Yesterday, Today, & FOREVER The King of Pop

Political and Social Legacy of Michael Jackson

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 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 ("they" say) 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.

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