Michael Jackson's Forgotten Humanitarian Legacy

Michael Jackson's Forgotten Humanitarian Legacy
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Michael Jackson performs in Vienna, Austria on the Bad World Tour.

Michael Jackson performs in Vienna, Austria on the Bad World Tour.

Zoran Veselinovic

The following is an excerpt from the recently published book, Earth Song: Michael Jackson and the Art of Compassion.

Perhaps the most common trait associated with celebrity is narcissism. In 1988, Jackson certainly would have had reason to be self-absorbed. He was the most famous person on the planet. Everywhere he travelled, he created mass hysteria. The day after his sold-out concert at Prater Stadium in Vienna, an AP article ran, “130 Fans Faint at Jackson Concert.” If the Beatles were more popular than Jesus, as John Lennon once claimed, Jackson had the entire Holy Trinity beat.

Yet while Jackson enjoyed the attention—indeed, even thrived on it in certain ways—he also felt a profound responsibility to use his celebrity for more than fame and fortune. In 2000, The Guinness Book of World Records cited him as the most philanthropic pop star in history. Over his lifetime, he reportedly gave over $300 million dollars to charity, including to the Make-A-Wish Foundation, the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation, the NAACP, UNICEF, and the Red Cross, among dozens of others. “When you have seen the things I have seen and travelled all over the world, you would not be honest to yourself and the world to [look away],” Jackson said.

This indeed was the point of his hit song, “Man in the Mirror,” which reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the spring of 1988. The song was about a personal awakening. It was about recognizing that change does not happen on its own. It requires that people become aware, that they care about more than themselves, and do something. “Who am I to be blind/ Pretending not to see their needs,” Jackson sings. His performances of the song on the Bad World Tour were both the climactic finale of the show and its parting message. “Make that change,” he summoned his audiences. In an era often characterized by individualism, greed, and materialism, it was an anthem of conscience and responsibility. Jackson donated all of the proceeds of the song to Camp Ronald McDonald for Good Times, which assisted children suffering from cancer.

Even more significant than giving money, however, Jackson gave his time. At nearly every stop on his Bad World Tour, he visited orphanages and hospitals. Just days before arriving in Vienna, while in Rome, he stopped by the Bambin Gesu Children’s Hospital, handing out gifts, taking pictures, and signing autographs. Before leaving, he pledged a donation of over $100,000 dollars. Before a concert in London at Wembley Stadium he visited Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital—the hospital to which author J.M. Barrie famously gifted the copyright, and royalties, for Peter Pan. Jackson spent hours talking to, holding, and comforting children at the hospital, some of whom were terminally ill. According to a local news story, the pop star “sat some on his knee and told them stories”; he also “handed out dozens of presents, albums, photos, and T-shirts.” Jackson donated 100,000 pounds to the hospital. In addition, he left an undisclosed amount of money to the Wishing Well Fund to help the London’s Hospital for Sick Children, which he also visited during his stay.

Throughout the Bad World Tour, before and after concerts, Jackson had under-privileged and sick children brought backstage. “Every night the kids would come in on stretchers, so sick they could hardly hold their heads up,” recalls voice coach Seth Riggs. “Michael would kneel down at the stretchers and put his face right down beside theirs so that he could have his picture taken with them, and then give them a copy to remember the moment. I couldn’t handle it. I’d be in the bathroom crying. The kids would perk right up in his presence. If it gave them a couple days’ more energy, to Michael it was worth it.”

Everywhere the tour travelled, Jackson tried to give back in some way. In Detroit, he donated $125,000 to the city’s Motown Museum; in New York City, he gave $600,000 to the United Negro College Fund; in Japan, he gave $20,000 to the family of a young boy who was murdered, and hundreds of thousands more to hospitals and schools. When the tour was over, he auctioned off his personal items, with all the proceeds going to UNESCO. This was the man whom British tabloids had taken to calling “Wacko Jacko,” of whom People magazine, less than a year earlier, declared on the front cover: “He’s back. He’s bad. Is this guy weird or what?” Jackson’s kindness and compassion was not good copy; if it made the news at all, it was usually buried behind stories about his plastic surgery or pet chimpanzee.

