The media continues to run blaring headlines questioning the custody of Michael Jackson’s children, Joe Jackson’s charges of homicide, and speculation over control of the multi-million dollar estate. Yet, one of the most important aspects of Michael Jackson’s legacy is conspicuously under-reported — his humanitarianism, specifically his affinity for Africa.
Jackson’s first visited Africa in 1974 at age 14; he and his brothers traveled to Senegal, in West Africa. According to a recently released film covering the trip, while there, the group “performed specially written songs” and toured the country.
At age 33 Michael returned to the Continent, where, according to Ebony Magazine, he traveled to Gabon, Ivory Coast, and other countries. At every stop the wildly popular Jackson drew large and enthusiastic crowds. In Gabon, the spectators were more numerous than Nelson Mandela’s. And in the Ivory Coast, Jackson’s crowds were larger than those that came out for the Pope! During that trip, which was poorly reported in the U.S., Jackson prioritized humanitarian acts for example visiting children in schools and the sick in hospitals.
Jackson’s humanitarian work did seem to reflect an understanding of the structural nature of poverty and inequality. If he did understand historical and structural inequality it was not demonstrated, at least not publically, unlike the work of politically mature artist/activist Danny Glover, who is frequently described as the modern equivalent of Paul Robeson. But, throughout his life Jackson did address a range of broad social issues, which occasionally were also reflected in his music. For example in the song “Why You Wanna Trip on Me” he says:
They say I’m different
They don’t understand
But there’s a bigger problem
That’s much more in demand
You got the world hungry, not enough to eat
So there‘s really no time to be trippin on me
Of course Jackson was well known for his collaboration with Lionel Ritchie on the revolutionary 1985 single “We Are the World,” which raised $50 million for famine relief, advocacy, and educational activity. The single, produced and performed in a one-night session, topped the music charts. The single received three Grammy Awards, a People’s Choice Award, and one American Music Award. We are the World was unique in other ways as well. Not only was the effort a collaboration of the country’s biggest stars, but the funds were broadly distributed through the organization “USA for Africa” [www.usaforafrica.org] which used a progressive approach to its grant making.
While many commentators have focused on Jackson’s enduring popularity in Europe and Japan, in 1992 Jackson declared, “Africa is home.” According to the BBC, Jackson had an “extraordinary” impact in Africa. In 1999 Nelson Mandela presented Jackson a Lifetime Achievement Award. Africans were interested in Jackson’s music, even while being put off by his multiple surgeries and change of skin color, which one blogger equated to “disowning God.” African bloggers wrote that Jackson “made people happy,” but interestingly noted that he seemed lonely and depressed, “like his Moon Walk…an illusion that gives the impression of stepping forward but actually sliding backwards.”
Few artists will ever match Michael Jackson’s talent, or the impact that he had on music and the music industry. And, hopefully most will be able to avoid what from the outside appears to be untreated mental illness as reflected in his reported addictions to surgery and drugs. An area where artists and celebrities can and should follow in Jackson’s footsteps is the embrace of humanitarianism and specifically his commitment to Africa.