By Stephanie Shonekan, Contributing Editor, Art, Music, and Pop Culture
If African American musical culture is a stream flowing into Africa during the twentieth century, Michael Jackson represents the watershed because he was a significant and perplexing icon of pop superstardom, a gateway to not only the music, but also the identity of African Americans. As a young Nigerian growing up in the 70s and 80s, I was among millions of other youth who were attracted to what we thought was the very essence of African American identity through the music we heard on the radio and watched on television shows like Soul Train.
Jackson’s music and performance laid an important precedent for twenty-first century African American artists who are extremely popular in Africa and are able to charge top dollar for tickets when visiting African countries today. Artists like Lionel Richie, Erykah Badu, Chris Brown, Rick Ross, Beyoncé, and Jay-Z perform for African audiences who pay ticket prices that range from $100-$300. Each of these artists should thank Michael Jackson for blasting open the doors to a receptive and lucrative African audience.
For decades these audiences were mesmerized by Jackson to such an extent that several impersonators appeared throughout the 1990s. The day after Jackson died in June 2009, Nigerian performer and Michael Jackson impersonator Michael Eze Chikaria, also known as “Walko Chilko,” was quoted in a local newspaper:
Michael as a human being had everything it takes to be a superstar and every step he made was so unique and enticing that everybody knew that he was incredible and that is what I am too… Everything about Michael is me….People are saying that I look and dress like him…and that I could actually be a replacement for him, though coming from Africa; his ancestral home.
A blurred Xerox copy of Michael Jackson (circa 1985), Chikaria had modeled his whole persona to replicate the legendary pop artist, from his lightened skin and his chemically straightened hair to his ethereal voice and distinct dance moves. Chikaria epitomizes the impact that Jackson had on millions of Africans throughout the 1980s and 90s.
Jackson’s overwhelming popularity in Africa opened the door for successive African American artists. This is not to say that other African American artists had not influenced African artists and audiences. In 1968, when James Brown visited Nigeria and Ghana, crowds flocked to his concerts and he was both shocked and delighted by their enthusiasm. In Nigeria, Brown visited the performance space of afrobeat maestro Fela Anikulapo Kuti and would later conclude in his autobiography that Fela was, “the African James Brown.” Indeed, by the time Michael Jackson’s music came to Africa in the 1980s, he joined a rich menu of African American predecessors, including Brothers Johnson, James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone, Slave, Ohio Players, Earth Wind & Fire, Tina Turner, and Aretha Franklin.
Dazzling Nigerian artists and audiences with his mysterious air and performance prowess, Jackson managed to distinguish himself from the other artists at a time when afrobeat and reggae were in their heyday. Jackson’s music made its way to the Nigerian population amidst an extremely unstable political environment. Though blessed with oil wealth, in the 1980s Nigeria’s GDP plummeted, and the harsh whiplash of structural adjustment programs along with two military coups was wielded on the flailing backs of the masses. As Nigerians endured poverty and oppression, Fela’s vibrant afrobeat and political message were pertinent and timely. Analogously, the sound and philosophy of reggae became attractive to scores of music lovers; and both reggae and afrobeat served as socially conscious musical cultures that served the needs of the Nigerian public.
Ironically, around that same time Michael Jackson, who did not relate in any particular way with the struggles of the Nigerian people, broke through these cultural distractions and implanted himself into the psyche and imagination of Nigerian youth. Via television programs and videos, his image and his sound completely mesmerized young Nigerians.
Inspired by Jackson’s “Off the Wall” (1979), “Thriller” (1982), and “Bad” (1987), Nigerian artists like Kris Okotie, Chris Mba, Mike Okri, and Dizzy K Falola created music that was very “Jackson-esque.” On the cover of Kris Okotie’s 1982 album Please Don’t Go, the Nigerian star posed in a replica of Jackson’s red jacket and jerry curled hair that he had worn for the “Beat It” music video. Chris Mba’s 1983 album Love Everlasting revealed a careful imitation of Jackson’s Off the Wall album cover. Dressed in a black suit, white shirt, black bow tie, and sparkling white socks, Mba’s stance was almost identical to Michael Jackson’s, complete with the hand in his pocket. Along with obvious image imitations, these 1980s artists also attempted to appropriate the timbre and tone of Michael Jackson’s voice. A good example of this was heard on Jide Obi’s “Kill Me With Love” where he adopts an American accent and spices his lyrics with exclamations like “yeah- yeah” and “oh my baby.”