Jackson’s philanthropy on the Bad World Tour was not new. In 1984, after his hair infamously caught fire while filming a Pepsi commercial, Jackson established the Michael Jackson Burn Center as part of the Brotman Medical Center in Culver City, one of only a handful of badly needed burn centers in the Los Angeles area. “I wanted to do something,” he said, “because I was so moved by the other burn patients I met while I was in the hospital.” Jackson suffered excruciatingly painful second-degree burns on his scalp, but hospital staff remembers him spending much of his time visiting and comforting other patients. Jackson donated the entire amount he received from Pepsi for the accident—$1.5 million dollars—to the Burn Center. That year, Jackson also donated all of his performance money from the Victory Tour to charity—an estimated $5 million dollars.

In 1985, Jackson joined the U.S.A. for Africa effort, helmed by actor and activist Harry Belafonte and music manager Ken Krager. Inspired by the U.K. charity effort, Band Aid, and its musical vehicle, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” Belafonte’s vision was to bring American artists together for an urgent cause: to raise money and awareness for a famine in Ethiopia that was leaving hundreds of thousands of people, including young children, starving and destitute. The famine was caused by a combination of factors: a complicated civil war, a corrupt government, and one of the most severe regional droughts on record. By 1985, an estimated one million people had died, according to the United Nations. Belafonte reached out to producer Quincy Jones about putting together a song for U.S.A. for Africa. Jones, in turn, reached out to Lionel Richie, Stevie Wonder, and Michael Jackson. Since Stevie Wonder wasn’t available, Jackson and Richie charged ahead.

Jackson’s goal was to write a simple melody that anyone could hum, across cultures and nations, even if they didn’t understand the lyrics. For “We are the World,” he remembers going into dark spaces, a closet or a bathroom, and trying to imagine the people in Ethiopia: their lives, their suffering, their humanity. When he came up with some notes, he had younger sister Janet listen in. “What do you see when you hear this sound?” he asked her. “Dying children in Africa,” she responded. “You’re right,” Jackson responded. “That’s what I was dictating from my soul.”

Jackson continued to develop the song with Richie in the ensuing days and weeks. By early January, he had recorded a solo demo and sent it to Quincy Jones. Jones loved what he heard. “A great song lasts for eternity,” the producer later reflected. “I guarantee you that if you travel anywhere on the planet today and start humming the first few bars of that tune, people will immediately know that song.”

The official recording session was scheduled for January 22, 1985 at A&M Recording Studio in Los Angeles. As Jones planned it, the stars would head over immediately after the American Music Awards, held that night at the Shrine Auditorium. He famously left a sign at the front of the building that read, “Check your egos at the door.” The list of legends that filed in that night was remarkable: Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Steve Perry, Tina Turner, Cyndi Lauper, Willie Nelson, and Paul Simon, among dozens of others. "Here you had 46 of the biggest recording stars in the entire world in one room, to help people in a far-off place who were in desperate need," recalled Jones. "I don't think that night, that experience, will ever truly be duplicated again. I know and believe in the power of music to bring people together for the betterment of mankind, and there may be no better example of this than the collective that was ‘We Are the World.’"

Jackson skipped the American Music Awards that night and headed to the studio early to record his part. When the rest of the artists arrived, he, Lionel, Stevie, and Quincy helped them learn their individual parts and the chorus. He characterized the creation and recording process as a “spiritual” experience. Most of those in attendance agreed. They describe a genuine sense of joy, unity, and purpose. “Every second of that night was magical,” remembers Quincy Jones. “As artists, we are all just vessels for God’s whispers, and I know God walked through the studio that night, a couple of times.” The final result, completed around 8:00 am, was a majestic, gospel-infused, seven-minute anthem that weaved the together the vocals of some of the greatest artists of the 20th century. The New York Times praised it as “more than an unprecedented communal collaboration among pop music’s elite for a good cause—it is an artistic triumph that transcends its official nature.”

