The above picture is from the first and only time I saw Michael Jackson live – in 2006, at the World Music Awards, which happened in London. He did a tiny set right at the end, way past the last train, if I remember rightly – I was with one of my ‘Asian Woman’ colleagues and Aworan was out there photographing – they wouldn’t allow many photographers to go near the pit for MJ. He went off key and had a children’s choir on stage. He sang a little ‘We are the world’ – a song I remember from my childhood, and was off the stage before we knew it. Beyonce proudly gave him an award and he spoke briefly. Chris Brown did a semi-decent tribute by performing Thriller. All in all, I knew that I missed him at his peak and didn’t buy tickets to see his final tour. Alas, that tour was not meant to be.
Carpe diem – a motto I follow to the best of my abilities day by day. Like all good things, in life, 2 things are certain, change and death. Just as I got home from a beautiful evening out in London, the sad passing of Farrah Fawcett to cancer was all over Twitter. Within a few minutes, TMZ, the LA based gossip website had announced the death of Michael Jackson! I refused to believe it till AP/PA/BBC/CNN confirmed and stayed glued to the news while Tweeting and discussing with my 4600 strong community on Facebook. The confirmation of his passing brought a tear to me eye and took me straight back to my childhood in Nigeria!
We didn’t have access to many TV channels and my first real MJ memory was of the Thriller video. It was scary yet watchable, in the eyes of a child. The dancing intrigued me and I had till then seen people like Sade and Patti Boulaye (who were plugged a lot for their Nigerian descent) and my Dad weaned me on The Beatles. So this was indeed something new to me, moreover, to see a young Black man making such waves. There I was, collecting lyrics (I would ask older kids who had transcribed from listening to his songs on cassette) and trying to understand the meaning behind Billie Jean, in all my innocence.
So memories of Wanna be starting something, Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough, Rock With You, The girl is mine, Beat it e.t.c would play at all the parties (we had many in our little corner of Nigeria, Borno state, Maiduguri). Upon moving to East London, in England at the age of 12, I was a fully fledged fan of Mr Jackson, Madonna, A ha and many more and was all set to buy my weekly Smash Hits magazine from the corner shop near Plashet secondary school. There I was, with posters of MJ adorning my wall, much to the disgust of my parents who couldn’t fathom my fascination with pop stars and footballers like Ian Rush and John Barnes.
So ‘Bad’ came out and it was one of the first albums I bought as a cassette, with a little help from Daddy dearest. We didn’t have a lot of money then, so it was a luxury and certainly a treat. As Dada, as I call him, was a Hi Fi enthusiast, he had brought down his equipment form Nigeria including a good radio tuner. This meant I could ‘record’ music from the radio, especially from the Top 40 on Sundays. So I was happily a fan of pop music in parallel to listening to Carnatic music, taking classes and going to concerts. I was also studying music in school and was part of the choir, so singing Whitney Housten’s Greatest Love of all (written by Michael Masser and Linda Creed, originally recorded by George Benson for the 1977 Muhammad Ali film The Greatest) was part of a daily practice session. I particularly enjoyed a term of music where we developed Michael Jackson’s Beat It, as we had steel pans and a young, fun music teacher.
This all culminated in my having an awe for MJ and his musical prowess – Liberian Girl was a particular favourite, with a whole load of celebrities – a fun video with some of top Black names in the business – people I’d loved watching on TV and directed by Spielberg and MJ behind the camera! I never got to see him live, as I wasn’t allowed to go to ‘Western’ pop concerts, only Carnatic ones with family. My other favourite was Black or White – a song whose lyrics of looking past racial boundaries resonated with me during 80s ‘Thatcherite’ England – the South Indian classical dance of Bharathanatyam in one scene made it that much more appealing as it was the first time I saw a mainstream HUGE video with an Asian in it, that too, with MJ doing his own version of those dance moves. The beauty of Iman in Remember the time, again crossed many boundaries, in my book, especially with the very funny Eddie Murphy in it and Teddy Riley’s New Jack Swing! And with this, I will end my never-ending reminiscence of how Michael Jackson’s music touched everybody, from M.I.A who told me that her few English words upon arriving in London, included his name to every single corner of the world. That is a legacy that will never really die.