However, the watershed that Jackson represents as an influence on African audiences is far from calm and tranquil. There are some turbulent questions about the full cultural significance of Jackson—and other African American artists—as representatives of African American identity. Looking back on my own youth I have to admit that my understandings of African American identity were hazy at best, even though my consumption of the music was voracious. Our educational system did not offer any knowledge of blacks in the New World; our only avenue was through literature and, to a much wider degree, music.
Jackson’s persona and his interaction with African audiences did nothing to help strengthen the bridge between Africans and their American counterparts. We cannot escape, for instance, Jackson’s infamous visit to Africa in 1992. Even though the myths about this trip are summarily debunked in the May 1992 edition of Ebony Magazine—the cover reveals a bizarre photo of Jackson with his bright skin juxtaposed against the Ghanaian kente that drapes his slim body—the rumors and questions about how he shunned his adoring audiences, wore a mask, and carried his own toilet, swirled around for years. Whether myths or reality, that 1992 trip points to that great paradox that sits at the junction where Michael Jackson encounters the Motherland. His hero status was confirmed as he was crowned King of Sani in Ghana and was awarded Gabon’s highest medal. Yet, questions about his connection to Africa endure.
It is also pertinent to briefly consider the case of Michael Jackson’s 1987 hit “Liberian Girl.” When I first heard the song, I was excited that our hero was actually singing about a West African girl. When I finally saw the music video around 1989, I was disappointed. The video opens with a focus on Café Afrique, an unlikely venue in English speaking Liberia. The setting looks more North African than West African. Instead of a serious step to connect with Africa, Jackson uses the video to play a prank on his American pop and television star friends. The breathless words that the “Liberian girl” utters at the beginning of the song – “Nakupenda pia, nakutaka pia, mpenzi we!” are not even in a Liberian language. They are Swahili words for “I love you, and I want you, my dear!” We Africans do not like to be seen as one homogenous group with one language. With this unique song, Jackson squandered a precious opportunity to forge a firm connection to Africa.
Jackson’s successors, contemporary African American artists, also seem hesitant to engage with their African audiences in a meaningful way. When Rick Ross visited Nigeria for a sold-out concert last year, he seized the opportunity to make a new version of his music video “Hold Me Back.” The scenes in this new video reveal only the most abject Nigerian poverty, ignoring the reality that Nigeria today has a diversity of social classes. Indeed, it seems he completely overlooked the hundreds of Nigerian fans who were able to afford tickets to his concert. His refrain, “these Niggas ain’t gonna hold me back,” grates against my sensibilities as I see yet another squandered opportunity. Ross’s global audience will get no more knowledge of Nigeria than the usual stereotypical image that has plagued the Motherland for centuries.
Ross at least spent a couple of days in Nigeria shooting scenes for this ill-fated video. Often the American artists fly in, perform, pick up their fat checks, and leave that same night. Yet, Nigerians, and other Africans who adored Jackson, continue to consume African American music in large quantities, and pay ridiculously exorbitant ticket prices to see these artists live. It is a troubling situation, particularly when one considers that African artists do not enjoy the same adulation from African American audiences.
Although these questions cannot be dismissed, Michael Jackson still stands as the single most influential African American artist in Africa. In answering the question of what made Jackson rise so far above other African American artists, I would point not only to his performance genius but also to the way in which he laced each album with songs that were poignant and meaningful to a troubled world. In Thriller he offered “Human Nature,” in Bad, “Man in the Mirror,” in Dangerous, “Heal the World,” in Blood on the Dance Floor, “You Are Not Alone” and “Earth Song,” and most recently, in his posthumous album Xscape (2014) he has offered “Do You Know Where Your Children Are.” Jackson’s music had neither the stinging criticism of afrobeat nor the spiritual fervor of reggae, but if we listen carefully, we will hear messages of significance for a motherland that continues to search for a path to progress.