Some critics, of course, scoffed at the self-righteousness of the charity event—and the song. But Quincy Jones and Harry Belafonte were having none of it. “Anybody who wants to throw stones at something like this can get off his or her butt and get busy,” said Jones of its critics. “Lord knows, there’s plenty more to be done.” What impressed Belafonte most was simply the willingness of its participants to use their talents for an important cause. “Here you are with dozens of the best and most powerful artists in popular culture, who had relegated their managers to a place in Siberia — and as a consequence, it was completely art on art."

“We are the World” was released that March and quickly became the fastest selling single in history, shifting just under a million copies in its first three days. It became the bestselling song of the 1980s, eventually selling over 20 million copies worldwide. More importantly, it helped generate proceeds of over $60 million dollars, which were used to send over 120 tons of supplies to Ethiopia, including high-protein biscuits, water, medicine, tents and clothing. Later funds were also used for over seventy recovery and development projects.

Jackson was proud of what the song accomplished. The idea of thousands of malnourished children being fed because of a simple song thrilled and inspired him. It showed him in a very concrete way the power of music to bring people together, to raise awareness and action.

Yet he also realized it wasn’t enough. “We Are the World” didn’t end hunger or poverty; it didn’t solve the complicated socio-political issues, power dynamics and institutional corruption that were largely to blame for the severity of the African famine. Critics were quick to point out these shortcomings, often deriding Jackson as “self-indulgent” and “naïve” for trying. Songs like “We Are the World” and “Man in the Mirror” were dismissed as simplistic, utopian sentimentality. Music critic Greil Marcus wrote off the former song as nothing more than a Pepsi jingle, while the New York Times’ Jon Pareles dismissed the latter as “activism for hermits.” Jackson’s social vision offered global idealism, triumph and easy resolution, they argued, while the material conditions of the real world only worsened.

It was a critique that haunted Jackson while he toured. He believed the critics had it wrong; he believed they couldn’t feel what the music meant to people—what it meant to him. Change, he believed, began within individual hearts and minds. And that’s where art reached people.

Yet he wasn’t self-satisfied. In a 1987 interview with Ebony/Jet, Jackson was asked:

“When you look in the mirror, are you happy with what you see?
“In what way?” he responded.
“Just when you look – in terms of that social philosophy?”
“I’m never totally satisfied,” he said. “I always wish the world could be a better place. No, not at all.”

While performing or helping children in face-to-face situations, Jackson could push away his feelings of inadequacy, doubt and despair. When crowds all over the world swayed and sang along to “Man in the Mirror”—when he could experience some small sliver of the world made harmonious—he was happy. He was in his element. But when he returned to his hotel room, the pain and confusion often returned.

“The contrast between the King of Pop on stage and the same person in private situations was enormous,” remembers acclaimed Belgian composer François Glorieux, who first met Jackson in 1987 and went on to classically arrange several of Jackson’s songs. “The press described him as an untouchable and impossible man. But I discovered a completely different guy: extremely sensitive, emotional and even shy…The first hour I met him he asked me to describe my childhood. He didn’t interrupt me once and listened to the whole story of my youth when bombs destroyed my home and killed three members of my family.” Glorieux met with Jackson on two other occasions, in 1989 and 1990. He describes these meetings as “the most emotional of my musical career. It was fantastic to discover so many common points of view: passion for music (without limits); for peace and freedom; love for animals and nature; and last but not least, [a concern for] humanity."

Publicist and author Howard Bloom, who worked with several legendary artists, including Prince and Billy Joel, describes Jackson “as the most remarkable person I've ever met in my life. No question about it… He had a capacity for wonder and awe beyond anything I've ever seen, beyond anybody else in my life. If you were looking at an artist's portfolio with him, he'd have the beginning of what seemed like an orgasmic experience, just opening the first square inch of a page… When you sat down to discuss a difficult issue like him cancelling his tour…it felt as if Michael's chest opened like golden gates and you could see 10,000 fans inside of him. His job was to champion those fans. He felt God had given him a gift.”

