Dear Culture

Michael Jackson’s legacy: It’s complicated

Episode 54
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We can’t highlight Black Music Month without talking about Michael Jackson. Undoubtedly one of the most famous people to ever live, Jackson’s impact on music is unmeasurable but as fans know it hasn’t always been a smooth ride. Panama Jackson welcomes the hosts of the Wondery and Audible podcast “Think Twice: Michael Jackson” to discuss some of the biggest takeaways from their in-depth podcast that analyzed Jackson’s life outside of fame. 

LONDON – Michael Jackson announces plans for Summer residency at the O2 Arena at a press conference held on March 5, 2009. (Photo by Tim Whitby/Getty Images)

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Panama Jackson [00:00:00] You are now listening to theGrio’s Black Podcast Network. Black Culture Amplified.

Panama Jackson [00:00:06] What’s going on, everybody? Welcome to Dear Culture, the podcast for, by and about the culture here on theGrio Black Podcast Network. I’m your host, Panama Jackson. And today we have a special show, one I’m really looking forward to having a conversation about. It’s Black Music Month here. It’s June 2023. We’re celebrating all facets of music here, and there is no conversation about Black music that does not include the Jacksons. Michael Jackson. One member of the Jackson family in some way, shape or form. And our guests today are the hosts of the Think Twice Michael Jackson podcast, a fascinating podcast that goes deeper into Michael Jackson than I think, I ain’t gonna say I’ve ever heard, but I think it actually might.

Jay Smooth [00:00:48] Think Twice is an attempt to reconcile our conflicted emotions about Michael Jackson, the man, with our deep-seated love of his art.

Think Twice Podcast [00:00:55] I don’t think you honor people by putting them on a pedestal. I think you honor them by examining them truthfully and holistically.

Panama Jackson [00:01:03] It’s a ten part series about effectively the cognitive dissonance of Michael Jackson. That’s the big takeaway that I got out of it. My guests today are cultural commentator Jay Smooth, who is I’ve known for I don’t even know how many years at this point, but this man actually owns the website hip hop music dot com. That’s how long he’s been in the game. You know how hard it is to get something that’s specific? That says hiphopmusicdotcom. Jay Smooth and the host of the Slow Burn podcast, The Fiasco podcast. If you have listened to podcasts about politics, about the AIDS epidemic, then you know my guest, Leon Neyfakh. The two of them put this podcast together. Thank you for being here. How you doing?

Jay Smooth [00:01:51] Good to be here. Good to be talking to you.

Leon Neyfakh [00:01:54] Great to be here.

Panama Jackson [00:01:54] Yeah. And Leon has the distinct honor of being the first white guest we’ve had on Dear Culture so far. So this is, you know, like, this is. This is a fun one, right?

Jay Smooth [00:02:07] Do you know how to play spades, Leon?

Panama Jackson [00:02:10] Do you?

Jay Smooth [00:02:12] I don’t, by the way. I should’ve saved that for the Blackfessions.

Panama Jackson [00:02:17] All right, look, I want to I want to get into this this podcast. Think Twice, Michael Jackson, because. I listen to it, I have a ton of thoughts. But I have more questions than even I have thoughts about it just because I genuinely think I learned something new. And that’s hard to say about certain artists. What we’ve learned in the past few years is that you can actually dig deeper into artists in their catalogs and their histories and all of that in ways that unearth things that we might just not know. Even the biggest fans of some of these folks might not know. And your podcast does that. So I want to start at the top, though. What made you all decide to do this podcast? And more importantly, how long did it take to do this supremely in-depth podcast?

Leon Neyfakh [00:03:03] I can kick it off. I had been making podcast about history. As you said, Panama, political events. We did the AIDS crisis, we did Watergate. That was the first season of Slow Burn that I made. And what I learned doing those shows is that even the most seemingly enormous stories, even the sort of most era defining events, aren’t that well understood by most people. Like our memories are short, like we kind of absorb things ambiently about like, oh yeah, like in Watergate, you know, Nixon resigned or he was impeached or, you know, you don’t quite remember. And it turns out that if you just pick up the phone and start calling people who were there and who haven’t necessarily been interviewed a million times, you’re just going to shake loose all this new detail, all this new texture, new subplots, as you said, voices that you haven’t heard from before. And you’re going to find surprising stuff. And almost the bigger the story, the more likely that’s going to work. And with Michael Jackson, I just felt like we had an opportunity to make, tell a definitive version of the story of a most interesting man who’s ever lived. I know that sounds like a grand statement, but I think it might be true.

Panama Jackson [00:04:22] I think so, too, actually.

Leon Neyfakh [00:04:23] And he just you know, he had I know he died obviously so young, but nevertheless had a long career with a lot of people moving in and out of his life and a lot of different eras and a lot of different institutions that he was involved in. And it would just seem clear when we set out to start is that there were there were going to be rocks that we could overturn or we were going to find all kinds of unfamiliar stuff that would hopefully, you know, change the way we understood his story. As for how long it took, I don’t know. Jay, what do you what do you think? Once we started working together, it was like a year and change.

Jay Smooth [00:04:55]  I would put it at a solid year. Yeah. And it was an incredible experience for me being involved in this sort of long form journalistic enterprise. With all this original reporting. I really gained so much respect for that process of finding people, tracking them down, you know, working up the nerve to cold call this senior citizen out in Gary, Indiana, and get them on board to want to talk to you and come to their house. And then just all the nuance and layers of understanding that you can get from finding these real people and getting their perspectives.

Panama Jackson [00:05:28] Well, how receptive were people to that? Because, I mean, when you mentioned, like going to Gary, Indiana, I mean, you all literally talked to people that knew Joe and Kat, like knew them from the neighborhood. I mean, there’s people that worked with Joe. Like, it was surprising just the level of depth. And I mean, I don’t know how many people you interviewed had to be in the hundreds of people that you all got in there. I’m going to assume, let’s say it’s 100 people were there, like 300 people who said no, or is this mostly a yes endeavor from everybody who you all called?

