The music industry is puzzling over a weekend outburst by Michael Jackson in which the self-proclaimed King of Pop blew his top.

Kicking his war with his record company up a notch, Jackson showed up at an artists-rights rally Saturday and launched into a tirade against Tommy Mottola, accusing the Sony Music honcho of being a racist and mistreating artists of color.

Ostensibly, the usually camera-phobic Jackson was on hand at the Harlem headquarters of the Reverend Al Sharpton's National Action Network to lend his support to a coalition the two men recently formed with attorney Johnnie Cochran to examine whether the music industry is cheating artists out of profits.

"The record companies really do conspire against the artists, especially the black artists" Jackson told the crowd of 350 fans.

"When you fight for me, you're fighting for all black people, dead and alive.We have to put a stop to this incredible injustice."

Jackson, 43, then ticked off the names of artists he felt have been wronged, including Mottola's ex-wife, Mariah Carey, James Brown and Sammy Davis Jr.

(Jackson might want to brush up on his facts. He claimed Davis died penniless in 1990, but the Rat Packer's attorney valued the entertertainer's estate at $6 million. And Carey pocketed more than $40 million when her contract was voided by Virgin and then wound up signing a three-record deal with Universal Music worth upwards of $20 million.)

But the singer spent most of the time telling the world who he thought was bad--Sony Music and its boss, Mottola.

Jackson slammed his longtime label, Sony's Epic Records, for not doing enough to support his latest album, Invincible, which generated just 2 million in sales in the U.S. and 4 million worldwide--a far cry from the 26 million copies that 1982's Thriller sold domestically or even the 7 million sold by 1991's Dangerous.

(Sony says it spent about $25 million promoting the album and, when it failed to become the expected blockbuster, refused to spend millions of dollars more for the new single and video and world tour Jackson wants.)

What really turned heads at the press conference however was Michael's off-the-wall personal attack against Sony's boss, Tommy Mottola.

Jackson said Mottola is "mean, he's a racist, and he's very, very devilish." Jackson said the high-powered executive once called an unidentified black artist the "n-word." He lashed out at Mottola for his treatment of Carey, saying she was a "victim." And he held up a photo of Mottola doctored to look like the devil with the caption "Go back to Hell, Mottola."

After the conference, Jackson hit the streets aboard a red double-decker bus and toured Manhattan on his way to joining a group of about 150 fans--including Michael look-alikes--picketing outside Sony's midtown offices. Holding up posters reading "Please, Sony, Stop Killing the Music," "Invincible is Unbreakable" and "Make Invincible Visible," the crowd chanted "down with Tommy Mottola!"

Jackson got in on the action by pumping his fists and holding up his own sign reading "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," in which his picture represented the "good," a Mottola caricature featuring horns and a pitchfork the "bad" and a real photo of Mottola was "ugly."

Sony had some choice words of its own in response to Jackson's circus act, slamming the Gloved One's remarks as "ludicrous, spiteful and hurtful."

"It seems particularly bizarre that [Jackson] has chosen to launch an unwarranted and ugly attack on an executive who has championed his career for many years," the company said in a statement. "We are appalled that Mr. Jackson would stoop so low in his constant quest for publicity."

Ironically, even Sharpton said he was "surprised" by Jackson's racism charge against Mottola. Commenting in Monday's New York Post, Sharpton tried to distance himself from Jackson's attack.

"I have known Tommy for 15 or 20 years, and never once have I known him to say or do anything that would be considered racist," Sharpton told the paper. "In fact, he's always been supportive of the black music industry. He was the first record executive to step up and offer to help us with respect to corporate accountability, when it comes to black music issues."

Hillary Rosen, chief executive of the Recording Industry Association of America, denied race was the issue, telling the New York Times, "I just don't think given how many millions [Jackson] has made, particularly this year, his attacks have credibility," Rosen told the Times.

Industry insiders say Jackson's diatribe wasn't so much about the mistreatment of artists as much as what he perceives to be the mistreatment of Michael. Jackson, they say, is looking for a way out of his contract without having to repay Sony for costs on Invincible.

Jackson is also fearful, according to the New York Times, of Sony forcing him to give up his share of Sony/ATV Music Publishing to make good on his Invincible tab. The company, jointly owned by Jackson and Sony, controls the catalogs of such artists as the Beatles, Brooks & Dunn, Leonard Cohen, David Crosby, Miles Davis, Neil Diamond, Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard, Lauryn Hill, Willie Nelson, Stevie Nicks, Pearl Jam and Stephen Stills and just last week purchased the Acuff-Rose catalog, which includes hits like the Everly Brothers' "Bye Bye Love," Roy Orbison's "Oh, Pretty Woman" and Hank Williams' "Your Cheatin' Heart."

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