Michael Jackson’s Memorial: End of an Era-Close of a Chapter
Where Do We Go from Here?
by Davey D
Yesterday’s memorial for Michael Jackson was surreal, emotional, healing, inspiring and a heartfelt sobering wake up call. I’m glad I fought my initial urge to stay home and made the 5 hour drive from the Bay Area down to the Staples Center in LA. The long drive done in the middle of the night gave me time to reflect on all that had taken place over the past couple of weeks.
The days leading up to the memorial were filled with lots of articles, commentary and musical tributes. For many of us Michael Jackson and his various incarnations throughout the years were rediscovered. From his early hits like ‘ABC‘, ‘I Want You Back’ and ‘Going Back to Indiana’ to his latter songs off the Thriller’, ‘Invincible’ and ‘History’ albums, all took on new meaning. The brilliance behind them were better appreciated. When re-listening to his older material we came to understand that he and his brothers were years ahead of their time.
Over the past couple of weeks we discovered just how much of a global phenomenon he was. We learned how he kicked down doors and broke color barriers within the music industry. We learned how he gave over 40% of his income to charities. These aspects and so many more surrounding his life were often overlooked while we focused on his eccentric behavior and controversies.
Michael Jackson over the past two weeks was a bigger than life figure and in our rediscovering him, many of us rediscovered some long forgotten aspects of ourselves. For many of us Michael was still alive. He was still alive in spite of the incessant news stories about his death and the speculation as to what caused it. With each music or video tribute, television special or retrospective walk down memory lane, MJ was still here. His energy was around. His spirit felt. As I listened to his older material I found myself yearning for him to bust out with new material and resurrect a long-lost soulful sound from a bygone era. But alas he was gone.
Two days prior to me leaving for the Memorial I had done an in-depth radio show with Chuck D from Public Enemy and funk expert Professor Rickey Vincent– author of the book ‘History of Funk’. It was a two-hour show chock full of never before inside facts about MJ and how he and his brothers were rooted in a much larger soul, blues and funk musical traditions within the Black community. We talked in-depth about where MJ and his brothers stood in relationship with their contemporaries at that time, George Clinton, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, James Brown and so many others. We played many of his soulful and adventurous cuts from the mid 70s that were out of print and all but hidden from a mainstream press that seemingly only wanted to focus on ‘Thriller’ and ‘Off the Wall’. This two hour History of Funk broadcast was the sound track to my 400 mile trek down to the memorial. And as the hours drew closer, the more alive and vibrant his music became-so much so that I literally forgot the reality at hand. I anticipated an upbeat celebration and a chance to reconnect to old friends. We were coming together to celebrate Michael – not mourn him.
Here’s our conversation on All Day Play FM w/ Chuck D
Conversation All Day Play FM w/ Rickey Vincent
As I arrived at the Staples Center and got my tickets I was there amongst thousands. The mood was upbeat and somewhat festive. There were smiles and light-hearted jokes. The mood was one of excitement as we all knew we were going to a historic event. The fact that we were among thousands of people who loved and appreciated this man sans the outright disrespect the media punditry playerhaterism who are increasingly out of step with their viewers and listeners added to the jovial mood.
It wasn’t until I got inside a darkened Staples Center and saw the stage adorned with flowers and the memorializing picture montage that it started to sink in what was really going on. As the place filled up we all could spot various celebrities who generally would cause a stir, the mood had drastically changed. It was more somber and definitely quiet except for the folks in the VIP section that seemed to be more animated and engaged as they smiled, exchanged pounds and hugged each other like this was just another industry event. I recall making note and tweeting about that.
When Michael’s gold casket adorned with roses was carried in…Then it really hit. The mood changed even more as it sunk in for all of us. This was not some sort of celebratory concert even with Stevie Wonder, Usher and Mariah Carey all singing. This was all about us saying goodbye…Not just to Michael but to an era and to part of ourselves. There was a lesson or lessons that needed to be gleaned and I found myself deep in thought and reflecting.
The Memorial itself could be best described as beautifully sad. We all saw the highlights, the first being Mariah Carey singing as she tried her best to hold back tears and keep her voice from cracking. We understood how difficult it was to sing with the casket in front of her. People in the audience had teared up when it was first brought in. If she didn’t care nor had no love, then this would’ve been just another gig. But singing in front of MJ’s casket knowing that he was forever gone was something else. Everyone at the Memorial felt her and appreciated the singing -cracked voice and all.
