The passing of a cultural icon can elicit strange and strong emotions from those who were fans and idolized their celebrity hero. It is why the rush of emotion upon the news of the sudden death of Michael Jackson has triggered an outpouring worldwide that exceeds anything we have witnessed before, counting even the deaths of Elvis Presley and John Lennon. The musical prodigy from Gary, Indiana was bigger than life and his living transcended man-made boundaries of race, class, and geography. He was a citizen of the world, an ambassador of music whose time on this planet, though short, was remarkably rich and transformative in impact.
Those of us old enough to remember will recall the first time we heard “I Want You Back,” on the radio and was mesmerized by the angelic yet emotion laden voice of a young Michael. We marveled that someone our age could be so talented and were swept away by a sound that we could uniquely claim as belonging to our generation. At a time when the sight of Black entertainers on television was still a “must see” event, we waited anxiously all week for Sunday to arrive knowing that the brothers from Gary would be performing on the Ed Sullivan Show. It was a night that across the country Black families were glued to their sets beaming with pride and sensing that a star had been born. And, what a star Michael Jackson was.
Michael became family. We were disappointed when the Jackson 5 broke up and not to sure of what to make with Michael’s split from Motown, a label we revered in an almost cult like manner. We did not know what to make of the teenage Michael but were once again swept off our feet when he catapulted to solo fame with the release of “Off the Wall” under the tutelage of Quincy Jones. Then “Thriller” came along and sent us into a catatonic state. We may not want to confess it publicly, but a whole lot of us were sporting a knock off of that zippered, red leather jacket the “King of Pop” was sporting in “Beat It.” Who can forget “Motown 25” and seeing Michael glide backward while sporting that sequined glove and socks?
We debated Michael’s physical transformation, argued its significance to his race consciousness, or lack thereof, and then sought to validate our own feelings for him by always going back to the music. It is why despite the allegations against him regarding his relationship with children, many of us embraced him unconditionally. Whatever his faults we would not let them overshadow his musical genius nor invalidate what he represented to the Black community.
As much as we loved Michael for his music, we admired him for his compassion. It was clear to us, a community that was historically oppressed and often maligned, that Michael possessed an uncompromising love for the downtrodden and was unafraid to use his fame and fortune to help those others deemed outcasts. We tolerated the oddities like Neverland, the chimpanzee, and fondness for toys because his behavior exhibited a childlike innocence that made his compassion for the human race all the more endearing. It resonated with his devotion to AIDS victim Ryan White and the manner in which Michael sought to make the young man’s story a teaching moment for the world.
Michael Jackson was a gift to the world and he will be missed. We will miss his silhouette on stage, head bowed and crowned with a fedora, hand on the tip of his brim and leg pitched forward, poised to strike that first step. It seems inconceivable that we will never see him where he was most happy – on stage in an almost trance like euphoria dancing and singing us into a frenzy. We feel blessed that we were alive to witness his talent, his celebrity, his drive for perfection in his craft. We are fortunate that technology gives us the ability to enjoy his artistry forever and to share it with generations to come.
The King of Pop is now on the greatest stage. We know that he was welcomed with open arms by Marvin Gaye, Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald, Otis Redding, Tammi Terrell, Sam Cooke, Luther Vandross, Levi Stubbs, Gerald Levert and the legion of greats who answered their final curtain call. Still, many hearts are broken because for those of us who called ourselves fans, in our hearts we feel Michael, like the sentiments he expressed for Ryan White, is gone too soon.