What can I say that has already been said?
When I heard the news, I immediately cancelled my plans for the night, went to bed, turned on the Jackson 5 and had myself a little cry. It wasn’t some much that I was mourning the death of an Icon but rather the loss of innocence. When Michael Jackson died yesterday, Quincy Jones said that, “he took a piece of my soul with him.” Personally, I would say that when Michael passed, he took a big piece of my childhood with him.
I have always firmly believed that every musician is created, not born. Somewhere along the way, we had some kind of experience that caused us to pick up an instrument and start playing. A lot of us saw someone else perform and that experience moved us to such an extent, that we wanted to emulate them. That person would instantly become and forever remain our first musical idol. I’m talking about that one person or group that sets in motion a chain of events that will ultimately dictate the course of our entire lives. For me, that person was Michael Jackson… I should point out that Michael Jackson was not just my first musical idol. Honestly, he was my first childhood hero ever. I don’t even want to begin the arduous process of deconstructing his music and it’s many musical merits. I think his body of work speaks for itself. My intention here is to give you a brief summation of the valuable role his work played in my young life.
The first record I ever owned was this Jackson 5 special “collector’s edition” picture disc:
Man, I used to run around the house all day wearing that glove and singing those songs through my signature Michael Jackson toy microphone. At 8 years old, my only goal was to ascend to the level of pop supremacy that MJ had attained. Suffice to say, it wasn’t long before I traded in my boyhood fantasies of pop stardom for experiences in lesser know musical genres. Fortunately, what always remained with me was a deep appreciation for a number of aesthetic values found in both Jackson’s music and persona. Prior to my discovery of Michael Jackson, I had absolutely no interest in music what so ever. It was by sheer chance that one day I turned on the TV and saw the “King of Pop” breaking it off in the “Beat It” video. That it was it for me. From that moment on, everything would change. Everyday I’d come home from school and escape into the fantasy world of my room, which served as my own personal concert venue. In this world, I was MJ’s sidekick and duet partner. When it came time to sing “The Girl is Mine”, Paul McCartney was out and Greaves was in! When it came time to break off “Billy Jean”, I would moonwalk, spin around 3 times and stand up on the tips of my toes just like Jackson on the Motown 25th Anniversary show. Of course, this move had to be delicately orchestrated and executed at exactly 3:30 into the music. It was awesome!
Perhaps, just as important as the music itself, was the effect Michael Jackson had on my overall sense of identity and consciousness. You see, this was definitely a difficult time in my life. I was a young Hispanic boy who had been adopted and thrust into a social environment where the lines of demarcation juxtaposed lower-class Hispanics against privileged whites. It was also during this particular period that I first began to struggle with my own xenophobia and sense of identity. I was never quite able to assimilate myself with the white culture that surrounded me or the Nuyorican ethos that counteracted it. For me, cultural identification was an abstraction; an apparition that echoed from the past but had no bearing on my life. It was through Jackson that I discovered an entirely new set of aesthetic values to relate to in this regard.
Noted scholar, Michael Eric Dyson said of Jackson’s Legacy:
“He brought human beings together across the barriers of race and class and gender. He projected into the world (the genius and strength) of African-American culture.”
For me, Michael Jackson became the cultural representative of Afro-American culture. It was through the study and appreciation of this culture that I would find the means to survive existentially. He was a symbol that I think resonated most profoundly with all minority children in America (and the world) who did note feel affirmed by either the mainstream media or the entertainment industry. Here was an artist who presented a sympathetic view of ethnic people in his music videos without having to associate them with vulgar sexual imagery or violence. In a way, Jackson showed me that you could be the biggest pop star in the world and still have a social conscious. Songs like “We are the World” and “Man in the Mirror” somehow alluded to an esoteric kind of global consciousness and multiculturalism without beating our fragile little minds over the head with weighty political jargon. As a young impressionable child, I really bought in to the notion that Michael Jackson cared about me as he did for all of children in the world. There was something so comforting and vital in that for me because at the time, I was constantly plagued by the belief that every adult in my life had failed me. It was this initial infatuation with Michael Jackson that would soon lead me to investigate Black history and the origins of white supremacy. Both of these inquiries would provide an awareness of other complex “social issues” and political movements later in my life. At the age of 10, I began to study the civil rights movement and became really interested in writers like Mildred D. Taylor. It was also around this time that I began listening to newer forms of Afro-Centric music. Through Hip-Hop, I first discovered music as a cathartic experience.
My former teacher and Jazz Legend Archie Shepp accurately states:
“African-American music is as rich, verbally—coming from folktales and folklore—blues and that lyric idiom could be considered a kind of poetry. The rappers are really an extension of the blues man, which is of course the preacher.”
It wasn’t long before my friends and I were forming our own rap groups and performing at little talent shows. Although short lived, these first musical forays would provide the framework that would define my entire musical existence. I would come to understand the nature of performing and what it meant to express oneself in a fully committed way. Hip Hop taught me that words matter and that the personal was intrinsically political. Groups like Public Enemy heightened my awareness of Black Nationalism and led me to discover the absolutely brilliant work of filmmaker Spike Lee. From there, I would dive into the writings of Malcolm X and other Black intellectuals. Even today, I consider the work of scholars like Bell Hooks and Dr. Cornel West, to be an integral part of my intellectual development.
Somewhere along the way, I discovered rock-n-roll when I bought Run DMC’s “Raising Hell”, which featured the legendary collaboration with Aerosmith. It was Joe Perry’s intro on “Walk This Way” that first inspired to me to pick up the drums. By the age of 14, I was playing legitimate shows with a politically charged punk/hardcore band alongside many of my heroes at the time. It was the rhythmic foundations of R+B, Soul, and hip hop music that provided me with the essentially tools I needed to even function in that environment. Like hip hop…punk rock, hardcore, and real emo music required a personal and political commitment not found in the self-indulgent “alternative rock” scene of the day. To get on stage in front of a group of people in that kind of music scene required the musician to put him or herself through an emotional bloodletting. You had to get into a space in your mind where you actually convinced yourself that what you were about to do was going to change the world. Unfortunately, after a while the only thing that changed was my interest in it.
After my interest in punk rock faded, I went through a confusing time which led to a brief flirtation with the neo-hippie scene. Once again, Afro-American music would save me from myself, only this time; it would come to me in the form of John Coltrane. At the time, I was knee deep into a world of excess, which completely threatened to destroy my life and musicianship all together. Once awakened, I was able to reject the gentrified forms of music and loose morals that so many of my bourgeois friends where involved in. It was Coltrane that taught me the true meaning of religious commitment in respect to music. It was from that point that I would commit myself to the guitar, the study of music, and ultimately begin my most turbulent yet rewarding time in music.
As I reflect on the passing of Michael Jackson, I find myself asking what my life would be like without music. The answer is…I don’t know. Maybe it would be more stable and financially secure. Maybe I’d even be a happier person. The fact is that my life is totally invested in music and there’s no changing that now. It is music, alone, that has allowed me to explore my own spiritual imagination and intellectual freedom. Most importantly, music has been my only ally in the fight against the personal demons that continually threaten to destroy my life.
…And it is was Michael Jackson who first gave me that gift. That is why I mourn his death and that is why he matters to me. -Tone