Monday, June 29, 2009



By Jerry Okungu
Nairobi, Kenya
June 29, 2009

The death of Michael Jackson invokes many fond memories of the 1970s and 80s when his music career was peaking. This is the generation I belong to. I, liker my generation, grew up with MJ’s action packed music that has remained as danceable as ever.

I remember some years back when I was travelling with my two young daughters from Detroit to Nairobi. As we waited to connect to Amsterdam, there was this shop playing old Motown music of the Temptations, the Jackson Fives and others of that era. Before I realized it, the girls had dashed to the shop and were dancing to those old tunes to the amusement of the shop attendants and other shoppers. For their efforts they got mugs with MJ and The Temptations signatures. I couldn’t believe that nearly thirty years later, my daughters were responding to the same music the way I did as a young man in my 20s.

Just last Saturday, a day after MJ died, the same little girl who danced in Detroit was visibly upset on learning that Michael had died. Despite her tender age of 12 at the time Michael died, the first thing she asked me was if she could call her friends in the US to tell them about Michel’s death; never mind that the star’s death was allover the world.

This reaction just goes to show how Michael’s 40 years in the music industry will transcend all ages for generations to come. And may be through his music, he has conquered death because he will still be singing for humanity many years after.

However, as I ravaged the papers and switched TV channels to get everything I need to know about my lifetime entertainer, so many images and scenes from the past came popping up. My memory went into overdrive and dug up a lot of the past events and people related to the Jackson era.

I realized that it was difficult to think or talk about Michael Jackson without remembering the tumultuous years of the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s when his contemporary entertainers such as Prince, The Pointers Sisters, Smokey Robinson, Lionel Richie, The Temptations, Isaac Hayes, Millie Jackson, Donna Summer and Gladys Maria Night controlled our airwaves and dancing halls.

I remembered George Benson, Teddy Pendergrass, Curtis Mayfield, Barry White, Billy Ocean, Marvin Gaye, Thomas Rufus, BB King and Ben E King.

My mind raced faster and retrieved Freddie Jackson, Bob Marley, Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, James Brown and MJ’s little sister Janet Jackson from my past.
Also in my mind were poet Nikki Giovanni, revolutionaries Angela Davis, Stockley Carmichael and Eldrige Cleaver, author James Baldwin and actor Jim Brown.

The reason these images kept coming up was simple. The American cultural domination of the world was at its peak. Black actors and political activists were emerging in their droves to claim a stake in the American society and in the process; they were asserting their Black consciousness in a racist American system.

It was the age of Black beauty, afro- hairstyle and general defiance of Western cultural colonialism. This era of Black consciousness united us with every Black movement across the globe from South Africa through Bob Marley’s Jamaica to the struggles of Black Panther members in the North America. When Martin Luther King and Malcolm X fell by the gun, we felt it like they were our own brothers. It was the same feeling we had when Bob Marley and Steve Biko died thousands of miles apart.

Led by Martin Luther King Jr. Malcolm X, James Brown, Angela Davis, Stockley Carmichael and a host of other Black Panther Movement radicals, we in Africa readily identified with voices of conscience be they in music, writings, poetry, politics, sports or armed resistance to racist regimes worldwide. We identified with similar struggles in Walter Rodney’s Caribbean Islands, the struggle against South Africa’s apartheid and Ian Smith’s UDI in the present Zimbabwe.

As we innocently imbibed anything American especially if it came from Black brothers, we in Africa had our own music in Lwambo Makiadi( Franco), Tabu Ley, Youlou, Johnny Bokelo, Marie Marie, Dr. Nico, Manu Dibangu, Yvonne Chakachaka, Mangelepa, Samba Mapangala, Fella Kuti and Osibisa to celebrate.

However, the American brand was too strong for our struggling music industry such that as the American icons were selling millions of their music worldwide, our local heroes were confined to their local markets determined by geography and language. The only exception to this were the Congolese artists who despite their singing in Lingala and French still found lots of fans in Kenya’s rural and urban slum dwellers.

