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Friday, June 26, 2009

He Tried to Heal the World: Tribute to the King of Pop

Michael Jackson was more than the most talented entertainer of his generation.
He was more than a musician of genius level- talent and epic accomplishments.
He was more than an innovator, a trail-blazer and a trendsetter
Though certainly most men would settle for being any one of these things.
Still he was more even than all of these things.

He was a change agent.
He was a messenger of love and hope.
In his art, he sought not just to entertain but to change the world, to make it a better place:

"We`re on a mission
In the everlasting light
That shines a revelation...
We`re gonna shake it up and break it up
We`re sharing light brighter than the sun
Hello, good times
We`re here to simulate, eliminate
And congregate, illuminate"
(We Are Here to Change the World)

Like most love warriors, he paid a heavy price for his efforts. He was accused of crimes, robbed of his fortune, and despite being vindicated by a court that ruled  he was "innocent on all counts" suffered for years as a result of recurrent aspersions against his character. He was a tragic character, a victim despite his brilliance, a target despite how much he was loved by people all around the world. He wrote about what was done to him in his History Album:

"Tired of injustice
Tired of the schemes
The lies are disgusting
So what does it mean
Kicking me down"

Despite it all, he continued writing, singing, dancing. He turned his grief into art. In his song, "They Don't Really Care About Us" he turned his personal trials and tribulations into a video about racism, police brutality, and the high levels of incarceration of black and brown men. Even in his despair, he made art that brought people together and educated his fans about racial injustice:

"Beat me, hate me
You can never break me
Will me, thrill me
You can never kill me
Chew me, sue me
Everybody do me
Kick me hit me
Dont you black or
white me! "
(They don't Care About Us)

At five years old, I was dancing with a group of children in the playground at Hull House in Chicago to the the hit song "Rockin Robin." We even had a Rockin' Robin dance.

This amazing human being was far too young and his life, especially in the last few years was far too tragic but the legacy he left behind speaks for itself and no matter what his naysayers say, they cannot undo the magic he spun in the world during his brief incarnation among us.

At seven I recall crying when my mother played "Ben" and thinking about my dad when she played "I'll Be There."

Michael wasn't just a crossover artist, he was the first major artist to break down racial boundaries in music. He integrated MTV back when it was a "whites only" station with his blockbuster,"Thriller." He produced videos like "Remember the Time" which portrayed Egyptians as the Africans they were and not the white people that white American filmmakers have sought to portray them as. His "Bad" video had an anti-violence message.  His "Man in the Mirror" video juxtaposed images of MLK, Gandhi, Mother Theresa, homeless Americans, and starving children in he Third World.

He was a great collaborator and brought artists of different races and cultures together to produce art and was the first American artist to raise millions of dollars for less fortunate people in Eastern Europe and Africa  through his "Heal the World Foundation."

We Could Fly So High
Let Our Spirits Never Die
In My Heart
I Feel You Are All
My Brothers
Create A World With
No Fear
Together We'll Cry
Happy Tears
See The Nations Turn
Their Swords
Into Plowshares
(Heal the World)

When I was in Middle School, my friends and knew all the lyrics to his "Off the Wall" album. We sang the songs while we hung shyly against the wall, too shy to dance with each other at the school-sponsored dances.

He wrote and sang about racial injustice, environmental issues, war, hunger, homelessness, gang violence, genocide, AIDS. He challenged racial categories and anti-black police brutality. He tried with his art, to heal the world:

"We are here to change the world
Gonna change the world, Hee
We are here to change the world
Gonna change the world"
(We Are Here to Change the World/Captain EO)

When I was 17, working at a pre-school in Phoenix, I had a two-year old in my class who could dance and sing just like Michael. He was a Nursery school sensation. He was "bad" and he was white.

Before Native American beliefs about the oneness of al life were popularized by the New Age movement, Michael tried to get us to see our shared humanity:

"We're Sendin' Out
A Major Love
And This Is Our
Message To You
Message To You
The Planets Are Linin' Up
We're Bringin' Brighter Days
They're All In Line
Waitin' For You
Can't You See . . .?
You're Just Another Part Of Me . . "
(Another Part of Me)

I was in College when he wrote the "We are the World" lyrics, providing a positive alternative to Bandaid's subtly racist portrayal of Africa as ignorant and bereft of anything but hunger:

"There comes a time 
When we head a certain call 
When the world must come together as one 
There are people dying 
And it's time to lend a hand to life 
The greatest gift of all 

We can't go on 
Pretneding day by day 
That someone, somewhere will soon make a change 
We are all a part of 
God's great big family 
And the truth, you know love is all we need"
(We Are the World)

He brought an anti-war and pro-environmental message to his music and thus to the millions of people around the world his music reached :

"What have we done to the world
Look what we've done ...
Did you ever stop to notice
All the children dead from war
Did you ever stop to notice
The crying Earth the weeping shores "
(Earth Song)

When I was a graduate student in the 90s, Michael's incredibly moving "Earth Song" video came out and although I did not own a TV at the time, I somehow managed to get an invitation to somebody's house to see it. It made me cry and cry but it also filled me with hope. Michael tried to get us to recognize the kinship we share not only with each other across race and space but also with plants, animals, and the earth. I had never seen any artist in the mainstream make such an important appeal to the human race. Every child in every school should be shown this video every year of grade school until we change out ways:

"Hey, what about yesterday
What about us
What about the seas
What about us
The heavens are falling down
What about us
I can't even breathe
What about us
What about the bleeding Earth
What about us
Can't we feel its wounds
What about us
What about nature's worth
It's our planet's womb
What about us
What about animals
What about it
We've turned kingdoms to dust
What about us
What about elephants
What about us
Have we lost their trust
What about us
What about crying whales
What about us"

(Earth Song)

I remember so clearly seeing the "Black or White" video on TV, where he showed people of different races morphing into each other and talked about transracial love. As a mixed race product of a highly contested interracial union living in racially segregated Chicago, it gave me a glimpse of a future that I could belong to. Perhaps it was this song that inspired the poetry I write about coming together across race and despite racism. I know I owe a debt of gratitude to this amazing artist. His music was the soundtrack of the majority of my young life.

"See, It's Not About Races
Just Places
Where Your Blood
Comes From
Is Where Your Space Is
I've Seen The LIGHT
Get Duller
I'm Not Going To Spend
My Life Being A Color"

(Black or White)

"He say one day you will see
His place in world history"

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