By Imam Zaid Shakir
Like the light of a meteor streaking across the crisp, cold, clear sky of a winter’s night, Michael Jackson, streaked across the sky defining this country’s cultural horizons. None of us coming of age in urban America will forget Michael’s debut onto the public stage with his brothers as part of the phenomenally successful Jackson 5. Hit after hit, “I Want You Back,” “ABC,” “The Love You Save,” “I’ll Be There,” rocketed up the Billboard Charts to number one. I can still reel them all off from memory some forty years later. For better or worse, they are indelibly etched into my mind, and have played a part in defining my soul.
Although I was a couple of years older than Michael, I joined the ranks of unsuccessful Michael Jackson wannabes. At the time it seemed worth the effort as all of girls had gone head over heels for Michael, and just a fraction of his dynamic appeal could reap huge dividends in terms of one’s popularity. The ‘hood was in love with Michael and he apparently had the talent to fulfill the lofty and ever increasing expectations placed upon his slim young shoulders.
However, as the sixties rolled, or limped, into the seventies and the Jackson 5 began to cool off, eventually leaving the Motown label that had launched their incredible success, many of my friends, as well as myself, were attracted to different musical genres, more mature fare. Topping my personal list was WAR, Stevie Wonder, Santana, and Mandrill. I also began to listen to a lot of jazz, and accumulated quite a large album collection. Whenever, I received my weekly wages from whatever job I was engaged in at the time, and I had many in my youth –security guard, lathe operator, UPS warehouseman—I would head straight to the record store and add to my collection.
What I couldn’t afford to buy, I would get from the radio, my preferred listening hours were three and four o’clock in the morning, when the brother manning the controls at an FM station coming out of Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut would put out some serious jazz. I would stay awake listening until just before dawn, sleep a couple of hours and drag myself off to work.
As the years went by I lost that passion for music. Perhaps my waning interest was aided by my little nephews who turned part of my album collection into a stack of customized frisbees when I went off to the Air Force in 1976. It was definitely aided by Islam. After my conversion in 1977, there was no one around to tell me that music was Haram (forbidden). However, as I grew in the religion, the enchanting melodies of the Qur’an became far more appealing than the increasingly commercialized musical fare. For example, George Benson’s offerings starting sounding more like Muzak than the rifts of a jazz purist who rivaled Wes Montgomery.
I would eventually give away what was left of my record collection. At the time I had left the Air Force and was studying in Washington DC at American University. However, I lived a few blocks from Howard University. I drove over to one of the used music vendors on the edge of the campus and made his day as I unloaded a box of cassette tapes and albums.
During those years I had lost touch with what Michael Jackson was doing. I knew he had “blown up” as the young folks say today and that as a solo performer he was reaching heights of fame and popularity that not even Elvis had obtained. I would also read in the tabloids that caught my eyes as I waited to check out at the grocery store of the increasingly strange exploits Michael was involved in, the plastic surgeries, something about the bones of the Elephant Man, sleeping in a transparent, refrigerated crypt, the allegations of sexual abuse, the fantasy ranch in California, and on and on.
It was obvious that Michael was troubled. For sure the physical and psychological abuse visited upon him by a sick father was a large part of the problems that were plaguing Michael as he moved further into his adult years. Surely, the childhood that was denied him as he was thrust into the sinful rigors of show business at the tender age of eight, opening for strip tease acts on the “Chitlin’ Circuit,” in smoke-filled rooms wreaking of alcohol, was part of his troubles. Surely, the confusion of being caught between a devout mother struggling to raise her children as Jehovah’s Witnesses and a fanatically strict, violent and profligate father was part of Michael’s problem.
But I was only able to catch glimpses and snippets of Michael’s life from a distance, hearing a bit here from a well-meaning niece, or catching a bit there on television, before I would take Jerry Mander’s advice and relegate my television to the garbage heap. If Michael was becoming a side show he wasn’t performing for me. Caught up in Islamic activism, during a time my friends and I refer to as “the heady days of the revolution” I had little time to reflect on such matters, I was too busy doing my part to change the world.
However, last year Michael’s name came up again. A good friend who is a reliable source of information called and said that Michael had become Muslim. Allah knows best. However, Michael was no stranger to the religion, having been exposed to it by his brother Jermaine, who had converted to the faith in 1989.*
Now Michael is gone. Hopefully, he had found peace in Islam. Hopefully, the tears he cried in the privacy of his oftentimes lonely world, tears described by Smokey Robinson as those of a clown, shed when no one’s around, had dried. Michael was an icon, a pain-filled, troubled icon, and like many of comparable stature before him, and inevitably many after him, his fall was sudden and unexpected. Hopefully, his faith, if he did convert to Islam, cushioned that fall.
* An earlier version of this article mentioned that Dawud Warnsby had assisted in Michael Jackson’s conversion to Islam. He has denied that. This article has been amended to exclude that claim. In writing this essay, I was given information from sources I considered reliable that Michael had indeed become Muslim. Obviously, the part about Dawud Warnsby is not true. However, there have been many reports throughout the media concerning Michael becoming Muslim. Allah knows best.