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 underto 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 Stone reports 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.