As fans get ready for the eagerly awaited Michael Jackson concert film, an African American pastor reconsiders the Black church’s dubious embrace of the King of Pop.
This week a new single by the late Michael Jackson arrived on the Internet, no doubt signaling the launch of a marketing blitz for This Is It, the forthcoming film documentary about Jackson’s ill-fated comeback concerts. Hearing the news of Jackson’s posthumous song and its curious lyrics, which include the line I’m the light of the world (see the video below), reminded me of the intense outpouring of grief, adoration, and praise that the singer’s death inspired this past summer.
A couple days after Jackson’s death, I watched the last hour of the BET Awards, a show I had never previously bothered to watch. Compared to what I have seen on other awards shows in the past, somewhat expectedly I found the BET show very much affected by the passing of Jackson. There were many tributes given to the King of Pop. They ranged from snippets of his music before commercial breaks, to words of tribute from the various artists and emcees on the program. Some of the tributes honored the enduring nature of his race-transcending music. Other tributes virtually deified him.
For example, the legendary Soul Train host, Don Cornelius, referred to the artist as the “immortal Michael Jackson.” To this my oldest daughter immediately retorted, “Well, I think this week we found out, clearly, that he was not immortal.” Yet many in the BET audience expressed agreement with Cornelius.
The artist Wyclef Jean, who received a humanitarian award, spoke of a long hoped-for meeting with Jackson. He said he had planned his words for this exciting meeting, but “when [Jackson] showed up, I shook his hand and lost my voice completely. That is the effect this man had on people.”
Other artists remarked that “[Jackson] meant so much to us and to the whole world,” and that he was “often imitated but never duplicated.” One artist referred to him as “a musical deity.” Never mind those suspicions surrounding children, the dangling of the baby out of the window, the constant changing of his facial appearance, and Jackson’s other self-destructive behavior; Jackson was an entertainment god.
There was a very odd moment in the television program when one of the members of the O’Jays used some very foul language while honoring Michael. The award show’s technicians attempted to mute the word, but were about a half-second too late, so the entire listening TV audience heard the word. The foible produced roaring laughter among the audience and some momentary blushing on the part of the entertainer who made the mistake. I was wondering if anyone had noticed that only a few moments before, when the O’Jays stepped on stage to receive an award for lifetime achievement, two of the men began with words of praise like, “I would like to give honor to God, to whom be all the power and glory,” and “First, we would like to thank God for all the blessings bestowed upon the O’Jays.” The member who slipped with the curse word ended the acceptance speech with “God Bless …”
I guess Michael can be honored while foul language is used, and this can happen to the praise of God. This is not simply gray. This is where you wish you had not made the switch from analog to digital.
“Syncretism” is a fancy word used to describe the blending of different, and often incompatible, systems of religious and philosophical belief. The syncretistic practice of Christianity within the traditional African American church is well known, and in some settings cherished. The line between Christianity and secular African American culture is not blurred; it does not exist.
On the positive side, some sociologists and historians have suggested that, historically, this is due to the inseparability of the slave church and slave culture. African American slaves were able to survive the brutality of antebellum slavery due to their Christian faith, and the slave church was the rallying and unifying point of the slave community.
Negatively, however, the gray matter of African American Christianity is most evident in the democratic process of presidential elections. Consequently, last November the thinking probably went something like this: My Christian position on the life of the unborn and the biblical teaching on marriage have no place in my decision-making when it comes to the election of a President. He is African American, I am African American; nothing else matters.
The blurred nature of what is distinctively Christian and what is African American is commonly displayed at our national, non-Christian music and video award shows. It would be typical for an African American artist, who is receiving an award for a song or video full of lyrics and/or scenes completely contrary to the moral standards of the gospel, to receive the award with the words, “First, I would like to thank my Lord Jesus Christ for …” giving something related to the talent of the singer or the award itself. The thanksgiving, though obviously hypocritical, is received with great acclamation, seemingly without the hosts or audience being put off by the references to the Lord among the secular throng.
I think, however, the telltale sign of African American Christian syncretism was revealed at the BET award show in a different manner. The vast majority of artists did not mention God at all. Instead, where you might have expected thanks to be given to God, thanks was given to Michael Jackson. It is not that Jackson was being thanked for empowering the artists, but simply that a great amount of the thanks being given at this year’s show was given to Michael. Thanks to the King of Kings was eclipsed by thanks to the King of Pop.