Leon Neyfakh [00:06:01] There are a lot of nos. There are a lot of nos. Jay, did you get a lot of nos in Gary?

Jay Smooth [00:06:06] I didn’t get that many nos in Gary. I mean, there’s just people who are busy with their lives. Yeah, I found people, you know. Well, the biggest obstacle telling the story of those early days and Gary, sadly, is a lot of those elders were no longer with us or no longer really up for bringing up those memories in great detail anymore. But there’s definitely a process of earning people’s trust. And I will say, there was the highest likelihood of people wanting to get paid to do an interview working with the Michael Jackson story out of anything that I’ve worked with in my media career. It goes to show how much of a rocket to the moon people saw him as throughout his entire life. Anyone who crossed paths with him has been holding on to that. Like one day I’m going to cash in on it.

Panama Jackson [00:06:51] I started out saying like this This podcast really delves into kind of the cognitive dissonance of Michael Jackson. I mean, you can’t even start out at, like the point where he’s at the top and it’s about to all fall apart, and it never quite gains the momentum of who he used to be. It kind of barrels into public absurdity to some degree after that point. And even with that, starting with that, that that the film that I didn’t even know existed that he was trying to make with with Stephen King. That was such a bizarre like, I had no idea about that. It was such a bizarre, like idea in and of itself. What was it like? How did you all decide how you were going to approach this? Because and I’ll get into my own personal reflections about this later. But, you know, this took me through an emotion. Like at some points I was like, yeah. The other points I was really upset, which all for doing this. And even by the time and in a funny thing is I genuinely mean it. Like at some point I was like, I don’t ready rock with this no more. Because you’re messing with Mike, which is the whole cognitive dissonance thing that I think we have, especially in the Black community, right? Did you go into it like, we’re going to do this thing? Like we’re going to kind of set his the opposing nature of Michael Jackson at odds? Or was that a story that developed over time?

Jay Smooth [00:08:10] I mean, I would say for me, I when Leon approached me about joining on to the project and I should say, by the way, when we talk about doing all this reporting, we had a team of producers. There wasn’t just Leon and I and I definitely I definitely want to shout out to the rest of the team as well. But yeah, I mean, that cognitive dissonance was what I was sitting in when I took that phone call from Leon. I was definitely thinking, Well, that’s a fascinating topic, but all the conflicting feelings and thoughts I have about Michael, do I really want to bring that into a project? Well, once we talked it out and I saw he understands that type of ambiguity and it’s going to be a space where we can be transparent about that and gather all these voices and perspectives and see what that does for our cognitive dissonance. And hopefully he could do the same for the listener. I felt like that was something that could be valuable because I think there’s a lot of folks out there like us who have a lifelong relationship with Michael and are trying to figure out what to do with every side of it.

Panama Jackson [00:09:09] So let’s get into that part of it. So, Leon, you all mentioned is in the pod, you talk about your specific relationship with Michael Jackson. Right. So, you know, there’s no part of my life or Michael Jackson isn’t a part of it that I can even remember. Like, I you know, Thriller came out when I guess I was was 83. I guess I was like three years old, maybe four. But you might as well put that in my crib, because as far as I know, that’s always been there. Like Thriller was just a part of my life. Like, I have so many touchpoints, cultural touchpoints in my life where Michael Jackson is involved in a weird way, in some way, shape or form, where, Leon, that was it. If that wasn’t exactly your relationship with Mike, like like this Black community relationships, that we all have is different, right?

Leon Neyfakh [00:09:52] Totally. Yeah. I didn’t have that. I mean, my excuse is that my parents brought me over to America from Russia when I was five, and so they were not tuned into American pop culture like that. You know, the truth is actually that Michael Jackson was super popular in Russia. So I don’t know what their excuse is, but I’ll just say, like it wasn’t in my crib and, you know, I had to kind of learn about American pop culture on my own. And, you know, my first, you know, sort of musical obsessions were like the Beatles and Nirvana and Green Day. And like, I remember seeing a kid in my class with a Dangerous T-shirt. This was like 92, 93. It was when I was in second grade. And that was sort of my first like moment of seeing like that, you know, those eyes peeking out from behind the mask on the kinda dangerous cover. I was really intrigued by it, and I came to know Michael and his entire image, you know, from that point forward as like the person he was in the nineties, right? So I missed the sort of glory era when he was doing Thriller, knew he was doing the moonwalk. Like that wasn’t the Michael that I first became acquainted with. It wasn’t until, like high school, like junior year maybe when I started becoming really interested in like, other kinds of music than what I was just sort of naturally drawn to as a kid. And I started learning about the history of American pop music, and that was when I listened to Off the Wall for the first time and realized, okay, this is probably the greatest, you know, pop star of the 20th century. And I kind of got familiar after that.

Panama Jackson [00:11:35] Jay, for you, why are you doing this? I’m going to ask the Black question here. Like. And this kind of gets to my feelings while I’m while I’m listening to it, Right. Because I have that problem. Like, people ask me like, I don’t have no excuse. And people say, well, you listen to Michael Jackson. Like you right. Like, I don’t I can’t I don’t have a response for you as to why I still do. And I can’t I ain’t ready to give them up. I have a six year old a seven year old just turned seven who’s obsessed with Michael Jackson. Like he literally I don’t know how he discovered them. But the second he did like, we had a Michael Jackson themed birthday party for him in May just so he could perform and he performed They Don’t Really Care About Us. Like he is performing, you know, like like the whole video. Like that’s that’s like how Mike is in our households is just. I didn’t I didn’t I didn’t even introduce into Michael Jackson. I just he learned about him and all of a sudden Mike is his favorite person. And I can’t shut that down. Right. Like, I’m not ready to I can’t have that conversation with my kid. Like, yeah, you can love him, but I won’t let you. I will let you hang out with him. But, you know, so like, what is it like for you creating this, you know, big, huge project that is really well done that I would I mean, I can’t even imagine if you all got calls about doing this as a TV show, like a ten part doc at some point. Like, what’s it like for you, considering your history and the background, the Black community part of that? Like what is your where, where, where did this leave you?

