I was born in 1986. It had been four years since Michael Jackson had released the seminal album, “Thriller” and won eight Grammys in the process. By the time I was born, it had been three years since Michael Jackson tossed his hat into the ether on national TV at Motown 25 and defied physics by moving backward while simultaneously making it look like his feet were walking forward, shattering what we thought was possible with human bodies. By the time I was born, it had been two years since Michael Jackson hid his face from the camera and reemerged seconds later as a zombie who shook his Jheri curl and looked as endearing as ever even with a yellow-green stare.
I say all of that to say that Michael Jackson was a natural world force before I was born, and I never knew a time when Michael Jackson wasn’t the source of universal happiness. Michael Jackson was ice cream. He was Christmas morning. He was recess. He was a symbol of joy that was brought to us on the eighth day. I don’t remember the first time I heard a Michael Jackson song just like I don’t remember my first slice of pizza. He was always there and he was always a smile.
So I understand why it seems impossible to cast something like that aside. How does one simply cut off Michael Jackson from our lives? How do you make sunny days represent sadness? How do you make a smile feel like grief? It’s impossible. But with the new documentary, “Leaving Neverland,” I have to at least think of the impossible.
I’m not playing Michael Jackson’s music anymore.
The four-hour documentary shows the perspective of two men, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, who go into gravely disturbing and graphic detail of sexual abuse they allegedly suffered at the hands of Michael Jackson for years. The testimonies from the men and their families, combined with news clips from Jackson’s child molestation trial and private pictures and recordings from Jackson himself. Of course, we’d heard about these allegations for more than 25 years and most of us have come to our own reckoning over them. Most of that reckoning has involved either disbelieving the allegations outright or refusing to let our belief in Jackson’s guilt impact how we listen to his music and celebrate his mythology. I’ve been the former. I never quite believed the allegations against Michael. Nor have I truly interrogated my belief in Jackson’s innocence. This has been how I empowered his abuse in my own way.
But after watching the documentary, I can’t rightfully say that I believe Michael Jackson is innocent of sexually assaulting little boys. There is just too much smoke. Too many details. Too much hurt. Too many other boys. I can’t twist my brain into the ever-tightening knots it takes to say that Michael Jackson has been wrongfully accused.
With that said, I can understand those who aren’t swayed by “Leaving Neverland” on its own. The documentary is a far cry from the investigative and journalistic endeavor that was “Surviving R. Kelly.” While the R. Kelly docuseries provided an overwhelming amount of evidence — with dozens of testimonials from victims, videos and a slew of witnesses, “Leaving Neverland” focuses on two men’s stories without much in the way of outside evidence — I should also mention that there has never been any concrete evidence of Jackson’s indiscretions beyond testimonials even after years of FBI surveillance. There is no smoking gun. Just a lot boys who have accused Michael Jackson of raping them, and two men who said the same for this documentary.
This, though, is more for those of us who have that tinge. That pull in their gut. That inkling in their brain that says they think Michael Jackson molested boys. What mental gymnastics does it take to still listen to him? Yes, he’s dead. But death doesn’t wipe away sins. No, you can’t separate music from the man. For me, I can’t have a dance party with my children — my son who is the same age as the men were when they say Jackson molested them — and joyously partake in his music. I can’t. I don’t want to. I love my kids and I love us too much for that. Because if we are going to give a celebrity enough power over our morals that a Black man can get away with molesting the most coddled and protected amongst us — white boys –– then there’s no question we are willing to give people enough power to abuse and destroy the parts of society that nobody cares about: Black boys, Black girls, non-binary Black kids. There is no amount of art or artist on this planet that I can allow to thrive in such a way that our kids can be offered as kindling for the fire of celebrity worship.
I don’t write any of this to cast judgment. I can’t. I have perpetuated Michael Jackson’s abuse by playing his music and introducing him to my kids while never quite being sure of his innocence as a child rapist. I have allowed him to be ice cream for my children when he never should have been.
So how do I stop the sun from coming up? How do I make a smile not mean a smile? How does the natural phenomenon of happiness become something else? I don’t totally know right now. I just know that tonight I’ll sit my kids down and tell them why we’re not listening to Michael Jackson anymore. I’ll publish this article. I won’t play his music. But the memories won’t go away. The hours I spent with my neighbor trying not to bust our heads on his living room floor doing the “Smooth Criminal” lean. The time I was so happy I sprained my wrist when I was five because I had a bandaged wrist. The whole summer I spent watching “Moonwalker.” The instinctive smiles that these memories would tickle in the back of my mind.
And in spite of all that, I’ll have to keep reminding myself that my love for any one person should never overpower my love for us.
David Dennis, Jr. is a writer and adjunct professor of Journalism at Morehouse College. David’s writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Smoking Section, Uproxx, Playboy, The Atlantic, Complex.com and wherever people argue about things on the internet.