Magic Johnson sharing his KFC chicken story was nice. It humanized MJ for us. Him talking about being asked to be in the ‘Remember the Time’ video was appreciated as we recalled MJ using an all Black cast for this video depicting Ancient Egypt. We as Black folks appreciated it, but back in 1992, when this video first premiered on prime time TV, it angered a lot of white media pundits who questioned why Jackson would show Egyptians as their real color – Black. Folks need to ponder the deeper meaning behind that for a minute.
Stevie Wonder and Usher moved us immensely as they sung their respective songs. Because I had done the History of Funk Show with Chuck D and Rickey Vincent, I had greater appreciation and understanding of what Stevie Wonder meant to MJ and the Jacksons when he took the stage. I understood that Stevie was Motown’s first childhood star who at age 11 signed to Motown and was known as Lil’ Stevie – the Boy Genius. He was the one you saw rocking the harmonica as Gladys Knight, Smokey Robinson and others within Motown held it down.
I appreciated that as Stevie got older and made way for the new child star – Michael Jackson. Over the years, Stevie would write a number of songs that Michael covered. From ‘My Cheri Amour’ to ‘I Don’t Know Why I Love You’ Wonder was an ever-present figure who over the years played a crucial role in helping shape and inspire the genius we appreciate about Michael.
I also understood that Stevie was arguably at the prime of his career winning Grammy after Grammy and dropping landmark albums like ‘Talking Book’, ‘Innervisions’ and ‘Songs in the Keys of Life’ as the Jacksons were emerging as pop sensations. With all this in mind, Stevie’s opening remarks about wishing he didn’t have to live to see the day we buried Michael along with his stellar performance of ‘Never Dreamed You’d Leave in Summer’ which was also covered by Michael took, on deeper meaning now that I had a historical and social context to put it in.
Usher’s heartfelt performance of Michael’s song ‘Gone Too Soon’ which had inspired dozens of video tributes found all upon Youtube including an incredible tribute done for the ill-fated BET Awards but was sadly never shown, was moving.
Brooke Shields’ speech was touching as was John Mayer’s performance. Many did not realize how close and long a friendship Shields and Michael had. It was touching and insightful. One had to respect Mayer for opting not to sing but to just play the riffs to the song ‘Human Nature’. He later noted that he could not do Michael justice.
Brother Jermaine Jackson singing Michael’s favorite song ‘Smile’ was sobering. We had heard early on that Jermaine was going to sing and it was met with excitement. Again when it finally sunk in that he was paying tribute to his fallen brother after Brooke Shields had referenced the song in her remarks, we were all moved.
Reverend Al Sharpton gave the speech of a lifetime as he encompassed many of the feelings many were feeling but simply could not articulate. He addressed the naysayers and MJ haters in splendid fashion when he reminded us how Michael through his music and videos brought people of all races together and helped erase many divisions especially when he kicked down the doors to segregated entities like MTV. He reminded the audience that it was Michael who pushed and played trailblazing roles in charitable events like Live AID and We Are the World.
Sharpton noted that MJ’s bringing together of folks paved the way for the eventual election of President Obama. This drew loud applause. Sharpton spoke directly to Michael’s kids when he said; “There was nothing strange about your Daddy, it was strange what your daddy had to deal with.” This drew a thunderous standing ovation.
I knew right then, in spite 20 thousand people inside Staples beaming and rousing in agreement with Sharpton, that pundits would immediately be put in front of the TV cameras to discredit – and they were. The main talking points were; Michael Jackson was not an African-American icon, but an American icon and that Sharpton’s remarks were racist and would not be approved by Jackson. What’s funny about this was Jackson in later years came under attack for 3 or 4 things that drew the racial ire of some of Sharpton’s critics who say he plays the race card too much.
The first as I mentioned earlier was the ‘Remember the Time’ video where Michael caught flak for having African-Americans be cast as ancient Egyptians.