Jay Smooth [00:13:01] Yeah, I mean, I was definitely a part of the process I was mindful of. I mean, from deciding to join in on through the 12 months of it. And, you know, I was trepidatious about that at first. You know, I definitely relate to the Michael Jackson story, the Jackson family story as a Black story, first and foremost. So I had initial thoughts like, would I do I want to do this not with a Black team, for a Black outlet? But knowing, first of all, that Leon and the Prolog team do this type of work at a high level and thinking about how Michael he was invested in his own Blackness more than I think a lot of people gave him credit for over the years. But he also had it as a life mission to be everyone’s guy, to be everyone’s king of pop, and had this reach around the world where people around the world felt like they belong with him as well. So I came to feel like it makes sense to have a project that is coming to this from both sides of that, from the Black communities perspective and from the perspective of everyone else that he tried to bring in and make his own. And especially knowing that this was not this was going to be driven by the voices we gather. And if we make sure to gather voices that are going to represent what he meant to Black people. And I’m not speaking to Black people as a monolith. You I mean, you’re here in the series. Every Black voice is not talking about Michael exactly the same way. But my hope was we can come into it and make sure the voices we gather are going to represent that properly. So it’s not just like me as the Black guy in the room trying to explain why we love The Wiz and so on.

Panama Jackson [00:14:37] Which you do. You do need that, though. I mean, look, look. I don’t know that I would view a project like this the same way without you there, if I’m being honest, because of what happened once, once, once the wheels fell off from my right, like the circling the wagon of the Black community, which happened in very weird ways, like just knowing the story publicly. It happened to me a ways. Like this happens all the time, right? Something happens and we all kind of got to step in there. So it is important to me like it was very important to me to have you there, Right? Like when I’m familiar with you, I know who you are. I know what you bring to the table and all this. I was like, okay, so this is the voice that I believe in and know that I trust. I know what it brings to the table. I understand it. It was helpful for me listening to this because a lot of this stuff, like I said, was difficult for me personally to get through just as a fan and because I felt like at some point. Like there’s so much of his life that does kind of delve into the hard to listen to parts. That I wanted to be protected, which is really weird. Like I’ve been to Michael Jackson concert now, like I know the man and know the family for real, but like, I felt protective of him listening to it to the point where I’m like, You know what? I’m gonna need to turn this off. I don’t know if I can actually text my producer on points, like, I don’t know if I can finish this. Like, I didn’t know I cared about Michael Jackson as much as I do listening to this podcast, cause it turns out I care a lot.

Leon Neyfakh [00:15:53] And what were those moments for you that that made you feel that way? You remember, like, what? What, what was happening in the show when you were like, I don’t know if I can do this.

Panama Jackson [00:16:00] You know, there was. So, for instance, when you all started talking about the part about which I didn’t know either, like when. The creation of like the huge statue and stuff like that, right? The huge like the stuff that was purely ego driven.

Leon Neyfakh [00:16:14] In May of 1994, the same month Michael married Lisa Marie Presley, Walczak was approached by Michael’s record label to create the cover image for his upcoming album.

Diana Walczak [00:16:24] Michael Jackson. He wants to be a statue on his next album. Huge statue like he saw in Russia, like the Mamayev Kurgan.

Leon Neyfakh [00:16:37] It seems that in the aftermath of the allegations and at the lowest point of his career, Michael wanted to cast himself in stone to show the world that he was impenetrable, immovable and above all, eternal.

Panama Jackson [00:16:50] I didn’t know anything about that. But, you know, and I can recognize where you all are going with that, because this is just part of Mike trying to create his own like, being overly concerned about his image and making sure that he’s still projecting this certain version of himself that, let’s be honest, no longer exists. But I was also kind of like, I don’t know if I need this, Like, I didn’t like Mike is Mike is the most famous human, one of the most famous human beings ever. He’s he’s entitled to an oversize ego, like he’s entitled to certain things because none of us have ever been in those shoes. Right. It was little things like that that I’m listening to that I’m just like. Like I get how this fits the story, but I don’t like it. Like, I don’t think it’s like I feel like it doesn’t help. It only helps with the Mike was crazy part. Like it all just goes in the Mike is crazy bucket. And there’s so much in the Mike is crazy bucket that by the time he’s dead, it’s like, I don’t know, I kind of just want to be like, Look. He was a nutty man because he was too big for his own. He was he was too outsized for the world, for for for the planet. You’re going to be that kind of person.

Leon Neyfakh [00:17:58] Yeah. When you say that you felt protective of him, I wondered if the moment that you were going to reference it was in the last episode when you hear him on this phone call that.

Panama Jackson [00:18:09] We’re going to talk about that. Oh, we’re talk we’re going to talk about that. That. Yeah. In fact, let’s take a quick break right here and we’re going to come back and talk more about Think Twice. Michael Jackson here on Dear Culture. You are now listening to theGrio Black Podcast Network. Black Culture Amplified.

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Panama Jackson [00:19:25] I want back here and Dear Culture, and I’m joined by Jay Smooth and Leon Neyfakh, who are the hosts of the Think Twice Michael Jackson podcast, which is a conversation I wanted to have because it’s Black Music Month here at theGrio and there’s no conversation about Black music without Michael Jackson. There’s no conversation about music, without Michael Jackson. This podcast that that you all have done, you know, before the break, we were talking about feeling protective. And you pointed out something that that happens in the last episode. So actually, I listened to the last episode multiple times, one, because it’s the one that kind of brings everything together and asks the big questions and kind of leaves you sitting with where do you stand with Michael Jackson, given the enormity of who he was in his life? But all of this stuff that goes with it, and especially coming off the hills of like Leaving Neverland and all of that stuff, which I watched, I watched all the documentaries and all that stuff and, you know. But there’s a recording that I had never I never heard. I don’t know if I just missed this in the pop cultural conversations. That was really, really hard to listen to. It was very sad. It was very.

