His records were woven into the lives of millions but Leaving Neverland appears to make clear the King of Pop was a paedophile. So can we divorce the music from his alleged crimes?
Greg Tate: We recognised MJs special kind of self-destruction decades ago
All forced conversations in America about race, sex and celebrity are inevitably framed by horror and absurdity, history and the modern day. Because of this, many of my people as in American born Blackfolk refuse to countenance moral or legal absolutes when allegations of our stars committing sexual assault hit the news. They instead invoke a form of mathematical objectivity in pursuit of American democracys most impossible dream: a racialised level playing field. In this accounting, Bill Cosby and R Kelly arent defended despite victim-testimony and compelling evidence, but because not enough equally evil-ass white men have suffered enough public shaming for their crimes.
So Michael Jacksons legacy is being discussed in another judicial session and once again black folk are being asked to weigh in on the latest charges. The thing is our community recognised MJs special kind of self-destruction decades ago. Many Blackfolk learned to compartmentalise Jackson the moment they saw the cover of Thriller; they separated the spectacular soul singer and dancing machine from his increasingly mad choices, including self-erasing skin-bleaching facelifts, chin enhancements and rhinoplasty. Would the brown-skinned, big-lipped, wide-nosed MJ who appears on the cover of Off the Wall have been allowed by white parents to have as much unsupervised time with their pre-tweens? Would he have been trusted to disappear into his mansion for hours days and nights with them?
Having seen only the trailer for Leaving Neverland, whatever confessional justice was intended by its two informants is compromised by its directors hackneyed, tabloid true-crime approach. It doesnt mean the testimony is untrue, just that it depends on the film-makers selling several racially burdened oxymorons at once: white-male innocence, white-male fragility and white-male truth-telling. Of course, MJ doesnt belong just to the court of white public opinion or to the miscreant deeds he may have perpetrated at Neverland. He got connected to something far bigger than himself way back during his Motown years: he became an inextractable and irrevocable piece of Blackfolks story that can only be crooned, shouted, stomped, screamed and sanctified into the public record.
Greg Tate is a New York-based writer and musician. He was a staff writer at The Village Voice from 1987-2003
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