The second was Michael buying the Beatles catalogue. Him besting everyone including former friend Paul McCartney at the music industry’s publishing game, which over the years has left scores of Black artists destitute, may have been the spark that led to the onslaught of attacks MJ had to endured.
The third was him marrying Elvis Presley’s daughter, Priscilla Presley. That was too much for a whole lot of prejudice folks to bear. I recall the anger it caused to have the King of Pop who in spite of his so-called white appearance was still seen as a Black man marrying the daughter of the King of Rock-N-Roll. We all heard stories about Elvis’s daughter being called a “nigger lover”.
Prior to that, Michael caught racial heat for his very public friendship and relationship with Brooke Shields. Yes, the interracial dating thing even for the King of Pop was troubling for quite a few folks who want to insist that Michael be an “American icon” as long as he doesn’t marry their daughters. (The irony here is that Michael and Brooke never really dated they were just good friends, but even that was too much)
The fourth thing was Jackson going up to Harlem in June 2002 to Al Sharpton’s headquarters and speaking out about the blatant racism in the music industry. It was Jackson not Sharpton who referred to then lauded industry executive Tommy Mottola as racist and devilish. Sharpton tried to back pedal a bit on Jackson’s remarks and make it seem like a mistake in words, but it was just days later Michael went to England and underscored everything he said about Mottola and then some.
The bottom line is Sharpton captured the moment during the memorial. Sharpton’s words were a breath of fresh air when you look at the racial overtones that had been placed on Jackson ranging from idiotic Congressmen like Peter King out of New York, to the so-called liberal icon Keith Oberman.
As each speaker took the stage and paid tribute, it hit home that the King of Pop was not only gone for good, but along with him an enduring, inspiring spirit calling on us to live up to life’s challenges and be our best at all times. It would be up to us to hold on to that spirit and do something with it. This realization was underscored when Martin Luther King III and his sister Bernice King spoke directly to the family and shared with them lessons they learned from their famous Civil Rights leader father. They recalled his famous Drum Major Instinct speech where he told us to be the best at what we do no matter how insignificant it may seem. They also shared with us MJ reaching out to their mother, Coretta Scott King 3 weeks before she passed which reminded us just how big a heart this man had.
It all hit home when Marlon Jackson spoke about his love for his brother which was followed by daughter Paris whose voice and cries about her love for her father were heard all around the world. There wasn’t a dry eye in the building when she spoke.
After the Jackson family said their last goodbyes, the casket was removed the finality of Michael Jackson being forever gone hit. I found myself thinking how Michael meant different things to different people. Some saw him as only an entertainer while others saw him as part of a larger culture rooted in age-old traditions. Some saw Michael as transcending race while other saw him as part of a race. Some saw Mike as a meal ticket to sell t-shirts, records, tickets etc while others recoiled at him being commoditized.
I myself saw a man who left behind a rich legacy and I was wondering if it would be a legacy we exploit and squander or if it would be something we cherish and build upon? Were my frequent walks down memory lane over the past two weeks a reminder for me to learn about myself and my people, build upon that, spread the knowledge and use that understanding to dwell deeper and bring forth the important aspects of the heroes and sheroes who do for us everyday? In other words, start loving and appreciating while people are still around and not when their dead?
It was then that it hit me that Michael’s music was no longer alive. Not in the way it was when I was coming down to LA. It was no longer alive because it was time for us to move forward and add richness to the legacy and not keep using it. In other words stop, looking for comfort within Michael and his music and start using our talents and resources to comfort and be a blessing to others.
Michael Joseph Jackson was a constant companion-a sound track of sorts to my life. He was a constant who was there at every momentous occasion I experienced. And now he was no more. He’s the end of an era, a chapter closed and the start of new beginning if I so choose.
Michael Jackson was an iconic bigger than life figure prior to the Memorial. After brother Marlon and daughter Paris spoke, it hit hard that he was a brother, father, son and beloved friend who will surely be missed.
There will never ever be another Michael Jackson and for that I’m sad. But his memorial said to me, “The ball is in your court. Michael’s work is done. It’s on you, it’s on us –each and everyone of us who sought comfort in his talents and persona, to carry on and impact this world and the communities around us by helping move them to new and better heights. Will the world stop and pay attention when we die?
RIP Michael Jackson..May we build upon the foundation you laid for us.