'Leaving Neverland' and what to do with Michael Jackson's music

“It is, for many people a heavy, heavy lift to even consider muting Michael Jackson or changing the way we think about him to include predator.”
Image: Michael Jackson performs in 1988.
Michael Jackson performs in 1988.Kevin Mazur / WireImage file

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By Janell Ross

In the wake of “Leaving Neverland,” the HBO documentary exploring two men’s detailed claims that Michael Jackson molested them as children, at least one question remains.

What are the obligations of Jackson fans who, unlike Jackson, have lived long enough to absorb at least some of the lessons of the #MeToo era? Jackson, a public figure regarded as both immensely talented and extraordinarily strange before his death in 2009, is also now a man accused multiple times of sexual abuse involving children.

“People are being asked to grapple with trauma, actual harm, inflicted on living human beings by a dead man who is not merely beloved. He was unparalleled,” said Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of African and African American studies at Duke University, who saw his first Jackson concert in 1971.

“It is, for many people a heavy, heavy lift to even consider muting Michael Jackson or changing the way we think about him to include predator,” said Neal, who wrote a book entitled “Songs in the Key of Black Life” and teaches a course on Jackson and his art. “Unlike an R. Kelly, Michael was an iconic global figure. There is no one like him.”

One example of the struggle to determine Jackson’s legacy is the conversation on the radio show where, on a typical weekday, nearly 8 million people hear at least a bit of what Tom Joyner has to say. Joyner is the booming middle-aged black male voice at the helm of the Tom Joyner Morning Show, the nation’s leading syndicated “urban” morning radio program. Joyner and his co-hosts and sidekicks often mine comedy gold from the morning’s headlines and then blend it with social commentary someone’s auntie might offer.

Less than 12 hours after the final episode of “Leaving Neverland” aired, Joyner led a discussion about Jackson, and made it clear he did not accept the damning narrative put forward in the documentary.

“If someone accuses you of something,” Joyner said on the air Tuesday, “they had better have some facts to back it up. They didn’t have any facts.”

Joyner, who did not respond to requests for comment, is a prominent voice in the culturally influential world of black radio, a space where the opinion of at least some of black America is shaped and listener’s sensibilities are amplified across the airwaves. Just this year, black radio stations and some of the most prominent voices on it have become vocal about no longer playing the music of R. Kelly, another man accused of sexual abuse. But that process took nearly two decades to begin.

In Jackson’s case, his music is played on both R&B and classic soul stations with largely black audiences, as well those that spin pop hits and classics for a general audience. But many of the people who have followed Jackson’s career since childhood are people listening to radio stations where Joyner’s show or others like it air.

Representatives of five major American audio networks contacted by NBC BLK declined to comment or did not respond. By contrast, in New Zealand, the two companies that own most of that nation’s commercial radio stations have pulled Jackson’s music, The New York Times reported. The BBC refuted a report that it has done the same, saying in a statement that its radio stations do not ban artists and one of its radio networks — Radio 2 — played Jackson’s music last week.

Neal, the Duke professor, has been able to watch parts of “Leaving Neverland.” For his well-being, Neal said he plans to watch the documentary in pieces, much the same way that he did “Surviving R. Kelly,” a documentary about Kelly’s alleged misconduct with women and girls.

During his lifetime, Jackson repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, as Kelly has done. Both were acquitted of criminal charges related to alleged sexual contact with children.

Few black Americans, save Barack Obama, have experienced Jackson’s level of visibility, cultural influence or standing. Few have been supported by as many fanatical defenders and critics who are convinced they are aware of the granular details of Jackson’s life, character and art.

“I don’t think people thought of Michael Jackson as a grown man,” said Sybil Wilkes, one of Joyner’s co-hosts during the Tuesday morning show. Wilkes described herself as conflicted and unable to watch any part of the Jackson documentary because Jackson’s “Off the Wall” album amounts to the soundtrack of her childhood.

“You thought of him as this androgynous type of boy, Peter Pan,” Wilkes continued. “You never thought there was anything inappropriate. … He loved children. That was his biggest thing.”

That’s a sentiment expressed loudly and frequently this week by some of Jackson’s fans.

On the Russ Parr Morning Show, a smaller but also nationally syndicated urban radio morning program where music is mixed with jokes and social commentary, the conversation also turned to Jackson. During a segment Parr calls his “Rant,” Parr described what he saw as the worst part of the entire situation.