MJ’s South Indian connections continue to the day of his sad passing, thanks to the SAJA team who informed us of the Doctor who performed his autopsy – Dr. Lakshmanan Sathyavagiswaran in LA. MJ performed in Mumbai and had the South Indian dance genius, Prabhu Deva open for him – he was an inspiration for Indian movie song videos, not to mention setting the bar very high for mainstream videos too.
My friend, AR Rahman is also a friend and fan of MJ’s and I mailed him a condolence message, as with his sound engineer H Sridhar who passed away at the age of 48, nearly 50, like MJ, they both came as a shock to the musical fraternity. AR Rahman (ARR) sent a sad sign 😦 back and wrote a very touching tribute to MJ. Here is the most poignant part:
“I remember, my late sound engineer Sridhar had brought me a video of the première of “Remember the Time” when I was recording “Kadal Rojave” for my first movie Roja. Seeing it inspired all of us that afternoon.
Now, there is no Sridhar and no Jackson anymore. I hope all of us value people’s existence more and respect them when they are alive.” AR Rahman on Michael Jackson
AR Rahman alongside Kanika and Bala of Bharatbala Productions did a track called Ekam Satyam – it takes me back to my very first meeting with AR Rahman in South Kensington. The fabulous Indian drummer A.Sivamani had cooked fish curry and rice with rasam for ARR and we drove down to see him, me nearly fainting at my first meeting with him and so on. ARR at the time was extremely thrilled as they were working on the MJ show in Germany, the Michael Jackson and Friends Concert (Shobhana and Prabhu Deva Sundaram choreographed the dance piece). MJ fell ill at that show, if I remember rightly, but ARR, Sivamani and team did their performance. An album was in the offing, but it never came into fruition and ARR said in his sad testimonial, that he met MJ recently, during the Oscars and that they may have done a peace album together as they shared that as a vision.
It is a sad loss to the music world, to say farewell to Michael Jackson, who God has called back to heaven. He suffered for his art and had a troubled life, having lost his childhood to work and trying desperately to get it back. I pray, alongside the world, that he will find peace and much deserved happiness in heaven. Below are some of my favourite song portions:
I’m starting with the man in the mirror
I’m asking him to change his ways
And no message could have been any clearer
If you wanna make the world a better place
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 realize
That there are some with no home, not a nickel to loan
Could it be really me, pretending that they’re not alone?
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?
So pray for all the lost children
Let’s pray for all the lost children
Just think of all the lost children, wishing them well
This is for all the lost children
This one’s for all the lost children
Just think of all the lost children
Wishing them well, and wishing them home
We are the world,
We are the children,
We are the one to make a brighter day,
So let`s start givin`,
There`s a chance we`re takin`,
We`re takin all our lives,
It`s true we`re make it a brighter day just you and me.
For gangs, clubs,
Causing grief in
It’s a turf war
On a global scale
I’d rather hear both sides
Of the tale
See, it’s not about races
Where your blood
Is where your space is
I’ve seen the bright
I’m not going to spend
My life being a color
I said if
You’re thinkin’ of
Being my brother
It don’t matter if you’re
Black or white
RIP Michael Jackson – you will forever live in our memories and many of us will allow our children to also see and hear the wonderful music and dancing you gave the world. You have been imitated by many, but you remain inimitable. May your soul dance and sing while you watch over the us all.
“Let us dream of tomorrow where we can truly love from the soul, and know love as the ultimate truth at the heart of all creation.” Michael Jackson RIP for taking Black music and crossing it over to the mainstream – your legacy and music will live on!!!