Leon Neyfakh [00:20:36] You’re talking about the recording where he is really obviously struggling.

Panama Jackson [00:20:39] Recording with Conrad Murray, where he’s damn near unintelligible, but talking about wanting to build a hospital for children and all of this stuff. But. Number one. Where did that come from? Was that out there? And it was just like I just missed that. Was that a big part? Like, I’d never heard that before, but that was really painful to hear Mike in that state, especially knowing that he’s about to he’s about to pass.

Jay Smooth [00:21:05] Prosecutors played the jury a recording Murray had made of Michael as rehearsals for his farewell shows were getting underway.

Michael Jackson [00:21:20] (Unintelligible)

Jay Smooth [00:21:23] The recording is hard to listen to and also literally hard to make out because Michael’s speech is slurred so badly. But according to trial transcripts, Michael is telling Murray he doesn’t have any more hope and that he wants to spend his millions building a hospital for children.

Leon Neyfakh [00:21:40] So I believe that came out as part of the Conrad Murray prosecution. That’s my recollection.

Panama Jackson [00:21:50] I mean, you know, you all do mention that in the podcast. It was like this was part of the whole thing. I’m just I’m I’m amazed I missed that when it happened in real time.

Leon Neyfakh [00:21:57] Yeah, I mean, I honestly I don’t know how widely circulated it was because it’s so, so painful to listen to. Like, it’s, it’s, it’s almost like. And we definitely I mean, we, we, we went back and forth on whether to use this, you know, because it is such an intimate and. Disturbing recording. Obviously he didn’t think anyone was ever going to hear. Ultimately, we decided that. It was worth letting people experience it to know just how far he had driven himself and what was happening to him when he was preparing for that, you know, 50 city, excuse me not 50 city, 50 concert come back residency in London. I mean, just watching This Is It, you know, you see, obviously that he’s not exactly the same, Michael, that he once was, but he’s still up there dancing and singing.

Panama Jackson [00:22:57] It’s impressive watching This Is It.

Leon Neyfakh [00:22:59] 100%

Panama Jackson [00:23:00] Dude, he still got it.

Michael Jackson [00:23:01] Do, do, do, do, do, do. Let’s do it one more time. I love you. I really do.

Panama Jackson [00:23:10] That was my take away. He still got it. You know?

Leon Neyfakh [00:23:14] Yeah. So I think for me, it was like, Holy cow. Like, when he’s alone at night. Like, this is who this is. This is what’s left after he puts himself out there like that. And, you know, during rehearsals. I don’t know, Jay, like you. I remember what you’re. The way you reacted to this recording was probably like some of my favorite writing you did in the in the show. Maybe you can talk about how like, how it made you feel and why you wanted to include it.

Jay Smooth [00:23:39] Yeah, I mean, it’s I definitely deliberated over whether it was right to include it or not. But I think over the course of working on this series the biggest impression I came away with was just a deeper sense than I ever had of how tragic Michael story is. You know, despite all the joy that he brought to so many of us and, you know, I think the joy he felt in those moments of being able to perform. I think it’s a really sad story. You know, I think you’re absolutely right that someone who is as famous as Michael it makes sense for them to be building these huge statues. But I think the ultimate lesson of the Michael Jackson story might be human beings aren’t built to be that famous, that none of us should ever become that famous. It’s a it’s a weight that we are not built to carry, especially when we begin carrying that weight from the age of six, seven, eight years old in a family situation where we weren’t being able to build the self we needed to build. Even up until that point, I think he was just set up to go through a life of carrying this unbelievable weight, trying to fill holes inside himself in ways they can’t be filled. And I think in the end, I felt like that that tape, as hard as it is to listen to, is is the reality of where that life led him to. You know, being someone who had to pay this sleazy so-called doctor six figures to give him a drug that would obliterate his consciousness so he’d be able to sleep at night. I think that’s something I feel like I had to sit with at the end of this project as I considered whether it was even all worth it for the Michael Jackson phenomenon to happen, or whether it would have been more merciful for him if he had been able to live some other life, maybe have a private life and build a whole self that way instead of becoming this.

Panama Jackson [00:25:40] You know, you mentioned that, you know, is it all worth it? Because that’s something that you all mentioned when when when Al Sharpton is speaking at the at the funeral and, you know, his mother’s in the front row, you know, her baby. I mean, this is Michael Jackson, but this is her baby, right? This is one of her children who, you know, was remarkably isolated. Like, that’s one that’s one thing I you know, I took out of out of this podcast. I guess I didn’t realize just how alone Michael probably was for a substantial part of his life. Once he’s the supernova that he is, I mean, you know, he has all these songs about a lost childhood and, you know, kind of like. I can’t imagine growing up in the Jackson family, like with all those people and still kind of feeling alone the way that he did. But he had his celebrity in the world loved him and everybody was on the Michael Jackson bandwagon, you know, almost in full. I mean, I think I think it’s a safe statement to say the world was on Michael Jackson’s side through, you know, at least through Thriller. And then people start trickling off when Bad comes out because they see the album cover and he looks different. And then by Dangerous and then it just slowly and slowly people are getting off in the you know, when you all are talking about his 2000s and how he’s traveling around all over the place, getting away from place after place after place, like I guess I didn’t realize how lonely that but he might have been the most alone person on the planet at that point. And like you said, you know, he’s spending six figures a month on drugs to put him to sleep. Like, did he ever have a chance? I mean, you all spent more time on the Michael Jackson story than I think almost anybody knowing what you know now and what you took that got to be like, did Mike ever have a chance?