Christianizing an Idol
I can only imagine how many words of honor were given to Michael Jackson from African American pulpits on the Sunday after his death. It would be my hope that Michael’s death would have provided many opportunities for African American pastors to point out the errors of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. For Michael, along with the artist once again known as Prince, are the Watchtower’s two most well-known members, both are African American, and the Witnesses love to prey on African Americans.
Many African Americans equate the Jehovah’s Witnesses with a Christian denomination. Christ’s name would be honored by pointing out that Michael’s hopes did not rest on God the Son, and that there are many like him within the African American community who are in need of the message about God the Son coming into the world to save people from the wrath of God due to their sins. I suspect, however, that much praise was given in the name of the Lord for Michael Jackson. Prayers might even have been offered from pulpits for the comfort — rather than salvation — of Jackson’s family members, who also are Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Unsubstantiated rumors that Jackson had converted to Islam made the rounds but were never confirmed. And another big rumor speculating that Jackson had accepted Christ days before his death, during a visit from Andrae and Sandra Crouch, was immediately squashed by the Crouches. But many people tried to keep it alive as truth anyway — no doubt a reflection of their desire to “Christianize” their late idol.
Many African American churchgoers are fine with Christianity as long as we, as African Americans, can bring our cultural gods with us. We see no problem with our secular artists, their words or their behavior, as long as our fellow church members see God’s blessings as being consistent with our entertainers’ debauchery.
I’m still hoping that the untimely death of Michael Jackson will help awaken the Black church out of its syncretism — that we will view the lives of entertainers with discernment rather than with bliss, and give worship to the King of Kings alone. Only one King is immortal, and He is to be worshiped. This should not be a gray matter. This should be a no-brainer.
An earlier version of this article originally appeared at Rev. Eric C. Redmond’s blog, A Man From Issachar.
In a moment reminiscent of the funerals of Princess Diana and John F. Kennedy Jr., the world paused on Tuesday to mourn the loss of “the King of Pop,” Michael Jackson.
After the parade of stars crossed the stage at the memorial service, one big question lingered for millions of folks who watched — who was that unfamiliar Asian girl singing “Heal the World” like she was somebody we should know? Well, I’ve been grinning from ear to ear, because while the media’s been speculating over her identity, I instantly recognized her as the incredible vocalist Judith Hill, a fellow Biola University alumna.
Before we both graduated from Biola back in 2005, Judith’s powerhouse voice could be heard echoing off the walls of Crowell Hall at the Biola campus, while she studied under Dr. John Browning to get her degree in music composition. At Biola, she sang in an urban gospel group called Unveiled. I also remember Judith picking up gigs at local coffee shops and performing in events for Biola’s Conservatory of Music. She even appeared on a jazz CD for the school called Crossroads, where she sings the Doxology. And though Judith has been a Christian since she was young, her life has been marked by the challenges of finding her way socially given her biracial background — her mother is Japanese and father is Black. Her website reveals, “Depending on the social circle, she was labeled ‘too quiet,’ ‘too loud,’ ‘too black,’ ‘too Asian,’ or too something.” But the need to measure up to the world’s standards didn’t get her down for long. She goes on to say, “I had a pretty good life in my childhood. Me and God were friends since the beginning. That helped a lot.”
After college, Judith went off to France to sing background vocals for pop star Michel Polnareff. The tour opened her up to a host of experiences, enriching her life story and deepening the richness of her sound. After a brief hiatus from music to battle some personal demons of family issues and depression, this June she was back and stronger than ever, ready to join Michael Jackson on tour in London … that is until his fateful death.
Her strong appearance at the Michael Jackson Memorial has been praised by the industry and fans alike. Now Rolling Stonereports that Judith and her fellow members of the Michael Jackson “This Is It! Tour” will be a part of a tribute concert AEG is planning. Her mother Michiko Hill told Biola, “We didn’t expect this, but it seems like God put her there for a purpose — to bring hope,” she said. “We’re praying that the Lord will use her and she will be an ambassador for Christ through her music.”
Donald Gordon, a fellow Biola University alum who sang with Judith in Unveiled, says he isn’t surprised by her success. “Watching her sing at Michael Jackson’s funeral reminded me of singing with her in Biola’s chapel or at churches,” he told me. “Same Judith — no difference. I want people to know she’s just as passionate about her faith as she is about her music; it’s one and the same.”
Well, all I can say is Godspeed to you, Judith. Despite the sad circumstances, you stood as a shining light of talent and grace. In front of an audience of literally every recording-industry executive, musician, producer — not to mention much of America and the watching world via television — you held your own. And now millions are finding out about you and the fact that you serve an awesome God. Just keep the faith and remember your Biola friends when you blow up!
