“Today, of all days, we focus on loving one another and giving. Let’s do that not just one day of the year, but for 365 days… Let’s love one another. Let’s forget hatred and turn to those that are suffering; not just today but every day. Join me in healing the world and making it a better place”, Jackson said many years ago. He kept his word and here is how he did it.
1. He broke down racial barriers
Long before ‘Black or White’ entered the music charts, Michael Jackson fought his way into an industry that was predominantly white. In the early days of MTV, for example, black artists were rarely programmed. It wasn’t until Jackson released his legendary Thriller album accompanied by groundbreaking music videos, that MTV changed its narrow rock-and-roll profile and began to air black recording artists.
Despite Jackson’s rising star, Rolling Stone Magazine – another white bastion – refused to do a cover story on him. Jackson’s reply was prophetic: “I’ve been told over and over that black people on the cover of magazines doesn’t sell copies… Just wait. Someday those magazines are going to be begging me for an interview. Maybe I’ll give them one, and maybe I won’t.”
In 1991 Jackson released ‘Black or White’ (Dangerous, 1991). The song was accompanied by a short film, at the end of which Jackson morphs into a black panther, symbol of the Black Power movement. Although this film is often presented as ‘proof’ of Jackson’s interest in civil rights, ‘Black or White’ in fact offers a much wider scope by attempting to break down barriers between all races.
2. He worked towards a better world
Who can forget 1985, when Jackson wrote ‘We Are The World’ together with Lionel Richie? Following the British example of Band Aid’s ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’, USA for Africa recorded a charity song that raised over $63 million for humanitarian aid.
Four years later, Jackson wrote ‘Heal the World’ in which he voiced his longing for worldwide peace and tolerance. Tellingly, the short film that accompanies the song alternates images of racism and war with those of children at play. Yet music alone wasn’t enough. Jackson also created the Heal The World Foundation to structure his humanitarian work. One of the foundation’s first projects was to send 47 tons of relief supplies to Sarajevo during the Balkan war.
Other songs in which Jackson voiced his concern for the world include the all-star record ‘What More Can I Give’ (digital download, 2001) and his vastly underrated protest song ‘We’ve Had Enough’ (The Ultimate Collection, 2004). Both songs received a lukewarm welcome, but as time progresses, the relevance of Jackson’s lyrics only seems to have increased.
3. He cared about the environment
“We have to heal our wounded world”, Jackson wrote in his book Dancing the Dream. “The chaos, despair, and senseless destruction we see today are a result of the alienation that people feel from each other and their environment.” One of the songs that highlighted this problem is ‘Earth Song’ (HIStory, Past, Present and Future, Book I, 1995). The ballad laments our often self-created paths of human suffering and environmental disaster.
In the song’s accompanying short film, Jackson stands in an apocalyptic landscape, while passionately crying out against the injustice of three environmental scenarios: deforestation in the Amazon rainforest, the aftermath of the war in Croatia, and animal poaching in Tanzania. Yet all is not lost, Jackson seems to suggest, as the process of destruction reverses at the end of the short film.
Additionally, only few people outside Jackson’s fan community are aware that he recorded a poem called ‘Planet Earth‘ which features in his book of poetry and short stories, Dancing the Dream. Much to everyone’s surprise, the spoken recording was released in 2009 on Jackson’s posthumous album This Is It.
4. He fought against social injustice
Jackson’s ‘They Don’t Care About Us’ (HIStory, Past, Present and Future, Book I, 1995) has resurfaced in the past few years. In many ways, this is Jackson’s most versatile and controversial protest song. Although it was meant to criticize racism, injustice and corruption, various media interpreted the lyrics as quite the opposite and labelled the song racist.
Shocked by the accusation, Jackson responded: “The song is in fact about the pain of prejudice and hate and is a way to draw attention to social and political problems. I am the voice of the accused and the attacked. I am the voice of everyone. I am the skinhead, I am the Jew, I am the black man, I am the white man. I am not the one who was attacking. It is about the injustices to young people and how the system can wrongfully accuse them. I am angry and outraged that I could be so misinterpreted.”
Consequently, Jackson re-recorded some of the lyrics as to leave no doubt about his intentions. However, not only the lyrics, but also the song’s music video was criticized. Jackson filmed two versions, one shot in a favela in Rio de Janeiro and another one shot in a New York studio made to resemble a prison. The ‘prison version’ was deemed too violent and was banned by a number of music channels. Jackson therefore decided to use his Brazilian favela version only.
Both the song itself and its banned ‘prison video’ have gained new interest. The song surfaced during the Black Lives Matter protests in 2014 and 2015 and the video has become reinterpreted in light of the recent clashes between white supremacists and opposing protest groups in the US.
5. He promoted AIDS awareness
In the late 1980s, Jackson met Ryan White, a young teen who had contracted HIV/AIDS through a blood transfusion. While battling the disease, Ryan White simultaneously fought against the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS and the social injustice he encountered as a result of his illness.
It was at this time that Jackson reached out to Ryan White to offer his friendship and support. He invited the White family to his Neverland Ranch and forged a friendship with the teenager that lasted until Ryan’s death in 1990. After Ryan’s death, Jackson dedicated ‘Gone Too Soon’ (Dangerous, 1991) to the brave teen.
6. He advocated children’s rights
One of the charitable topics that Jackson explored, was children’s rights. Jackson felt strongly about the predicament of children worldwide, which led him to organise the ‘Heal The World European Children’s Congress’ in 1992.
Three years later, Jackson and his then wife Lisa Marie Presley welcomed 46 children from 18 countries at Neverland Ranch for a World Children’s Congress. The three-day meeting formed a preparatory gathering for the World Summit of Children, which was held later that year in San Francisco to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the United Nations.
Tammy Williams, who participated on behalf of Australia, recalled in her book Not Just Black and White that she met Jackson at Neverland and asked him why he held the congress. He replied: “It has been a dream of mine to make the lives of children better through my Heal the World Foundation. So I wanted to hear directly from you – the children – what you see, through your eyes, as being the main problems in the world and how they should be solved.”
Despite the controversy surrounding Jackson’s name in later years, he continued his efforts to support children worldwide. Through songs such as ‘Little Susie’ (HIStory, Past, Present and Future, Book I, 1995), ‘The Lost Children’ (Invincible, 2001) and ‘Do You Know Where Your Children Are’ (Xscape, 2014), he addressed issues such as child abuse, child neglect and child abduction.
7. He inspired others to do the same
Jackson’s activism has inspired others, including his children, to continue his humanitarian legacy. Jackson’s oldest son Prince, for example, is actively involved in Heal LA, a student-run charity at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.
Jackson’s daughter Paris uses her acting and modelling career and social media platform to raise awareness for various social and political causes. In 2017 she told TeenVogue: “We are all warriors in our own way, but it’s up to you whether you decide to fight or sit idly, whether you’re a part of the right cause or not. And don’t just follow everything that comes up on your phone or computer screen. Look up to something honest, strong, brave, loving, and worthwhile.”
As for Jackson’s youngest son Blanket, who also goes by the name of Bigi: he is still in secondary school. Like his siblings he attended various charity events in the past. When he was younger, he voiced an interest in endangered animal species, but whether that will develop into something concrete, is yet to be seen.
© Annemarie Latour
Wish to support a charity that honours the King of Pop’s humanitarian efforts? Here are a few choices: Michael Jackson’s Legacy (UK based), Heal LA (US based) and Michael’s Dream Foundation (US based).