In his two-decades-long career, Tavis Smiley has worn many hats—talk show host, radio and television producer, author, political commentator, friend to Prince, Muhammad Ali, and Maya Angelou. Now he can add Michael Jackson expert to the list.
Smiley’s new book, "Before You Judge Me: The Triumph and Tragedy of Michael Jackson’s Last Days," tells the humanizing story of the very last weeks of the King of Pop’s life. With captivating detail and narrative, Smiley explores just how Jackson’s life unraveled in the weeks after he announced what would have been a return to the stage ten years in the making—the This Is It concert series in London. The book, released June 21, has already been picked up by Warner Bros. to be turned into a television series.
NBCBLK contributor Brandon Patterson caught up with Smiley to talk about Michael Jackson's Blackness, the genius of Prince and what a Hillary Clinton presidency would mean for Black people.
Your book looks specifically at the last 16 weeks of Michael Jackson’s life. Why did you want to focus on this period of time?
Tavis Smiley: Before Michael died, I was preparing to go to London to see his This Is It concert series. I had my plane ticket, my concert ticket, and my hotel reservations. And 16 weeks later, he was dead. I was devastated, but also confused about how he could announce this epic tour then be dead within weeks. So I started this book with a simple question: what happened in his life from the moment he made the announcement to the moment he took his last breath? But once I got deep into the research and began writing—between the self-medication, the pressures that he was under from concert promoters, and creditors, and even his family—my question had done a 180. It became: how did he survive as long as he did?
The book is a novel, and it essentially re-creates Michael’s life day by day for four months. Where did you find the information to be able to do that?
Thanks largely to the transcripts of the trial that his mother brought against AEG and the Conrad Murray trial. With those transcripts, we were able to piece together where he was, when he had meetings, when he went to the doctor, the medications he took to go to sleep. And we weaved into the narrative the things we know Michael enjoyed doing—the kinds of movies he watched, the kind of music he listened to, the kinds of books he liked to read, the kinds of art he was turned on by. It gives the story texture and life. This is the story of Michael’s life that has not yet been told.
And Warner Bros. is adapting it into a TV series, right?
Yes. They’re adapting three of my books: my book on Martin Luther King, my 28-year friendship with Maya Angelou, and Michael Jackson. I have to get past the book tour first and then we’ll figure out the direction we’re going with that.
You were close friends with Prince—who just passed. You’ve studied Michael. What distinguished Michael from Prince in terms of his artistry.
Prince is the greatest artistic genius of his generation. He wrote all of his music, played every instrument on some of his records, even designed his album covers. Prince had no barriers. Michael wrote great songs, but he didn’t play an instrument. But on stage, Michael was the greatest entertainer of his generation—and maybe ever.
Did you ever meet Michael?
I met him a couple of time. Never interviewed him. But it would have been patently unfair if I’d been able to be as close to Michael as I was to Prince [laughs]. Nobody’s got it that good!
Let’s turn to the election. Hillary Clinton is the presumptive Democratic Party nominee. Black youth have challenged her on her criminal justice record on the campaign trail. Have you seen a shift in her stance on these issues since the start of her campaign?
Definitely. I think she takes these issues more seriously because of Black Lives Matter. She’s clarified a number of her positions. She’s apologized and will never use the term “super-predator” to refer to black men again.
The Clintons were right about a lot of things when Bill was president, but they were wrong on others—criminal justice, welfare reform, genocide in Rwanda. But I think Hillary will accrue a greater benefit to black people if she’s elected president. We still have to hold her accountable, though.
You’ve been critical of Obama throughout his presidency. Hillary has presented herself as an extension of his policy record. What do you think a Hillary Clinton presidency would mean for Black people?
Some have suggested that because she will not be boxed in by her race, that we might see better public policy come out of her administration than we saw from Obama vis a vis Black people. That argument doesn’t fall on deaf ears with me. But I still believe she’s going to need to be pushed and held accountable.
Over the last ten years, black people have lost ground in every major economic category—from education, to housing, to criminal justice, to health care. You can’t blame all of that on Obama, but it is true that black people have gained zero ground during his administration.
And you think Hillary Clinton can correct that?
My point is it can’t get much worse under Hillary!
Bernie Sanders has selected Cornell West, Keith Ellison, and Barbara Lee to represent his campaign on the DNC platform committee. These are three progressive black people. What do they bring to the table in terms of the lasting impact the Sanders campaign will have on the Democratic Party, despite losing the nomination?
I know Cornell and Keith well. They bring a commitment to unarmed truth and unconditional love, and a belief that the pain and suffering of everyday people—not just black folks—can no longer be rendered invisible. They will be pushing for a way to recognize the dignity and humanity of everyday citizens—not just the fat cats, super-delegates, party bosses, or the Wall Street crowd. I couldn’t be happier with these people representing my point of view.
Let’s talk about Muhammad Ali. Right now black people are talking about asserting and celebrating and loving their blackness. In what way do you think the current conversation is a reflection or extension of the example set by Ali?
That’s a beautiful question. There are two things about Ali that stood out to me: one was that he had an unapologetic love for his people, and the second was his courage. I love the spirit of the Black Lives Matter movement—putting a focus, again, on the humanity and dignity of black life. It’s taken on an Ali form of justice. And when people saw Muhammad Ali’s courage, or they see Black Lives Matter put it on the line, that kind of courage is contagious, and that’s why we saw people line up behind Ali and see them line up behind the movement today.
How would you characterize Michael Jackson’s relationship to his blackness?
In a word—complicated. Michael loved his people, he loved performing for his people, he was inspired by his people—James Brown, Jackie Wilson, and on down the list. The skin thing is not something we deal with in the book because we focus on the last 16 weeks of his life. This book is unique because it focuses on a part of his journey that we haven’t had a chance to look, and I think people will come away with a good understanding of what that time in his life was like.