Forever, Michael

*note - Due to a previously scheduled engagement, I was only able to attend the opening plenary.

The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture kicked off Black Music Month on June 4th and 5th by collaborating with dj lynnee denise of WildSeed Cultural Group to present “After the Dance: Conversations on Michael Jackson’s Black America”. This two-day symposium was built around Michael Jackson’s impact on and relationship with Black America from various points of view, such as manhood, his philanthropy, representations of Blackness and of course, his enormous talent. The opening plenary featured noted journalists Tourè and Nelson George who for nearly two hours delved in Michael Jackson 101 from his Gary, Indiana roots to his global reach.

The two gentlemen and scholars engaged the audience in personal reflections of Jackson’s impact, as well as examined how his talent and experiences shaped his world view, softened the perception of Black men around the globe and ultimately, changed Black popular music for better and worse. Former Billboard writer George, who authored the bestseller The Michael Jackson Story after the success of Jackson uber-successful Thriller album, spoke about the experience of writing that book and how Jackson’s success catapulted his career, but also how their “relationship” evolved over the years. He begins his latest book Thriller: The Musical Life of Michael Jackson, by reliving a childhood trek to Madison Square Garden to see the Jackson 5 before examining MJ’s path to greatness and the origins of Thriller, then its impact on Jackson, pop culture and the world.

George told of a conversation with Michael while working on his first book that was initiated by trademark Joe Jackson bullying as the two explored Joe Jackson heavy-handed approach as manager, but how important his role as father was in the development of his sons and family by extension, an overlooked part of the story because of the horror stories we’ve come to know Joe by over the years. Another aspect discussed was Michael’s mentor-pupil relationship with producers Bobby Taylor (who discovered The Jackson 5), Deke Richards (who took over for Taylor and crafted the early hits), Quincy Jones (‘nuff said) and Berry Gordy himself, each of whom helped craft Jackson into the perfectionist that he became by the time he took complete control of his career by 1987’s Bad and 1991’s Dangerous albums.

The discussion moved to how Jackson’s non-threatening male image, softened the world’s reaction to African-American men, because of their fascination with Michael. His almost ambiguous sexuality rebuffed myths of Black male hypersexuality and provided the platform for Black male stars to succeed internationally, because of his depth as a performer and humanitarian. Micahel’s philanthropic efforts raised millions for charities across the world, and he gave millions more from his personal wealth, especially to children’s charities, a fact that will be turned against him during his troubled times. Tourè spoke of how Michael used his body as an instrument, how his every precise movement fed the music that surrounded him, altered how we viewed his performances, helped to write his songs and amazingly added to his vocal performances. Tourè also related a personal experience that everyone in attendance took a blood oath not to share.

Nelson George made the most interesting point of the discussion, drawing comparisons between Thriller and Orsen Welles’ magnum opus Citizen Kane, as the definitive work that both artists chased and failed to replicate through the rest of their careers and even more, their lives. While Kane was Welles first full-length feature and has been lauded as the greatest film ever made in some circles, he failed to meet the expectations in subsequent works, much as Michael did with Thriller though it was near the midpoint of a career that spanned 40 years. It was the success of the greatest selling album in history that sent Michael Jackson into orbit and changed the course of his life, as he gained a level of stardom that he couldn’t outlive and a measure of success that he could never match.

Though the media’s slanderous nickname “Wacko Jacko” was banned for the weekend, no true Michael Jackson discussion can be held without the tumultuous last quarter of his life that was filled with inactivity, child molestation allegations, bizarre behavior, marriages, children, financial difficulties and a comeback tour that was derailed by his shocking death on June 25th of last year. The panelists kept it all the way real as they discussed many of the poor decisions Michael had made since his life became more sideshow than showtime. So real in fact, one audience attendee seemed to think that George wasn’t a fan and seemed poised to pounce on him if he confirmed her suspicions. It is this Michael Jackson that has lived through the media since his death, which like the last years of his life, became a circus the media fed instead of observing his legacy.

As we watched the speakers trade observations on the King of Pop, audience members readied questions, comments and personal reflections, one brother proved to be a walking Wikipedia entry of Michael Jackson, but we were all attracted to the Schomburg this night for a discussion on a man that sang, spinned, and moonwalked through our lives and made the impossible plausible. We’re closing in on the one-year anniversary of the greatest entertainer of all-time’s death and tribute parties, discussions, radio and video blocks will fill our calendars, but honest discourse like what took place in Harlem, U.S.A. that Friday night is what’s needed. In his death, we have found that his life has meant much more than those dance moves, the songs we’ve grown up on and definitely the last 15 years of his life that nearly erased the memories of those who idolized him from near and far.

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