New Age author Deepak Chopra, who Jackson collaborated with on his second book, Dancing the Dream, had a similar impression of the elusive pop star. “When we first met, around 1988,” he recalls, “I was struck by the combination of charisma and woundedness that surrounded Michael. He would be swarmed by crowds at an airport, perform an exhausting show for three hours, and then sit backstage afterward, as we did one night in Bucharest, drinking bottled water, glancing over some Sufi poetry as I walked into the room, and wanting to meditate.”

People sensed this sensitivity in Jackson from a very young age. Smokey Robinson called him an old soul in a little body. “In his heart, he carried other lifetimes,” said Robinson, “It was more than having soul; it was soul that went deep into the soil of a whole people’s history.” It was one of the qualities that made him such a compelling performer, even as a child. For all the joy and vitality he exuded, there was always a certain sadness, a world-weariness.

In his teens, Jackson began to develop the early seeds of his social vision and humanitarian ambition. “Politics can’t save the world, so the music people should at least try,” he said in a 1979 interview with Blues & Soul. “I could never just make records for people to buy and just get rich from. That’s no good to me. There has to be more than that.”

Themes of brotherly love, acceptance, and social transformation populate his earliest self-written work. Perhaps the first real glimpse of the scale of what he hoped to achieve with his music came with the song and short film for “Can You Feel It.” Written with his older brother Jackie, the song delivered a passionate message of racial unity “(the blood inside of you is inside of me”) and global harmony (take the news to the marchin’ men/ Who are killing their brothers/ When death won’t do”). It was the sonic distillation of the peacock symbol that appeared on their previous album. “Throughout the ages,” Jackson explained in the liner notes of the Destiny LP, “the peacock has been honored and praised for its attractive, illustrious beauty. Of all in the bird family, the peacock is the only bird that integrates all colors into one, and displays this radiance of fire only when in love. We, like the peacock, try to integrate all races into one through the love of music."

The short film for “Can You Feel It,” a groundbreaking, ten-minute visual feast conceived and written by Jackson, explicitly incorporated the peacock symbolism. It also weaved in elements of sci-fi films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the language of biblical origin stories, and the sweep of astrophysicist Carl Sagan’s Cosmos to communicate a message about cosmic love and interracial harmony.

Over the ensuing decade, Jackson grew and evolved, both artistically and intellectually. His education was largely self-guided, but he approached it with an insatiable curiosity. Everywhere he toured he studied the culture and the people; he visited museums, galleries and bookstores as well as hospitals and orphanages. He amassed a library of thousands of books, videos and tapes. He read widely, reached out to experts, and pursed issues that interested him passionately. Even his aversion to partisan politics dissipated somewhat by the late 1980s. While he was never a policy wonk, he began to see some of the motives, interests and forces that led to such widespread injustice, destruction and suffering.

In addition to the many charities he supported, his interest in global affairs ultimately led him to establish the Heal the World Foundation in 1992, based on the track from his Dangerous album. Jackson described that track as a “public awareness song” intended to raise money and consciousness for humanitarian issues around the world. The Heal the World Foundation was designed to be much more comprehensive than U.S.A. for Africa, addressing poverty, education, disease (including AIDS), and relief in the wake of wars, genocide and natural disasters.

The foundation was quite active in its first few years, dedicating funds and resources to inner-city youth, children’s hospitals, and war refugees, among other causes. "The only reason I am going on tour is to raise funds for [the Heal the World Foundation)," Jackson said at a press conference. "My goal is to gross $100 million by Christmas, 1993. I urge every corporation and individual who cares about this planet and the future of the children to help raise money for the 'Heal the World' charity." In 1993, the Los Angeles Times reported that Jackson was pledging 1.25 million to inner-city Los Angeles children, many of whom were impacted by the Los Angeles Riots following the Rodney King verdict.

Jackson made his Heal the World Foundation the centerpiece of his iconic Super Bowl Halftime performance, transforming the typically hyper-masculine, nationalist, capitalist spectacle into a borderless utopian festival of love. “Today we stand together all around the world, joined in a common purpose,” he told the massive crowd in attendance (and millions more watching at home), “to remake the planet to a heaven of joy and understanding and goodness. No one should have to suffer, especially our children. This time we must succeed.” Jackson donated his $1 million performance fee to his Foundation.

