Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Michael Jackson Finally Makes Sense

This article has not gone according to script. It was meant to be about the incredible goings on in Honduras where the President was removed at dawn in his pyjamas and taken to nearby Costa Rica. His crime was that like President Tandja of Niger and several other African leaders, he wanted to force his way to another presidential term through dubious constitutional means.
I started to write at about the same time that the Michael Jackson Memorial Service was starting in Los Angeles. I thought it would be the usual celebrity sop to a departed entertainer, full of flashbacks and insincere I Love you whispers blown to a worldwide audience that would later become the bestselling DVD. But it started with a tribute read on behalf of Nelson Mandela, the closest we have to a living saint on earth.
This was the day President Barack Obama met with Prime Minister Putin who is former and perhaps future President of Russia. The previous day the President of the US had met the President of Russia who will become Prime Minister or Chief Justice in the future, in the curious revolving door Putin-Medvedev double governance act.
I did not pay much heed to that TV because I knew the Michael Jackson story inside out. He burst on the scene as a musical child prodigy when I was a young adult; I knew the lyrics and the moves. We imitated him and slid on carpeted and concrete floors; we swayed and gyrated to tunes loud or in our heads. There was Moonwalk, Thriller and Bad. But beyond that, what?
Then a choir came on stage and sang a very beautiful song, the kind that lifts Black American choral performances straight to heaven. And then the Casket appeared borne by his brothers each wearing one white glove. It was a bit theatrical but why not, this is showbiz after all.
So I ploughed on with Mr Zelaya of Honduras and his antics. He tried last Sunday to go back to his country, but of course, he must have known there was no way the military that removed him in his pyjamas would let him in wearing a suit. I thought for moment how Mr. Tandja of Niger would look in Pyjamas.
But by now what was happening on stage in LA was too powerful to ignore, because it turns out that I, like millions of people who thought we knew Michael Jackson, did not know him at all. We heard the music and saw the dancing moves but we did not know the wellspring of the melody and the inspiration behind the choreography.
Pastor Lucious Smith who described himself as a friend of the Jackson family opened the proceedings with such simple dignity that one had to take notice; easier to ignore would be a loud and raucous introit in the mould of notice-me me Hollywood style. Now on stage we have Queen Latifah reading a poem by Maya Angelou written specially for this occasion:
"We Had Him"*:
Beloveds, now we know that we know nothing,
now that our bright and shining star can slip away from our fingertips like a puff of summer wind….
…We had him, beautiful, delighting our eyes.
His hat, aslant over his brow, and took a pose on his toes for all of us.
And we laughed and stomped our feet for him.
We were enchanted with his passion because he held nothing. He gave us all he had been given.
Today in Tokyo,
beneath the Eiffel Tower, in Ghana's Black Star Square.
In Johannesburg and Pittsburgh,
in Birmingham, Alabama, and Birmingham, England
We are missing Michael.
But we do know we had him,
and we are the world

Then the Rev. Al Sharpton came to the mike. I had not seen any image of him for years so I was shocked by what I saw. Gone is the big afro of twenty years ago and with it the almost baby-tubby fat in his middle and face. His hair is thin but he is not looking bad, only older like all the rest of us. What he said matters because he has known MJ for decades and known that he deliberately set out to break barriers, especially between the races. This matters in America more than anywhere else. But Michael also broke the barriers between people from “Japan to Ghana to France”.
But listen to this because it makes sense. According to the Rev. Sharpton, the line that runs from Michael Jackson to Barack Obama is a straight and logical one and goes like this: From a cute kid to the present moment Michael Jackson refused to give up but lived the dream of uniting people with his music. He made it comfortable for people to see Black people on TV and on magazine covers so that fifty years later they were able to vote for a “person of colour”. There is a lot in that.
Then there were basketball legends Kobie Bryant and Magic Johnson who said that it was Michael Jackson that opened the doors for black sportsmen and women, entertainers and public personalities. I thought to myself: hang on. Before MJ we had Mohammed Ali, James Brown, Jack Johnson, hundreds of jazz and blues musical legends and athletes. Surely they opened the doors for MJ.
But I knew what Kobie and Magic were saying. Previous African American sports and entertainment legends were seen as BLACK this and that but Michael Jackson broke the colour bar and united the races in their enjoyment of himself and his music. I know you cannot, indeed, are not expected to make sense of the silly nose job and the extreme skin bleaching, but where James Brown sang Say it Loud, I am Black and Proud, MJ said it did not matter if you were black or white.
Some may denounce Black American current leaders for being all bourgeois and comfortable with integration (it ain’t matter if you are black and white), but that is where we are now. The afro haired and dashiski angst of a previous generation has given way to besuited middle class pursuits of fat mortgages and SUVs. That is the way it is in practice, poetry and song. And if that is the case then we failed to see twenty years ago that Michael Jackson was not only the King of Pop but the Prophet of our time. The US Congress will honour MJ with Resolution 600 which according to Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee.
But when Michael Jackson’s daughter Paris took the mike and said only two tearful sentences and then everything made sense to me, as it must have for millions of people watching. The message is that life is far more complex than simple black or white… That when MJ went home, he was met by real human beings for whom his I-love you made personal sense…
That MJ was in the Guinness Book of Records for having given more to charity than any other entertainer in history. I bet you didn’t know that!
*This is only a section of the poem “We Had Him”, written by Maya Angelou, performed by Queen Latifah.

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