Leon Neyfakh [00:27:27] Here’s that moment we’ve talked about, Jay, when he’s in New York City and he’s like 19, right, when he’s making The Wiz. I feel like that’s the moment when it seems like he’s in this sweet spot where he is famous. He’s a star. Everyone wants to be around him and wants to invite him to Studio 54. And he’s in this movie he’s excited about and he’s living on his own for the first time. I think, you know, I think maybe Latoya was there with him, but like, he wasn’t with he wasn’t part of the family unit for the first time in his life. And he you know, he’d gone to New York while they were all in California. And. I know you sort of can imagine that being the last time he could still be a sort of human being before his fame swallowed him up. And I don’t know if I don’t know, you know, we talk a little bit about this in that episode that that’s focused on The Wiz, how you can imagine an alternate history where maybe he doesn’t meet Quincy Jones on the set and maybe he doesn’t make Thriller, you know, like he could have gone a different way. And maybe that was the moment when that could have happened. But after that, I think he was out. He didn’t have a chance. I think is my read on it.

Jay Smooth [00:28:56] I also wondered. As we got to know more about the role that his Jehovah’s Witness faith played in his life working on the series, you know, we found.

Panama Jackson [00:29:07] That was fascinating part. I don’t mean cut you off.

Jay Smooth [00:29:09] We found.

Panama Jackson [00:29:10] Fascinating.

Jay Smooth [00:29:11] Yeah. Yeah. Because we, our producers were able to track down these people who grew up with them and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, like people who were going door to door with them that could really tell you what that part of his life was like and learning how much of a real true blue Jehovah’s Witness he was and how important that faith was to him.

Leon Neyfakh [00:29:28] The Jehovah’s Witness elders in Brooklyn seemed to grow more uncomfortable with the direction of Michael’s career. Though they didn’t mention Michael by name, they published an article in one of their official magazines warning their followers to be on the lookout for music that pulled them away from Jehovah. They said the devil had been cunningly using various forms of unrighteousness in music.

Jay Smooth [00:29:50] I do wonder. You know, you hear the story over the course of the series of how there came to be more and more friction between that faith and his creativity as he started doing things like the Thriller video, the Jehovah’s Witness elders were not feeling that sort of worldly expression, and it eventually came to a head. And I believe around the time of the Bad era, he wound up stepping away from the church. And I do wonder the anchor that that faith gave him, as controversial as the JW used to be and I will say a number of the people that we connected with are now disillusioned former members who would speak to the shortcomings of the church. But the anchor that I think Michael found in that faith and the opportunity that he had to just be a regular person, being friends, being social with his fellow Jehovah’s Witnesses, going door to door, being at the Kingdom Hall with them, I do wonder if he could have held on and been grounded in a different way if he had been able to keep onto that, hold on to that faith, that anchor within the church.

[00:30:55] He had a trajectory that was undeniable. His talent was bursting out of him, but he also really wanted to spend his time devoting himself to Jehovah and seeking salvation. So there was always a conflict for him. He was pulled in two directions at all times.

Leon Neyfakh [00:31:17] Yeah, one of my one of my favorite moments in the show is, you know, hearing that not only did he go to door to door, you know, with with other Jehovah’s Witnesses, he would wear a disguise because this was at the height of his fame. Like Thriller had already come out, like he was the most famous person in the world. And here he is going to ordinary people’s homes. And part of it, I think he was just a really devoted Jehovah’s Witness, and he wanted to be proselytizing. But I think he also probably had an opportunity, you know, in those moments wearing the disguise, people not necessarily recognizing him to experience the world the way the rest of us get to. And that was like that was a respite for him.

Panama Jackson [00:31:53] Yeah. I’m glad you brought up that part because, you know, in thinking about what were the most surprising things that I learned about Michael Jackson through this process. And I realized early on that I was going to learn a lot based on the reporting that you all had done and the way that you all decided to share the story. I mean, you opened up with something I knew nothing about. Right. So I know if I did, I know lots of people have no idea about a lot of this stuff, but I don’t you know, I don’t while I know that that the Jackson family, Jehovah’s Witnesses, it isn’t played up as a central grounding point kind of in the story that gets told about their lives. You know what I mean? Like even in the Jackson family, you know, an American dream story. Like, I don’t remember that being kind of at the center of the story, but that would have still been happening at that time. So I guess I wonder for both of you are. What’s something that you learned about Mike that really surprised you during the making of this of this project? Leon, I’m going to start with you.

Leon Neyfakh [00:32:52] I didn’t quite appreciate like what, how much of his life he spent kind of in comeback mode. Like in my mind it he was this supernova. Right. And I very distinctly remember when he died and the outpouring of love and adoration that came flooding forward. You know. Pretty much. You know. As if no one had ever said a bad word about him while he was alive. And to kind of go back and realize that even before the first allegations of abuse came out, he was already fighting off, you know, stories he didn’t like. And just trying to convince his father to let him, you know, work with Quincy Jones or be in The Wiz like he was just always he was he was always fighting against something. You know, something was always holding him back. And eventually that became this narrative around the abuse allegations, which he you know, which defined, I would say, you know, the the kind of do the math in my head here. But, you know, starting in 1993, up until his death, like. Those allegations like. They were just they were they were just a part of his life every single day, I think. And all the albums that came out after Bad. They were all kind of comeback albums like it was him trying to say, I’m still here, I’m still the one, I’m still relevant, I’m still the biggest star in the world. And I think that’s like you mentioned the statues. Like, I think the statues were for his way of trying to say like. No matter what’s happened in the years since 1993 and those first allegations, like I’m still deserving of of this kind of adulation. And I guess, sorry, I’m rambling here, but I think my point is, just like I didn’t quite appreciate, like what a large percentage of his life he spent on his back foot trying to come back. That’s not what I associate with him, you know, or that’s not what I associated with him when I started.