Before the idea came for “Heal the World,” however, there was “Earth Song.” The late 1980s proved to be a critical turning point—not only for Michael Jackson’s social and political awareness, but also for the environmental movement more generally. The news that year read like passages from ancient scripture: there were heat waves and droughts, massive wildfires and earthquakes, genocides and famine. Violence escalated in the Holy Land, as forests were ravaged in the Amazon, and garbage, oil and sewage swept up on shores. Meanwhile, there was growing evidence that the planet was getting hotter. In place of Time’s Person of the Year, 1988’s year-end cover story was dedicated to the “endangered earth.” “This year,” the magazine wrote, “the earth spoke, like God warning Noah of the deluge.” It suddenly occurred to many people that we were literally destroying our own home...

Some people grow accustomed to reading or watching the news casually, passively. They become numb to the horrifying images and stories projected on the screen. Yet such stories frequently moved Jackson to tears. He internalized them and often felt physical pain in response. When people scoffed at his sensitivity or told him to simply enjoy his own good fortune, he got angry. He believed in the poet John Donne’s dictum that “no man is an island.” For Jackson, however, the idea extended to life in all forms: nature, animals, and people across countries, cultures and races (especially children)—the whole planet was connected and intrinsically valuable.

“[For the average person],” he explained, “he sees problems ‘out there’ to be solved. Maybe they will be, maybe they won’t…But I don’t feel that way—those problems aren’t ‘out there,’ really. I feel them inside me. A child crying in Ethiopia, a seagull struggling pathetically in an oil spill…a teenage soldier trembling with terror when he hears the planes fly over: Aren’t these happening in me when I see and hear about them?” One time, during a dance rehearsal, Jackson had to stop because an image he saw earlier that day of a dolphin trapped in a net made him so emotionally distraught. “From the way its body was tangled in the lines,” he explained, “you could read so much agony.”

When Jackson performed, he could feel these turbulent emotions surging through him. With his dancing and singing, he tried to transfuse the suffering—give it expression and meaning. It was liberating. For a brief moment, he could take his audience—and himself—to an alternative world of harmony and ecstasy. “There is no greater bliss,” Jackson explained. “[You] become one with the music, one with the audience…You start to play off each other and start to know where you are going before you get there…You feel you are transformed.”

But inevitably, he had to come back down. The music would stop, the lights would dim, the crowd would file out. And he would be whisked away by his entourage to another hotel in another city.

As was customary during the Bad World Tour, Jackson was smuggled into his Vienna hotel through the back staff entrance along with Bill Bray, his longtime security chief, and other members of his entourage.

Once inside, he typically showered off and read a book; sometimes he would sketch in his art pad or watch a movie. On the night after his concert at Prater Stadium thousands of fans converged outside the hotel, chanting his name. Jackson finally emerged in one of the windows, wearing a grey and blue pinstriped pajama top and red flannel pants. He waved below to the euphoric crowd before running back to the bathroom, signing some promotional photos and tossing them out the window.

For however long his stay was in a given city, his hotel room became both sanctuary and prison cell. The maids at the Vienna Marriott Hotel remember him being extremely private. When they came into clean or bring food, he “disappear[ed] into another room.” He was the biggest star in the world, but wanted nothing more, at times like these, than the anonymity of a normal person.

It was during this brief stay in Vienna, however, that inspiration struck. “It just suddenly dropped into my lap,” he recalled of the moment. Earth’s song. A song from her perspective, her voice. A lamentation and a plea.

The chorus came to him first—a wordless cry. He grabbed his tape player and pressed record. Aaaaaaaaah Oooooooooh.

The chords were simple, but beautiful. That’s it! Jackson thought. He then worked out the introduction and some of the verses. He imagined its scope in his head. Nobody could see what he saw yet. But they would.

This, he felt, would be the most important song he had ever composed...

This is an excerpt from Earth Song: Michael Jackson and the Art of Compassion, now available in full here.

Earth Song: Michael Jackson and the Art of Compassion (BlakeVision, 2017)

Earth Song: Michael Jackson and the Art of Compassion (BlakeVision, 2017)

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