By NORMAN (OTIS) RICHMOND
The year is 1983. My friends and I are in Buffalo, New York. We are there to see the poets Amiri Baraka and Jayne Cortez at the Tralfamadore Café (aka “The Tralf”).
Colonized Afro America’s poet laureate Baraka is on a pay phone talking to his wife Amina Baraka. Baraka comes off the phone and announces, “whatever you may think about Michael Jackson, Amina says he stole the show tonight”. He was talking about Jackson’s performance at Motown’s 25th Anniversary.
Motown brought out all its guns that night – Marvin, The Temptations, The Four Tops, Levi Stubbs and Dennis Edwards who delighted millions of viewers around the globe as they did vocal battle. The Boss, Diana Ross and Stevie shined. However, the night belonged to Michael Joseph Jackson.
On that night MJ moon-walked into history as the greatest all round entertainer alive. He earned the title, “The King of Pop”. I had seen all the greats myself growing up in Los Angeles: James Brown, Jackie Wilson and my personal favourite, David Ruffin, as one of the lead vocalists with The Temptations. They all performed in the City of Angels and I saw them all. Jackson had studied all of them and more.
He once confessed, “I would sit on stage at shows and watch James Brown and Jackie Wilson perform. I would watch and really feel it, particularly the crowd and the way they reacted. That’s what I wanted to do.”
When Ruffin passed, Michael covered some of the expenses for his funeral and acknowledged his debt to “King David”. Michael was also influenced by Joe Tex who later joined the Nation of Islam, became a minister and changed his name to Yusef Hazziez. When the group would do Joe Tex’s hit, ‘Skinny Legs and All’, Michael used to go into the audience and lift all the girls’ legs up. He would later say, “God, I’m so embarrassed about that – I would never dream of doing it now.”
Jackson was about to embark on a massive “comeback” tour with 50 sold out shows in London, England.
The world will not see Michael Jackson in this life again. The King of Pop joined the ancestors on June 25, 2009.
He was born in Gary, Indiana on August 29, 1958. His brother, Jermaine Jackson (Muhammad Abdul Aziz), who has been the spokesperson for the family, told the press: “Our family requests that the media please respect our privacy during this tough time, and may Allah be with you Michael, always.”
Jermaine converted to Islam in 1989. The Jacksons were raised as Jehovah’s Witnesses.
I have met and interviewed Jermaine and Tito on separate occasions. I never met Michael. While I worked for a time at Third World Books & Crafts, I was not there when Michael visited. I was there, however, when Randy and Marlon dropped by and was pleasantly surprised to discover they were not your everyday “deaf, dumb and blind” rhythm and blues stars. I recall Randy being visually upset at me when I asked him about Nova Scotia. Yes, he knew about Nova Scotia and had been there, thank-you-very-much!
I had not been there and have yet to visit. I later learned that the Jacksons’ mother, Katherine, was a frequent visitor to the Aquarian Spiritual Center in South Central Los Angeles. She used to come to the store and buy books for Michael and the rest of the Jackson clan. The co-owner of this bookstore, Bernice Ligon, told me that Katherine was interested in the Pan African experience.
I did see the Jacksons’ Victory Tour which was promoted by Don King. I saw it in Toronto, Buffalo and Washington D.C. in 1984. While I am a huge Jermaine fan, the Victory Tour turned into the Michael Jackson show. Although Jermaine did create a measure of excitement when he performed the Stevie Wonder written and produced ‘Let’s Get Serious’, Michael was clearly the fan favourite.
While it is fashionable to talk about the self-hating Jackson family, it goes deeper than this.
My Mississippi-born great-grandfather George Glover had what Michael claims to have had – vitiligo (a condition in which a loss of cells that give color to the skin – melanocytes – results in smooth, white patches in the midst of normally pigmented skin.) The Jackson family fell victim to the same complex that many Africans, both on the continent and in the Diaspora, experience. They nevertheless still have a relationship with Africa and the Caribbean. Michael and his brothers went to Senegal in 1973. Kwame Braithwaite, brother of Elombe Brath, chair of the Patrice Lumumba Coalition, accompanied the group as a co-ordinator and photographer. Later, in 1979, the Jacksons were booked to perform in South Africa. According to Nelson George, Mamadu Seeka, the person who took them to Senegal, was being treated for terminal cancer in New York. He called Michael’s father, Joe Jackson, to explain the need to boycott South Africa because of its apartheid system. Even though the contracts had been signed, Joe was convinced to cancel the date and it became an event which garnered tremendous international respect for the Jacksons. This was under-reported in the corporate press at the time.
One of the memorable moments of a series of shows in Trinidad & Tobago is Michael Jackson singing ‘Sugar Bum Bum’ by Lord Kitchener. Wayne Bowman wrote in the Trinidad Express that Michael was “so spot on in his rendition of the song, people believed he had known the song before coming here” which he didn’t.
Like every human being, Michael Jackson, had merits and demerits. Many question his relationship to youth. Many others (and this is not discussed on a major level) question his relationship to reactionary heads of state, including the former president of Gabon, Omar Bongo.
It is my view that Michael’s relationship to Africa and oppressed Africans was a positive one. I personally think Michael Joseph Jackson will be welcomed by the ancestors.