On a Beach with Fidel, Tupac, Biggie, and now, yes, Michael Jackson!
The morning following Michael Jackson’s death The Washington Post (Online) posted a video of some Washington, D.C. residents reacting to the news of Michael’s death (“Reactions to Michael Jackson Death," Friday June 26th, 2009). The comments of a number of the black men from the community (including barber Joseph Keller, Gregory Looper, Sr. and Akil Wilson) were the Post’s way of providing some local color to their more serious feature-length articles on Jackson’s legacy. Filming in and outside the Edges Barbershop in the U Street Neighborhood of Washington, D.C., the men were asked to reflect on Michael’s passing, often with humorous results.
Scene: Joseph Keller, a black male barber in his mid thirties/early forties stops cutting hair and looks into the camera—a smile across his face, his remarks are directed at once to the white-male interviewer (off-camera), to a regular loitering just opposite the camera-man, and at the most poignant moments directly into the camera itself…
Keller: “I said, I don’t think Michael Jackson is dead.”
Interviewer (interrupting): “Where do you think he is?”
Keller: “Because, the fact that, he done had so many operations—to change his face—who know who we burying, forreal? He could be, you know what I’m saying, got…still got his real face—from his original face—and the guy who dead prolly ain’t even Michael Jackson.”
Interviewer (mockingly): Then where’s the ‘real’ Michael Jackson?”
Keller: “I don’t know. He prolly, um, smoking on Cuban cigars with Tupac and Biggie over in Cuba…”
We all know Cuban cigars are the best (why else would they be banned in the United States?) and if Michael was able, like Tupac and Biggie, to pull off a disappearing act of such ingenuity and scope, then why shouldn’t he celebrate with one of Castro’s cohíbas on a beautiful shore in Cuba? (Quick warning though: Michael, if you’re reading this, keep out of those glittery get-ups, things aren’t in the clear just yet.) The barber’s comments about Jackson's not-real death got me to thinking about what seems a recent trend in our culture—a tendency to relocate black popular figures (especially males, and especially black males who are deemed to have suffered a near-tragic, suspicious and seemingly too early death) to places outside of death in relative isolation and tranquility. This repositioning of tragic black male figures after death can be said to reflect a larger cultural position of “I’ll belief it when I see it” (see ET’s release of the gurney photos) that I find troubling. In this post-Ashton Cusher’s Punk’d world, one would be a fool to belief just anything he hears, sees, reads about, or touches, until it can be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt (those of us in academia call this a postmodern skepticism). Which is probably why after receiving a text from my girlfriend with the news, I replied rather simply, "Nope."
With Tupac passing, for example, there were millions of fans who refused to accept (and many who still deny) the certainty of his death, especially as Tupac had forecast his passing in lyrics and details that seemed too eerily close to the actual circumstances surrounding his homicide. To a lesser degree this relocation beyond death, or trickster’s immortality, has escaped Biggie Smalls if only because there was an actual funeral—a moment that allowed fans to commemorate and cathect—where a casket could be seen and touched for more legitimacy. What arrangements lie in wait for Michael’s remains has yet to be determined, but my feeling is anything short of an open-casket on display for weeks at the Neverland Ranch (with Tom Brokaw poking at the lifeless muscles of an all-too surgically altered face), will result in more speculation regarding the true whereabouts of the King of Pop. As a young man, Akil Wilson (black male in his early 20s), outside of Edges Barbershop put it:
Akil: “I know I’m significantly younger, so I’m thinking to myself like Michael Jackson just seems like the kind of guy, like, he was gon’ live forever.”
The problem for too long, and with too many black men of Michael’s talent, charisma and genius, is that beyond any malformed dreams of immortality, rarely do these men get to live at all. What comedian Chris Rock has often joked about as an unlikely dual pairing of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X with Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls (Christopher Wallace) via the formers’s assasignations and the latters’s homicides, may seem a bit more congruous as a list of popular-to-iconic African-American male figures who die all too young when considered in light of Michael Jackson’s recent death. All these men were somewhat cloistered from the rest of us, whether that was due to their own success or their own idiosyncratic natures. And all had lives cut short, or before their primes, and lost to achieving some greater promise and success.
That is, all these men except of course Michael Jackson, who can be said to have reached the height on his powers in the years following the release of his Thriller LP and who was clearly already in decline in the 1990s. Perhaps Michael provides a glimpse of the freakish-grotesqueries that awaited Malcolm, Martin, Tupac and Biggie. As a culture, we like our heroes young and unerring, beyond any shadows or suspicion. Even now the legacy of figures like Dr. King and Malcolm X are being refashioned to reveal a darker, oft-ignored, more flawed human side (See Michael Eric Dyson’s “I May Not Get There with You,” for example) Yet, like Joseph Keller and Akil Wilson, we, as fans, refuse to allow death to render these men obsolete. We seek solace in the idea and possibility that they are still out there, away from the spotlight and controversies, but always out there, waiting to wow-us-all with a return. Perhaps not much is at stake when we challenge their mortality with our imaginative tales of staged-deaths and tricksterism, but I cannot help but consider what questions are raised, worries exaggerated and conditions created when we refuse to let them go peacefully into that good night. As Akil continued:
Akil: “Some people are better as thoughts than as actual physical manifestations. Like the physical Michael Jackson that existed in the last, you know, three years that wasn’t, that wasn’t Mike! It just wasn’t. Nobody, none of our peers, you know, we grew up with 80s Mike…you know, jheri-curls, still kind of black Mike. And then, my parents, you know, know Afro-Mike. Like, this Mike that existed from the 90s on, psst…he just wasn’t a real person. You know, he was kinda like just a caricature…He’ll probably just live on as a legend. Like, he won’t (…) in time, people will kind of like cycle out that latter Michael, because that’s not the greater part of Michael Jackson’s legacy. You know that late-Michael, that’s not really, a lot of people really, just kinda, even as far as musically, he didn’t…”
Akil's words and thoughts trailed off there into a set of nonsensical utterances that reveal that for my generation, the post-Thiller hip-hop generation, Michael's death represents something more and different than it does for our parents' generation... who can't remember a time without his music (but who also remember growing with him, through him). For my generation, Michael's death is an example that not all icons come to favorable ends and that even for the one's, like Tupac or Biggie, who never live to see their primes, maybe such an end as this is far better than some strange and worse alternative. Though the fan in me can't help thinking, maybe not.
To the question: 'Will Michael Jackson live forever?' This generation responds overwhelmingly 'He will"...and does! Perhaps not on a beach somewhere in Cuba smoking cigars with Fidel, Tupac and Biggie, but in the hearts and minds of those of us who don't know when or how to let our icons go.