Want more of Judith Hill? Check out the performance below of her performing “One Love Forever” back in 2008.
15 Moments That Made Me Yell “Preach” During the MJ Memorial
The memorial, which dominated nearly every television station and monopolized the web and Twitterverse, was heavily religious in tone. While expressions of spirituality are not unusual for a funeral, given the vast audience of attendees and viewers, the messaging was shockingly Christian-centric.
Here are the top 15 moments from the memorial that made me want to scream, “You better preach!” at the television screen:
1. The entrance of Michael Jackson’s body as the Sandra Crouch-led choir sang the sharp lines of “We Are Going to See the King.” In a moment, the Staples Center was instantly transformed from the Lakers’ playground into a house of worship.
2. Pastor Lucious Smith’s opening speech that reminded us of Michael’s humanity. A close friend of the Jackson family, Smith said, “We remember this man by celebrating his life and all of the love that he brought to our own lives for half a century.”
3. Mariah closing out her oft-celebrated rendition of “I’ll Be There” (featuring Trey Lorenz) with a grateful “Thank you Jesus.” Her vocals aren’t what they used to be back in the day, but her faith might be stronger.
4. Queen Latifah’s recitation of Dr. Maya Angelou’s eulogy “We Had Him.” Angelou’s words always wrench the heart and stroke the soul. Yet again she left goosebumps on the packed crowd.
5. Lionel Richie taking a stadium full of people to church by singing Commodore’s classic “Jesus is Love.” The moving lyrics call on the name of the LORD saying, “And I know the Truth and His words will be our salvation. Lift up our hearts to be thankful and glad that Jesus is love.” (FYI — gospel favorite Smokie Norful and Heather Headley recently remade this song on Norful’s recent Live album).
6. Barry Gordy delivering the best tribute to Michael Jackson to date. The music legend recounted Motown memories to the crowd making us feel like we were all right there with Michael when he signed to the label at 10 years old.
7. Stevie Wonder saying “I do know that God is good” before singing a stirring medley of 1971’s “Never Dreamed You’d Leave in Summer” and 1974’s “They Won’t Go When I Go.” He’s just good, all day everyday.
8. Acting as the unofficial mayor of the Staple Center, Magic Johnson laughing over eating Kentucky Fried Chicken with Michael Jackson. After his KFC promo, he spoke directly to the family saying, “May God continue to bless this incredible family. We want to say that we’re praying for you. Remain strong.”
9. A very pregnant Jennifer Hudson commanding the stage with her powerful voice. Hudson was so good she made us momentarily forget about the controversy over her pregnancy. She brought the gospel into every note of Michael Jackson’s “Will You Be There.”
10. Reverend Al Sharpton honoring Michael’s ability to connect people around the world and push through boundaries with the power of his dream. In a moment that made the church say Amen — complete with a tambourine shaking in the background — Sharpton brought the crowd to its feet, saying, “I want his three children to know, wasn’t nothin’ strange about yo’ daddy. It was strange what yo’ daddy had to deal with.”
11. The children of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. empathizing with the Jackson family’s public loss, as only they could do. Martin Luther King III intoned his father, saying “The heavens must be proud of how Michael entertained the world. Then King’s daughter Bernice echoed the truth of Scripture, preaching, “My prayer is that no one and nothing, public or private, fact or fiction, true or rumored, will separate you from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus. […] It is only God’s love that will anchor you, sustain you, and move you to a higher ground above the noise of life.”
12. Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas sharing the story of the Good Samaritan before an international audience. She said Michael Jackson called us all into public service with his record-breaking humanitarianism.
13. Smokey Robinson summing up our peace for today and hope for tomorrow. The Motown crooner said, “I believe so much in God. I believe that this is not it. We have life after this is done.”
14. Newcomer Judith Hill leading a stage full of children and celebrities in a performance of Michael Jackson’s “Heal the World.” Aside from our excitement over Hill being a strong Christian (and Biola University alumna!), the moment was fitting in that more than any other, it seemed to be exactly what Michael Jackson would have wanted.
15. Little Paris bursting into tears as she spoke about her father. The famous daughter touched the world’s heart and finally humanized Michael Jackson when she tearfully shared her feelings on her dad’s passing: “I just want to say, ever since I was born, Daddy has been the best father you could ever imagine. And I just want to say, I love him so much.”
It was a beautiful memorial, full of music, laughter, and fond farewells. Who knows what Michael Jackson’s spirituality was like at his death? But this celebration of his life certainly honored God. We are thankful for the blessing he was to the world of entertainment.