Back here in Africa, as we mourned the deaths of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., we were acutely aware that Nelson Mandela was rotting in Robben Island, jailed by his apartheid oppressors. Yet these injustices in far away lands brought home the reality of a raceless class society where even some emerging Black rulers on the continent were beginning to display oppressive tendencies very much like what was happening in the US and South Africa.

As the JF Kennedy assassination took the world by storm, Kenya was mourning the death of its first victim of political assassination- Pio Gama Pinto. As apartheid South Africa was using brute force to suppress Black uprising, Milton Obote was also using excessive force to send Kabaka of Uganda into exile. Patrice Lumumba was already dead as soon Tom Mboya of Kenya would follow; courtesy of political assassinations.

This was the era that Black American art dominated in our part of the world. We watched Jim Brown’s movies because they were the first movies we watched that depicted racial struggle between Blacks and Whites in America. We watched Bruce Lee because we wanted action and the triumph of good over evil, whatever that meant.

We listened to the lyrics of Isaac Hayes, Marvin Gay, The mighty Temptations and Millie Jackson because they were social commentators with messages we could easily identify with.

If Isaac Hayes talked of a father who never had a fixed aboard, Millie Jackson liberated women from male domination by her defiant sex messages that were until then considered taboo. She defiantly stated that “If being in love with a married man was wrong, then she didn’t have to be right!”

For Michael Jackson, it was the power of his youth, probably the youngest star at the time that propelled him into the adult arena with powerful, energetic dance floor tunes. He was our wonder kid at the time, a wonder to behold. And as one of his friends, Sean Combs said following his death, “Michael changed the world for every race and creed on earth.”

This dancing machine was a product of the Cold War era, the Boogie dance hall and the disco music generation. But MJ was ahead of his time. He used technology to thrill his fans all over the world like no other musician.

If Bruce Lee, God Father, Rambo and Terminator mesmerized audiences on the big screen, MJ captivated live millions of fans across the globe. He was the most adored entertainer that ever lived even surpassing the Beatles and Elvis Priestley because he cut across all races in all continents.

Listening to songs like Thriller, Beat It, Billy Jeans, I’ll be There, Black or White, I’m Bad and many other songs, one realizes that MJ wrote songs with simple themes for the ordinary people. Perhaps this was the reason he has left the world that was moved by his greatness in which his childlike character charmed many hearts around the globe.

He has departed from millions that never met him yet loved him like one of their own. Perhaps it would be accurate to state here that MJ left millions of widows: women who wailed, wept and experienced orgasm just by his sheer sight on stage. A look at his Dangerous Tour in Bucharest, no less that five hundred women fainted in just one night of concert where tears of joy flowed freely as the wonder boy sang his famous I’ll be There song.

In his song Thriller, one could detect a person obsessed with the weird underworld that he desired to conquer and take control of. Dancing with ghost-like characters on stage gave him the feeling that his music could change and control the universe. In so doing this, MJ lived in fantasy world yet his music was real and enduring. And as we mourn him today, one can be forgiven for suggesting that MJ actually conquered death with his music because he will continue to entertain us for many years after his death!

I remember hearing many myths about Michael Jackson. One such folktale talked of his bedroom in which there was pure oxygen. People in the know justified such eccentric behavior because it was rumored that MJ had a plan to outlive all his fans and die at the age of 150 years. If that were the case, the king of pop has passed on 100 years earlier.

What he has left his fans with are the usual ecstasy, adrenalin, bursting emotions, fainting in crowds, police ambulances and paramedics on standby for fainting fans that were the hallmark of his live concerts.

MJ Worked the crowd like no other entertainer had done in modern history. He was a dancing robot, with perfect reflex action and superb body coordination. He was a master of crowd control, a black phenomenon on stage, and the epitome of break-dance era.

Fare thee well MJ