Jay Smooth [00:35:06] And and to be fair, I a lot of the time in which Michael perceived himself is on the back foot, he was still massively successful by anyone else’s standards. Let’s be clear. But Michael always had that goal for himself to keep transcending and being the bigger and bigger and bigger King of Pop. So I think he also he constantly had that pressure on himself.

Panama Jackson [00:35:27] Jay, what about you? Something surprising that you learned during the making of this project?

Jay Smooth [00:35:31] Man, so many things. I mean, learning the contours of his Jehovah’s Witness faith for sure. You know, learning from some of those same folks that knew him in those younger days, how much of an interest he had and what he called Black studies when he was growing up and how much he wanted to stay connected to that. Learning about how Michael and his brothers were trying to make a film about the days of slavery, they took a whole trip to Africa trying to work on making this movie. That was the sort of thing Berry Gordy and Motown were not trying to have the Jackson 5 do.

Leon Neyfakh [00:36:04] According to Michael, School friend Darlenson Tola, that trip inspired Michael to become interested in African-American studies.

Tola [00:36:11] Michael was very concerned that what was being taught in schools and that the curriculum for education excluded the African-American experience and that it minimized the stories and the impact of slavery and systemic racial injustice. He was quite aware of all of that.

Jay Smooth [00:36:32] So it definitely makes you wonder what direction they could have gone in if they weren’t inside the Motown machine for those years. And also just learning how savvy and smart he was about trying to build and maintain his image. You know, I think it’s easy to sort of see Michael as being buffeted about by the fate that he was born into and having all these things happen to him. But learning how Michael was having his team be strategic about trying to portray himself as eccentric in a way that they were controlling and put certain things out there and be the master of the narrative. He was more savvy about those things over the years than than I would have given him credit for. Of course, after a certain point, it got to be more than he could control. But but by learning how aware and savvy he was of those things gave me another layer of understanding.

Panama Jackson [00:37:26] Do you all think that we remember, Mike properly at this point? Now, I realize it’s a big question, so let me caveat it with this, because I’m not even 100% sure how we remember him. I think we view him as this huge star, but also like. It’s kind of like this, Mike. I mean, he’s dead now, so we’re not going to go into horror kind of thing. But, you know, Mike was weird and all that, you know, the Wacko Jacko thing. And the reason I bring that up, this is going to be an odd parallel. But Jay, I think you’ll appreciate this. I was doing this conversation some years ago about Lauryn Hill. And, you know, Lauryn Hill has kind of devolved into basically a meme, right? You know, we we made jokes about Lauryn Hill and being late and all the things that she does. And, you know, they she reunited The Fugees at the roots picnicking. And I’m seeing all these comments about her hair. Right. And I’m just like, are y’all crazy? Like, Pras should be in prison. And he’s on stage right now. Like, this is you know, this is amazing to me.

Panama Jackson [00:38:25] But I often wonder if we lose just how special Lauryn Hill was and all of the other stuff, right? Because like Lauryn Hill was, is easily one of the most talented humans I think that we’ve ever witnessed. And I hate that she’s become a punchline. And I’ve been I’m guilty of that, too, right? I’m guilty of making the jokes. And I did it with Michael, just like everybody has. Right? It’s just like at some point it was a rite of passage. If you’re doing anything about Michael Jackson, the the crack a joke about him more the position it the family, all of that stuff. But then you take a step back and you’re like, man, good Lord, like, look what we got. Like, look what this person brought and what they were able to do. And, you know, I feel like you all are probably better positioned to speak on on where the Michael Jackson conversation is at this point, such that it even exists much more than just he lived. He you know, he came, he saw, he conquered and then he fell off a cliff. You know, like where do you all see the Michael Jackson conversation and are we remembering him properly? You kind of ask that question at the end when we’re talking about the funeral, like people remembering. Al Sharpton’s eulogy is one of very much like Mike was this everything? And it’s like, well, that’s not quite who he was considered when he passed away, but he was also dead at that point. So, you know, you kind of we eulogize upwards, you know, so, you know, what are your thoughts on how we think of Michael now?

Jay Smooth [00:39:52] Well, I mean, I definitely don’t think there’s any one correct way to remember Michael, and I definitely would not presume to prescribe one. And I think, yeah, there’s so I mean, I feel like there are. So there’s multiple Michaels that that exist in the popular consciousness. And I think when we each talk about Michael we could be talking about the Michael we grew up with and ABC, I Want You Back era to Thriller era, you know, it could be more and more eccentric Michael. It could be Michael that we’re debating whether we believe he did these horrible things. And I think that’s just the nature of our relationship with public figures is an actual human being. And then depending on where we find them over the course of our lives, they become an avatar for one thing or another in our lives. They become our friend in our head. That gets us through the toughest times of our lives. And if that’s the relationship you had with Michael as the voice on the record and that that image you see dancing on the screen. You know, I don’t I don’t think you’re obligated to let go of that. Whatever you come to believe about who he was, that a person and what he may have done later in life as a person. You know, I don’t think there’s any correct answer for how you do or don’t separate those things out. And I think there is space to believe he may have done terrible things and still have compassion for him, still appreciate the beauty of the art he put in the world.

Jay Smooth [00:41:22] I don’t think there’s something wrong with you as a person. If you continue to juggle all of those things and find a place for each of them in their life, because I’m I’m definitely not stepping off the dance floor every time a michael Jackson song comes on. And I don’t think that’s that’s not and I think it’s inevitable. You know, the art is so powerful. You know, I don’t have kids, but I think a lot of us who do are going to find that our kids are going to find their way to that music. And I don’t think, “No, that music’s not beautiful,” that’s not going to fly, you know? He worked with these other musicians to touch thing, to make things that’s going to touch people in their souls. And I don’t you know, I think we figure out how to contextualize, how to have nuance, how to hold multiple ideas. Just like we’re not going to pretend Afrika Bambaataa is not one of the founders of our hip hop culture. We’re going to find a way to talk about things he might have done and talk about the culture that he helped to give us. You know, I think that’s just part of adulthood and learning how to relate to our culture and our history is figuring out how to hold all those things.

