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Mainstream, Vol. XLVII, No 41, September 26, 2009

Political and Social Legacy of Michael Jackson

Saturday 26 September 2009, by Namrata Goswami

Michael Jackson’s musical message of social and political equality amongst races the world over influenced the political and social thinking of many around the world with a liberal ideology of progress, change, human emancipation and equality. Significantly, during the height of the Cold War, his song “We are the World” was popular in Eastern Europe and the USSR, to say nothing about the heart-beating popularity of his music album “Thriller” amongst the youth of these countries. Given his talent and creative genius, it is therefore really no surprise that Michael’s music vibrates from places as far apart as Kohima or Dimapur in Nagaland, India to Alice Springs in the heart of Australia to Addis Ababa in Africa to the up-market streets of New York. Hence, in the light of the immortality of the man’s music his mortality on June 25, 2009 has left the world with a physical void as it missed out on his last shows “This Is It” planned for July 2009 to March 2010.

Michael Jackson, the man, was finally laid to rest on September 4, 2009 (nearly two months after his death) amongst the greats of Hollywood like Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, W.C. Fields and Red Skelton at Forest Lawn, Glendale, California in a hidden mausoleum made of marble and mortar. While we grieve that we did not see him perform his magical shows for the last time, with the benefit of hindsight one can argue that it was perhaps meant to be that way…his sudden passing away has left the world with a desire to practise what he so ardently believed in his lifetime: a peaceful world order based on human equality.

While controversies ravaged this brilliant and unusually gifted musician in the later years of his life, the tipping point of which was the child abuse cases of which he was finally acquitted in 2005, the world at large will perhaps remember Michael as a man and a musician who inspired, cajoled, enlightened and provoked many of us to rethink our political and social notions on race, colour, poverty, the politics of nations, poverty, the underprivileged and the health of our planet itself through such songs as “Man in the Mirror” (1988), “ Heal the World” (1991), “Earth Song” (1996), and “Black or White” (1991). The last song urged the world to fight against discriminations based on race and colour by boldly portraying people from all countries as equal, be it India, the US, Kenya, Ethiopia, China or France in its video with a common notion of humankind: the progress of thought and human spirit. That he firmly believed in the lyrics and tenor of these songs was more than evident in his concerts where despite being such a perfectionist regarding matters of artistic style and dance, Michael would passionately request his audience directly to “make that change” and help prop up the destitute and those less privileged than themselves.

Michael Jackson’s commitment to the cause of African Americans in the US, the poverty in the developing world, and his anguish at the killing fields of Africa, at the nature of violence and the destructive capabilities of weapons were astounding, to say the least. In “Earth Song”, he sang:

What have we done to the world, Look what we’ve done,/What about all the peace. That you pledge your only son.../What about flowering fields, Is there a time, What about all the dreams,/ That you said was yours and mine.../Did you ever stop to notice, All the children dead from war, Did you ever stop to notice,The crying Earth, the weeping shores.

¨

In 1985, along with fellow artist Lionel Richie, Michael composed the song “We are the World” to address the limitless despair, conflict and poverty in Africa. The song became one of the best-selling singles of all time, with nearly 20 million copies sold and millions of dollars donated to African famine relief. Michael thereafter donated all the profits from his hit single “Man in the Mirror” to charity and went on to form the “Heal the World Foundation” in 1992. He also addressed the issue of HIV/AIDS and his song “Gone Too Soon” was a poignant heartfelt response to the death of American teenager Ryan White due to HIV /AIDS.

It is indeed not a surprise that the man, who lived of, for and by his audience, has now come back to public memory after his death with millions worldwide downloading his songs from the internet since June 25, 2009.

Ironically, his own country, the USA, was rather cool to him since the late 1990s-2000 due to the charges of child molestations and the huge financial debts he incurred. In fact, there were no major shows given by Michael in the US since the 1990s and his 50 concert series “This Is It” that were planned from July 2009 to March 2010 were to be staged outside the US. Michael’s popularity outside the US was such that on popular demand, he had to increase his originally planned 10 shows to 50, shows that were never to be performed as we now know.

In a press conference in March 2009 in London, Michael Jackson had rather tenderly but firmly stated to his fans that “This Is It” was the last time he will be performing on stage reminding them that the curtain had to fall on his musical performances, that his fans had to learn to live a life post-Michael Jackson. A rather prophetic statement from the singer given two months before he was gone forever.

There are many ways that the legacy of Michael Jackson can be remembered: as the first cross-over African-American mainstream pop artist with dizzying worldwide fame; as a creative genius whose music and dance is unparalleled: his “Moonwalk”, inaugurated in Motown in 1983, is imitated by young and old the world over—from the slums of Mumbai to the remotest corner of the Americas and Africa; or as the artist who created the perfect music album of all times, “Thriller”.

There is, however, a more telling personal legacy we need to remember him by. Watching him perform his last number “Man in the Mirror” on the 30th anniversary London concert in 2001 with passionate zeal and conviction, one got this strong sense that Michael Jackson perhaps wanted to leave a message for us all through his music and dance…of a man who wanted to see important political, economic and social changes in the world so akin to the ideas of the father of our nation, Mahatma Gandhi’s “greatest good for all’.

And Michael’s voice will ring on…..

(If You Wanna Make The World A Better Place), Take A Look At Yourself, And Then Make A Change, (Take A Look At Yourself, And Then Make A Change)/I’ve Been A Victim Of A Selfish Kind Of Love, It’s Time That I Realise, That There Are Some With No Home, Not A Nickel To Loan,/Could It Be Really Me, Pretending That They’re Not Alone?/(If You Wanna Make The World A Better Place), Take A Look At Yourself, And Then Make That Change!

Dr Namrata Goswami is an Associate Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. The views expressed here are those of the author and not of the IDSA.