“Michael knew the relationships were unnatural and maybe, he did pay some people off,” Parr said. “I don’t know. ... But this documentary was low. ... They’re attacking someone who is not there to defend themselves. And that’s the tragedy. It really is.”

Parr also said the documentary was missing a “smoking gun,” and described Jackson, who was in his 30s during the period covered in the documentary, as a “little kid.”

Jackson’s iconic status, the fact that he is dead, and what some perceive as the culpability of the accusers’ parents loomed large in discussions on both Joyner and Parr’s shows last week. The two men featured in the documentary, James Safechuck and Wade Robson, were described as people in search of money from the Jackson estate via unspecified means. (Lawsuits filed by the men came to an end in 2017 when a judge ruled that too much time had passed since the alleged abuse. The men have appealed.)

To Richard B. Gartner, a psychologist and psychoanalyst who founded the organization MaleSurvivor, the degree of doubt and outright refusal to consider what Jackson allegedly did is rooted in how little most people know about child abuse, particularly the sexual abuse of boys. It’s complicated by Jackson’s celebrity.

Pedophiles manipulate children, their parents and sometimes entire communities, Gartner said. Among their goals: to get as many people as possible to regard the abuser as too upstanding to ever harm a child They tend to focus on children who both fit their preferences and are less likely to report or less likely to be believed.

“There are still people in Pennsylvania today who cannot believe that Jerry Sandusky would ever harm a child,” said Gartner, referring to the former Pennsylvania State University assistant football coach who also volunteered with children’s athletic programs. The jury in Sandusky’s case convicted him of 45 of 48 charges related to child rape and sexual abuse.

Throughout his career, Jackson vigorously defended himself against multiple charges of sexual abuse. The sleepovers with children were innocent attempts to reclaim the childhood that a rapacious public and a ferocious stage-father stole from him for entertainment and profit, Jackson often said and implied in interviews.

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In 1994, not long after Jackson reached an out-of-court settlement with a boy who said Jackson had sexually abused him, prompting Jackson’s 1993 arrest, Jackson appeared at the NAACP Image Awards. The criminal charges against Jackson were dropped after the boy told prosecutors he would not cooperate in a trial. But Jackson delivered a brief speech about civil rights, justice, equality and, in particular, American due process.

“None of these are more important to me at this time in my life than the notion that everyone is presumed to be innocent,” Jackson said before the crowd erupted in cheers. One man shouted back, “Tell ’em, Michael.”

Jackson was keenly aware of the way many black Americans, a group for which unjust prosecutions and deadly maltreatment have been real and constant experiences, regard the system, Neal said. There’s well-founded doubt about justice. But, when manipulated in the wrong hands, all of that can make some black Americans slow to hold individuals accountable for their individual criminality, Neal said.

Since Jackson’s death, his family has described the men who say they are his victims as liars, spurned and vindictive con artists in search of a payday. Their families have been described as unprincipled money-grubbers with no limits in the pursuit of fame. And, like Jackson during his lifetime, Jackson’s family has described him as one of the rich, famous and truly vulnerable. Jackson, like Kelly, has been described by his family and most ardent fans as a powerless victim of a press more interested in torment than truth.

The New York Times cultural critic Wesley Morris has described Jackson’s art as foundational. The type of music he made and even the way he danced redefined how to perform popular music and has seeped into a large portion of music and performance consumed today.

But now that one of Jackson’s accusers has described in “Leaving Neverland” a Jackson who allegedly purchased a wedding ring and exchanged private “vows” with a 10-year-old boy, the documentary could force those who admire Jackson’s art and those who have done that with some level of suspicion to consider amending their idea of the man.

“He can’t change ’cause he’s dead,” Morris said. “The music can’t change because it’s already been made and we’ve thoroughly absorbed it. I think the thing that has to change is us.”

In April 2018, nine months before “Surviving R. Kelly” aired, Joyner said during an on-air interview with #MeToo movement founder Tarana Burke that he would commit to no longer playing R. Kelly’s music. Joyner made no such comments about Jackson’s music Tuesday. That same morning, just before 9 a.m., Parr’s team hit play on a lesser Michael Jackson hit: "Just Another Part of Me."

“It is hard, I won’t deny that,” Neal said. “With Michael, there is a lot there, a lot to walk away from.”