Leon Neyfakh [00:42:26] Yeah, I’m not going to top that. But if I. I guess if I were to add anything, it’s that this is almost too obvious to say, but like. You go out into the world. You’re going to hear Michael Jackson’s song like more often than not. And Jay and I both, I think, like, got more sensitive to that as we were working on this. And we were just always be noticing it like it’s possible it was happening just as much before we started working on this, but we just didn’t take as much note. But like you hear the the Halal truck playing Billie Jean on your way into work. You hear it coming out of someone’s, you know, Bluetooth speaker on the subway. Like it’s just he’s just everywhere. His music is everywhere. And I guess on some level, I wasn’t sure when we started like, like where where are we as a culture on Michael Jackson? Like, is he like, quote unquote, like, canceled? What was the impact of of Leaving Neverland? Like, I remember when when I’m documentary came out, like people I knew were all sort of wringing their hands and saying like, I don’t know if I can ever listen to another Michael Jackson song again. And I just didn’t know how widespread that was. Like, is that the dominant feeling? Do people even remember Leaving Neverland? Like, I don’t know how many people watched it in my little corner of the universe. Seemed like everyone had watched it. And that or at least like I read articles about it and knew what, what, what it was about. But I think I was I was I was surprised and interested in the fact that, like, once you start looking around, like. I don’t know that he’s ever. I don’t know if that he’s ever been bigger. You know, like the Michael Jackson musical on Broadway is like the hottest ticket in town. And people aren’t. People aren’t conflicted going to that for the most part, as far as I can tell. I mean, maybe they are. But Jay and I talk about this in the show, but we went to go see it and we were kind of like both like, I wish we could we could just, like, pick everyone’s brains here about, like, did they feel weird about seeing the show that, like, really doesn’t come near any of the allegations? Do they? Do they feel like they have to separate the art from the artist? But we were both little too shy, I think, to to bother anyone and didn’t feel like it was the right the right environment to do that. But yeah, I think it’s hard to generalize around about how like where where the culture slots him now because there is no one, you know culture. Everyone just has their own thought process in this stuff. But yeah, I think we remember him for his music right now. That’s the that’s my simple answer.

Panama Jackson [00:44:52] Makes sense. All right. We’re going to take one more break here. When we come back, we’re going to do some of my favorite segments here on Dear Culture, and we’re going to have some fun. So stay tuned on their culture. You are now listening to theGrio’s Black podcast network, Black Culture Amplified. All right. We’re back on Dear Culture. I’m here with the hosts of Think Twice, Michael Jackson, Jay Smooth and Leon Neyfakh. And we’ve been talking about their podcast, which delves into the life of Michael Jackson and the conversations about who he was and who he ended up as and everything in between. It’s really a well done pod, one that I think even the most ardent Michael Jackson fan would gain a ton of new knowledge about him. Like you listen to this you’re going to learn about Mike in a way you never have, and I’m going to let them plug it at the end of this. But we got our segments. We got our favorite segments here, Dear Culture, which is our Blackfession. And now this is going to be interesting. This is going to be interesting because I opened up a let’s I know this is if you’re watching and listening, this is the first time we’ve had a white person on the show. So our Blackfession is typically  a confession on the part of our guest about something other Black people would be surprised to learn about them because they’re Black. We like we like to say we’re not a monolith, right? We’ve actually used that term a couple of times, like Black culture, one of our favorite sentences. We’re not a monolith. It’s our way of arguing for things that, you know, things near and near and far, big and small. So, Jay, we’re going to start with you with the Blackfession. Do you have any Blackfession, something that people would be surprised to know about you because you’re Black?

Jay Smooth [00:46:26] Yeah, you know, that’s tough because being mixed, I feel like when I confess to such things, people don’t act surprised. They just say, Oh, you know, that’s your white genes coming out. Which may be the case, but I’m trying to think I mean, I’ll tell you, I prefer pumpkin pie over sweet potato pie. And that’s one I definitely catch flak for.

Panama Jackson [00:46:44] That is one you’re going to get flak for. I’m going to be the first one to give it to you.

Jay Smooth [00:46:48] Just as how I feel. It’s hard for me to think of other ones where I mentioned up top. I never learn how to play spades. I was just as a poker kid.

Panama Jackson [00:46:58] You know, the spades thing is becoming very common, and I’m actually surprised that more people, everybody has food ones, right? Food is apparently a thing that Black people just love to unload. I listen, I don’t even like chicken. I’m not saying me. I’m saying people say these things or I don’t like mac and cheese. I’m learning that a lot of Black people don’t really care for soul food as much as we think. Maybe everybody is eating healthier nowadays, too. Maybe that’s part of it.

Jay Smooth [00:47:23] I’m so mad because I knew Charles Kitchen open in my neighborhood. But the dietary restrictions, I mean, that stage of life. I’m watching the sodium.

Panama Jackson [00:47:32] Gotcha. All right. Okay. Pumpkin pie over sweet potato pie.

Jay Smooth [00:47:36]  I’m sorry, ya’ll.

Panama Jackson [00:47:37] That counts, Leon, I’m not going to ask you for a Blackfession because it just would be awkward.

Leon Neyfakh [00:47:42] How do you want to do this?

Panama Jackson [00:47:43] But I’d be curious. What is the people who know you that listen to you that are fans of yours? Would it be something that they will be surprised to know about you? Considering all the work you’ve done and everything. Give us a surprise about Leon Neyfakh.

