Michael Jackson’s sad death at age 50 has provoked an outpouring of emotion around the whole world. Because of globalization, it is an event that affects fans in Asia and the Middle East, as well. In early 2007, his brother Jermaine, a Muslim, announced that Michael would embrace that religion. In November of 2008, just months before his death press reports said that Michael Jackson had formally converted to Islam.
Jackson was a man of multiple identities, which helped account for his enormous worldwide popularity. It seems clear that he was deeply traumatized by his rough show business childhood, and that things happened to him to arrest his development. Just as a stem cell can grow into any organ, Michael’s eternal boyishness made him a chameleon. Increasingly androgynous, he expressed both male and female. A boy and yet a father, he was both child and adult. In part because of his vitiligo, he interrogated his blackness and became, like some other powerful and wealthy African-Americans of his generation, racially ambiguous. Toward the end of his life he bridged his family’s Jehovah’s Witness brand of Christianity with a profound interest in Islam. He was all things to all people in part precisely because of his Peter Pan syndrome. A child can grow up to become anything, after all.
Jermaine Jackson explained that it was the experience of touring the Gulf that brought family members into contact with Islam. Interestingly, he found that Islam resolved some dilemmas he had about Jehovah’s Witness beliefs. Just as Malcolm X had been converted by his pilgrimage to Mecca from a narrow sectarian folk religion in America to Sunni anti-racist universalism, so Jermaine took a similar path.
We can only speculate about the attractions for Michael Jackson of Islam, but likely his 2005 trial in which he was acquitted of all charges was implicated in his desire for a change. The court psychiatrist confirmed his psychological innocence, saying he had been arrested at the stage of a 10 year old. Michael Jackson was deeply hurt and humiliated by the experience, and his withdrawal to Bahrain and search for a different tradition of spirituality may well have come out of that abasement.
Those who lived through the 80s will never forget the Michael of “Thriller” and other breakthrough videos.
But it seems to me that the iconic later Jackson is “Black or White,” which powerfully makes the points above about the fluidity of identity in a globalized world, and underlines the common humanity of us all, something that the eternal boy could see through the ravages of hurt that clouded his never-ending childhood. Young children don’t know about racial or religious prejudice. The great tragedy of Michael Jackson is that his childlike withdrawal from reality may have left him more vulnerable to himself and others, and never protected him from bigotry or, other human realities. After all, children shouldn’t die.
Here are the lyrics of “Black or White”:
Jackson is still enormously popular in the Middle East. Here is a Gulf tribute to the King of Pop. Given the stereotyping of Gulf Arabs as medieval and fanatical, and given the hurtful prejudice against their very form of clothing in the West, it is only right that they should have the last word here on Michael Jackson’s universal appeal:
(People are saying that the sound track was added over globalized Gulf music here; OK, but it is the height of hybridity either way.)
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