The water-cooler reviews are in, and BET’s 2009 awards show has got people talking. Unfortunately, much of the talk is not favorable. Indeed, Sunday night’s show was kind of a mess. But I think we should give BET a little grace. When Michael Jackson died last Thursday, BET completely overhauled the show to weave the King of Pop throughout and accommodate the mass number of celebs wanting to offer tributes. The show was quite literally thrown together. And so, yes, in many instances it looked like it.
To take a show that normally takes six months to plan and totally revamp it in a couple of days was an unenviable but admirable undertaking. Certainly there’s plenty to bash BET about — the network’s shoddy and sometimes downright trashy programming is now legendary.
But perhaps, in this case, we should give BET credit for attempting to pull off the impossible in order to honor one of the Black community’s — and the world’s — greatest entertainers. Some additional thoughts about BET’s show:
Ne-Yo did a phenomenal performance of “The Lady in my Life.”
Jay-Z rocked it with his new single “DOA.”
Joe Jackson sat up front all show long with Al Sharpton — which was weird, to say the least. Don’t we all dislike Joe Jackson because of all he put Michael through as a child? I’m confused …
All of the other celebs who came out of the woodworks for MJ tributes, like New Edition, were totally subpar.
The O’Jays tribute with Tevin Campbell was painful to watch…just a bad performance.
Jamie Foxx was a great host but went a little heavy on promoting his own upcoming tour.
The vignettes spliced between performances and awards offering tributes to MJ were awkward. The celebs shared MJ memories off the cuff, and since they were likely unscripted, the stories were rambling and sentimental, but not well-communicated.
Janet Jackson showed up on behalf of the Jackson family to say “to you, Michael was an icon, but to us, he was family.” It was the most touching moment of the night but lasted about 5 seconds after the show was already running behind 40 minutes.
The whole night was a little low-budget and unrehearsed. But in a way, it was like one big ghetto funeral. People were just there to show their love, raw and uncut. I kind of liked it.
BET has never been one of my favorite networks, but when it announced that it would change its awards show at the eleventh hour, working overtime as a labor of love, to pay tribute to the King of Pop, I had to tune in. And though there were a number of times I wanted to tune out, I did not, hoping that it would get better. I am sad to report that it never did.
I expected BET to honor Michael Jackson last night in a way befitting a King. I expected BET to have a tribute that was thoughtful, meaningful, memorable, and inspirational. I expected to be proud after the show was over and to have my spirits lifted. I expected to see those most influenced by Michael Jackson to collaborate and show an anxiously awaiting world how much Michael Jackson meant to them and their careers. I never expected to be so embarrassed and ashamed at this substandard expression of blackness … ever.
Jamie Foxx’s monologue was terribly inappropriate. Many of his jokes were out of line and just not funny. I understand the notion of celebrating Jackson’s life; but humor, in my estimation, was not the best way to commemorate his life, legacy, and contributions — not this soon at least. His death is too fresh, and too many people were still in the first stages of the grieving process. But I don’t blame his shortcomings on his poor judgment or even on the alcohol he openly admitted to consuming before the show. Rather, I blame the executive team of BET who should have demanded that Foxx’s tone be serious, solemn, and respectful of the Jackson family and millions of adoring fans who were watching the show to process the loss of a musical genius who forever changed the way we view entertainment.
Instead of a video montage of all of the times Jackson appeared on BET, or a montage of all the artists who were heavily and noticeably influenced by Jackson, or even something as simple as a short bio of his life, there were 10-second snippets of Jackson dancing scattered randomly throughout the show. Is this what chairman and CEO Debra Lee was talking about when she said the show would be an ongoing tribute to Jackson throughout the evening’s festivities? I hope she wasn’t referring to the few celebrities who were selected to share their personal encounter with Michael Jackson before the commercial breaks; and I certainly hope she wasn’t talking about the arbitrary and thoughtless statements too many of the artists inserted extemporaneously before they presented or received an award.
Perhaps the most humiliating and embarrassing aspect of the awards show was to witness the disconnect between what Black entertainers said they received from the now late-and-forever-great Michael Jackson and the vulgar, offensive, and tactless lyrics with empty messages of individualism, materialism, misogyny, and self-aggrandizement. My suspicion is that had Michael Jackson been there that night, he would have probably felt more insulted than honored.