Leon Neyfakh [00:47:59] Well, so while Jay was talking, I was like, how? How should I play this? And I was thinking maybe, like, maybe I could do an oldfession. Like, you see my gray hair. I sometimes surprise. I think Jay’s seen this. I like some surprise our younger colleagues who are, like, in their mid twenties, where I like, know about a new song that came out. Oh and my 25 year old trainer, too, who I go see at the gym. He’s always very impressed when despite my gray hair, I have heard the Ice Spice song before most people have heard it.

Panama Jackson [00:48:28] Oh, you’re up on game.

Leon Neyfakh [00:48:29] I heard the Glorilla song. I’m up on it. And so that’s my like, that was my humblebrag. I’m old, but I still listen to the music that is not made for people who are my age.

Panama Jackson [00:48:44] And I got to say, the Ice Spice thing you threw in there, I didn’t see that one coming, bro. I got to admit it. I didn’t see it. I’m late to Ice Spice, so I just I tried. But the fact that you’re up on Ice Spice, too.

Leon Neyfakh [00:48:56]  I have a cheat code, which is that my good friend is like a pop music reporter. So he hears everything. I mean, his job is to hear everything early. So he’s my conduit. But yeah, it makes me happy to be paying attention. And so I know it looks ridiculous, but I don’t know how long I’ll keep doing it, but so far so good.

Panama Jackson [00:49:17] I think it works. All right. Well, to offset the amount of the non monolithic nature of our Blackness, we also do a Blackmendation, which Jay, I’ll just make you do this one, which is just a recommendation about something for, by and about Black culture that you think people should check out or pay attention to or be up on whatever. You have a Blackmendation for us?

Jay Smooth [00:49:36] Man. Going off the top of my head, I had a little unofficial high school reunion last night, so I’m a big up someone who also went to my high school back in the days and I think was one of the first Black students there. This is a, you know, elite private high school, Fieldston, at which I was one of the scholarship kids and way back in the days. Well, first of all, Gil Scott-Heron also was was a Fieldston kid back in the day. But there’s an author named William Melvin Kelley, who I’ve come to know in recent years and also gotten to know his family, who I feel like is one of the underappreciated great Black writers. I also had the honor of doing the voicing for his audio books as they all got reissued recently, and I would definitely recommend A Different Drummer by William Melvin Kellye is a book I would definitely recommend pickin up.

Panama Jackson [00:50:24] All right, I’ll check. I’ll make sure to check that one out. William Melvin Kelley, Different Arummer. I will check that one out. All right. Well, you know, for one, I want to thank you all for being here. I appreciate your perspective. The insane amount of work that you are did to put this project together. I notice when I said somebody’s got to be beaten down the door for TV, everybody got quiet. So I’m just going to assume that somebody out there is probably somebody is probably out there like, I mean, can we do this, guys? Can we make this a thing? I don’t know.

Leon Neyfakh [00:50:54] It’s a tough market out there right now.

Panama Jackson [00:50:57] Is it? Because I watch a lot of TV and there’s a lot of stuff out there on anything that you want to watch.

Leon Neyfakh [00:51:04] That’s true.

Panama Jackson [00:51:05] But either way. So if you all.

Jay Smooth [00:51:07] In solidarity with the unions, by the way.

Panama Jackson [00:51:10] There you go. Well, now that now that is something. There you go. Tell us where we can listen to the podcast, where people can keep up with your own work and how they can listen. Listen to this. Listen to other things you got going on. What you got going on. So, Jay, let’s start with you.

Jay Smooth [00:51:27] Yeah. You can catch me on Saturday evenings doing my radio show. Ill Doctorine Radio at hip hop music dot com. Or you can hit me up the patron Patreon dot com slash ill doctorine. Looking to get back into making video content as well as this election season is coming up we’re going to need to commiserate so you’ll probably catch me on YouTube somewhere soon.

Leon Neyfakh [00:51:48] As as for me so the show that I host by myself is called Fiasco. We’ve done five seasons of it We’re about to put out the sixth one also on Audible. It’s about the 1984 subway shooting in New York when four Black teenagers were were attacked by a white man named Bernie Getz because he thought they were about to rob him. And then Bernie Getz became this folk hero for all these people who are sick and tired of crime. And he kind of became this era defining figure at a time when everyone was reckoning with with the problem of crime, but also the problem of racism and a really kind of seemingly far off time in our history. But then we as we were finishing the show, the tragic death of Jordan Neely happened and it kind of drove home that these issues are very much still with us in the most specific particulars, because that story was so in some ways similar to what happened in 1984. Anyway, that’s Fiasco. It’s coming out in July. For Think Twice. You can find it in a couple of different places. It’s on Audible. If you go to Audible and look, Think Twice Michael Jackson you’ll see it. It’s also on Amazon music. If you have Amazon Prime, you can check it out there. And I think sometime next month it’ll start being released across all the other podcast platforms as well.

Panama Jackson [00:53:21] All right. Well, thank you both for being here. Genuinely appreciate the work that you did. You sent me through my emotions on a podcast, a ten episode podcast at that. So that lets you know you did some good work, is compelling for everybody listening. Make sure you check out Think Twice Michael Jackson. Definitely a worthwhile listen, as a fan of Michael, just everybody that I know that likes Mike, I’ve told him to go listen to this. Like go check this out. You need to because we got to talk about it. And I promise you, there’s something for everybody. You will learn things that you had no clue about mike are out there.  I think I read an article, Leon, where you mentioned something about doing like a definitive work. And I think this counts as a definitive work. Like if there are more stones to unturned, turn over. I do not know where you would find them. Like, I feel like you guys got everything. So thank you for your hard work.

Leon Neyfakh [00:54:13] Thank you.

Jay Smooth [00:54:13] Thank you.

Panama Jackson [00:54:13] Thank you all for being here. And thank you, everybody, for listening to your culture. Your culture is an original podcast of theGrio Black Podcast Network. I am your host, Panama Jackson. It is produced by Sasha Armstrong and edited by Geoff Trudeau. And Regina Griffin is our director of podcasts. Thank you for listening. Have a Black one.