortunately for Michael Jackson.
It’s funny now to think that the same brand that was so appalled by Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” is the same brand that somehow thought it was a great idea in 2017 to depict Kendell Jenner in a Black Lives Matter-esque protest, seemingly ending racism by drinking a Pepsi. Yea, as you can imagine, that did not go over too well. They would have been far more effective renegotiating a deal with Madonna and Warner Brothers to bring “Like A Prayer” back instead.
Let’s keep it real, “Like A Prayer,” the song was a significant hit for Madonna – the artist. Whether PepsiCo wants to admit it or not, they benefited commercially by association with who was at that time, the biggest Pop music star in the world.
To Pepsi’s dismay, a couple of weeks ago, the Kendell Jenner mess resurfaced in a viral sweep that saw countless people online mocking her misguided Pepsi Ad. For the record, I will say it feels a bit like bullying, though. I’m not a fan of that, especially when I think Kendell’s heart was in the right place when they made that ill-fated commercial. So, I encourage everyone to welcome the intent even if we must scrutinize the execution of the idea.
As for Madonna’s “Like A Prayer,” think of it as a time capsule of reflection in corporate responsibility – then and now. At that time, Pepsi ran from the topic of racial injustice and couldn’t get away fast enough. In contrast, at this very moment, that same brand in 2020 made a staggering declaration at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in 2019:
According to Fortune Magazine, CEO Ramon Laguarta stated the following brand commitments, among others:
When it comes to people, we are focusing on increasing representation, recruitment, and education, internships, and apprenticeships. That means dramatically rethinking our approach to talent, starting by:
Expanding our Black managerial population by 30% by 2025 through internal development and recruitment—we will add more than 250 Black associates to managerial roles by 2025, including adding a minimum of 100 Black associates to our executive ranks. While 14% of our U.S. workforce is Black, we know we need to increase representation in leadership.
Accelerating our recruitment efforts with Historically Black Colleges and Universities and increasing partnerships with diverse organizations at our core schools.
Establishing scholarship support for students transitioning from two-year to four-year programs and scaling our existing efforts to support trade/certificate and academic two-year degrees education through community colleges for 400 Black students per year—these funds will also provide wraparound support, including money for books, transportation, housing, and more.
To that, I say, thank you, Pepsi. There is more work to be done, but this is an enormous start. Thank you also to Madonna for always being that ride or die white chick with flava who black people could and still can rely on as an ally in the good fight.
Lastly, though, let me make it clear, I’m not going to sit up here and act as if “Like A Prayer” could have ever climbed to the top of the charts as one of the most excellent pop recordings of all time, without the distinctive vocal contributions of the Crouch Gospel Choir (Black), and the impossibly dynamic vocals of Niki Harris (Black).
This piece is an opinion piece by one Contributing Writer for Instinct Magazine and may not reflect the opinion of the magazine or other Contributing Writers.