Michael Jackson's Legacy of Social and Environmental Concern
Though it has been two weeks since Michael Jackson's death, the world continues to mourn and to monitor news sources for the latest developments. As a fan of Jackson, I too was shocked when he died, but what surprised me more was the world's reaction. How could one man bring the World Wide Web to a halt? How could so many people (including myself) grieve the death of someone they did not know?
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The press seems to have neglected Jackson's lengthy humanitarian track record, which includes holding a Guiness world record for "Most Charities Supported by a Pop Star" at 39. Among the charities the King of Pop supported were AIDS Project L.A., American Cancer Society, Congressional Black Caucus, Make-A-Wish Foundation, the United Negro College Fund, and the YMCA. Additionally, most funds from his successful world tours would go to several different charities, and when not rehearsing for his concert, he would visit sick and dying children in every city he toured.
And, of course, Jackson and Lionel Richie wrote the famous "We Are the World" song that, along with the video, raised over $63 million for famine relief in Ethiopia. The young Jackson would mentor several seasoned veteran singers who participated in "We Are the World." Clearly, he was heavily invested in this humanitarian project that has yet to be surpassed in the music industry.
Even child abuse allegations never stopped Jackson from publicly demonstrating his concern for children. In a song from his last album, Invisible, called "Lost Children," he pours his soul out for children who have no parents to love and care for them. He sings:
Home with their fathers,
Snug close and warm, loving their mothers
I see the door simply wide open
But no one can find thee
So pray for all the lost children
Let's pray for all the lost children
Just think of all the lost children, wishing them well
This is for all the lost children
This one's for all the lost children
Just think of all the lost children
Wishing them well, and wishing them home
In terms of ecology, Jackson sings beautifully in "Earth Song" about crying whales, nature, and the ravaging of seas. He also sings about the interrelatedness of ecological destruction and human suffering:
What have we done to the world
Look what we've done
What about all the peace
That you pledge your only son...
What about flowering fields
Is there a time
What about all the dreams
That you said was yours and mine...
Did you ever stop to notice
All the children dead from war
Did you ever stop to notice
The crying Earth the weeping shores
Apart from his concern for social and environmental justice, Michael Jackson also possessed unrivaled artistic ability. Art and culture, according to a professor friend of mine, came before religion and politics in human evolution. In our makeup, therefore, the arts hold a special place. Perhaps it is because art makes us feel as if we are entering a different realm. Art can elicit a range of human emotions, such as love, sadness, joy, and hope. The arts, and especially music, help to make the mundane activities of everyday life glisten with beauty and excitement. Indeed, our collective entertainment IQ may be higher than our world religion or political IQ. This reveals the centrality of art and music in the human experience.
Jackson not only sang, but danced as no other singer had. When one dances, one loses oneself and enters another state of consciousness. This is true of religious dances like the "Ghost Dance," in which the community would dance around a fire and enter into trances until reaching physical and mental exhaustion. Dance and music in these religious ceremonies would unite the community, and for several years, Jackson's music and dances also united many people from different walks of life. As Valerie Elverton Dixon stated in a recent post, "The dance is a celebration of life, a praise to the glory of God who is Love radical, perfect, complete. The dance allows joy to flow from us and through us."
Michael Jackson's music and dances brought not only joy, but also social and environmental consciousness. His art also reached something fundamental in our souls, namely our affinity for art that expresses and/or elicits emotions central to human existence. His death has had such far-reaching implications because of his ability to penetrate our minds and hearts through his music.
May he rest in peace, but may his music and dances continue to remind us of the importance of social and environmental justice in a world lacking both.
César J. Baldelomar is the executive director of Pax Romana Center for International Study of Catholic Social Teaching and blogs at www.holisticthoughts.com. He is editor of the Notebook Magazine, and he will begin graduate studies at Harvard Divinity School in the fall.