CNN reported from the red carpet before the show began. During this special presentation, Danyel Smith, the editor in chief of Vibe magazine, had an exchange with CNN anchor Don Lemon. In summary, Lemon said that many people expressed to him that they had never heard of the BET Awards and admonished him to explain. She replied that everyone knew what the BET Awards were and went on to give them accolades. Regardless of whether she was right or wrong, the international coverage of the first big awards show since Michael Jackson’s untimely passing invited new people to the audience. I, for one, am sorry they were invited. Though there were a few artists who had moving tributes, as a whole, the night’s celebrations were overwhelmingly sloppy, disorganized, distasteful, and unsophisticated. In a word, the 2009 BET Awards was a disappointment.
The BET Awards is just a small piece of its greater programming. The advertisements for new shows that will broadcast in the cable network are indications of the buffoonery that is to come. Personally, I am in favor of starting a campaign to take BET off the air. The network does nothing to edify the Black race and seems more interested in working against the ground we have gained as it relates to a more positive portrayal of Blacks in media.
We have come too far to let one cable network turn us around. I am reminded of the song made popular by the Civil Rights Struggle: “Ain’t gon’ let nobody turn me around!” — especially not self-serving Blacks and media conglomerates who care more about the bottom line than they do about the future of the Black community.
Michael Jackson is dead at 50. And that’s the end of it. On a day already made gloomy by the death of actress Farrah Fawcett, the King of Pop’s earthly reign came to an end.
And while I’m devastated for his family, mourning alongside countless fans around the world, my heart is mostly numbed by the news. After hours of watching media coverage of Michael’s death — the replaying of his music videos, the reaction interviews with celebrities, and the speculation over what will happen with his children and multi million-dollar estate — I am empty.
My sadness seems echoic, its source distant and remote. After all, the Michael Jackson I love died years ago, back in the ’90s before pajama-clad court appearances and fatherhood foibles turned him into a shadow of the king he once was. That Michael, the one from Off the Wall and Thriller who provided the soundtrack for the ’80s and inspired generations of men to float like feathers on their feet, died long ago. And though he’s periodically released new albums like HIStory or Invincible, hoping for a resurrection as if singing careers rise from the dead like Lazarus, I, like many of his fans, have been grieving the loss of the man he once was for decades.
And though the tones of grief are muted, my heart does break a bit in this moment for the marred legacy he leaves behind. Despite 40 years in the music business, over 75 million albums sold, and at least a half billion dollars earned, this is where his life ends — his reputation sullied by rumors of pedophilia and tarnished by eccentricity.
And while I hate to think of someone else’s life as an object lesson from which to learn, there is insight to be gained from this, our tragic loss. Michael was a consummate artist whose talent unequivocally transformed the music industry and opened the doors for black artists the world over. Inarguably, he was the best falsetto singer, the best dancer, the most generous celebrity, and the most creative entertainer of our time. And yet, I imagine the final song Michael’s life will sing is that the best is not enough. As brightly as his star shone in its height, his life ended in darkness. He was a modern Solomon sans wisdom, living life in excess unto death.
And maybe that explains the part of the King of Pop’s death that leaves me feeling hollow. Because I suspect in the deepest recesses of my heart, I’ve wanted to be Michael — well, maybe Michael without the glove, high-water pants, and plastic surgery. But to some degree his lifestyle exemplified the realization of some of my darkest desires.
I don’t mean to preach or dishonor Michael’s memory; but, let’s be real. When you consider the striving of our lives — our daily efforts to obtain more wealth, achieve greater success, improve our looks, or indulge our amusements — we are all, to varying degrees, becoming Michael Jackson. He was just better at it than we are. And throughout his life, and now more so in his death, we see where it leads. Want money? He had millions, and it isolated him. Want fame? Then trade in your privacy and give up ownership of your life. Want some ideal of beauty? Prepare to lose the brilliance with which God created you. Want to recapture former glory? Then live a stunted life, freakishly trying to replicate past success. For all his record breaking and making, Michael died a misunderstood, isolated, and financially insolvent artist.
This isn’t to say that his life was lived entirely in vain. Michael undoubtedly brought joy to millions through his music and humanitarian work, and he will leave a legacy of entertainment for many generations to come. But his permanent seeking, the self-acknowledged desires to be Peter Pan or become immortal, reveal that the things of this world never quite satisfied. I pray that his death becomes our own permission to stop trying so hard to be rich, famous or successful. Maybe now we can be content to live small lives, full to the brim with quiet purpose and satisfaction. (In this current economic environment, perhaps this will be an easier lesson for us to grasp.)
Of course we’ll miss Michael Jackson. We have for quite some time. But let’s make our tribute to him one that lasts. As he would have encouraged us to do, let’s look at the man in the mirror and live lives that are changed for the better by his story.