June 30, 2009

Explaining Michael Jackson's Lyrics, Understanding his Legacy

Posted: 03:36 PM ET

thumbnailby Kelefa Sanneh via The New Yorker

The news of Michael Jackson’s death arrived late on Thursday afternoon, and the great outpouring of celebrity eulogies began immediately. Steven Spielberg: “His talent, his wonderment, and his mystery make him legend.” Beyoncé: “He was magic.” John Mayer: “I truly hope he is memorialized as the ’83 moonwalking, MTV-owning, mesmerizing, unstoppable, invincible Michael Jackson.” And, from France, a gracious statement came from Manu Dibango, the seventy-five-year-old African pop pioneer. He mourned the loss of “un artiste exceptionnel, le plus talentueux et ingénieux” (no translation necessary).

Dibango was one of countless people whose lives were changed by Jackson’s music, although in Dibango’s case the changing was mutual. He was born and reared in Cameroon, and was already a local favorite when he recorded a song for the Cameroon soccer team. The result was a 1972 single called “Mouvement Ewondo,” but it was the B side—“Soul Makossa,” a honking, galloping funk track—that was the real hit, in Africa, in Europe, and in America, where it came to be seen as one of the first disco records. A generation of disk jockeys learned to wield the power of the song’s famous introduction: a hard beat, a single guitar chord, and Dibango’s low growl. He named his song after the makossa, a Cameroonian dance, but he stretched the word out, played with it: “Ma-mako, ma-ma-ssa, mako-makossa.”

About a decade later, Dibango was in Paris, listening to the radio at his apartment, when he heard something familiar: those same syllables, more or less, in a very different context. The d.j. was playing “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” the unconventional first song from “Thriller.” It is more than six minutes long, and although the music is exuberant throughout, the lyrics aren’t as silly as they first sound: paranoia (“Still they hate you, you’re a vegetable/You’re just a buffet, you’re a vegetable”) gives way to exhortation (“If you can’t feed your baby, then don’t have a baby”) and, eventually, inspiration (“I believe in me/So you believe in you”). The galloping rhythm sounds a bit like “Soul Makossa,” and near the end Jackson acknowledges the debt by singing words that many listeners mistook for nonsense: “Ma ma se, ma ma sa, ma ma coo sa.” Soon, Dibango’s phone started ringing. Friends and relatives were calling to offer their congratulations: Michael Jackson was singing his song! But Dibango’s pride turned to puzzlement when he bought the album, only to find that the song was credited to Michael Jackson and no one else.

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Filed under: Entertainment • Larry King Live • Michael Jackson

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Gina   June 30th, 2009 5:28 pm ET

I hope that Michael has a long talk with God. Michael needs to explain to God all the bad things happening here. I hope God listens to Michael. Maybe God needed another angel. I'm sure God is enjoying the songs and dance. I'm sure Michael has showed God how to moonwalk. :o)

Raymond Sheppard   June 30th, 2009 7:06 pm ET

If Michael could speak, I believe he would say:

I loved you all in my own way, but unfortunately I could not stay
I had to go and could not say goodbye
I was given wings and now I fly
From Day into night, my spirit took flight
Many will hurt and many will cry
Please realize, it wasn’t my choice to die
But now I’m free to live out my fantasies
And to be what I was meant to be
To my Brothers, Sisters, Mom and Dad
Celebrate don’t be sad
For I have lived to the beat of my own drum
And for that I’m thankful to some
Family please continue to be kind
And always remember I’ve loved you in and out of time

Monique   June 30th, 2009 9:10 pm ET

Why Neverland? After the cops raided the ranch, didn't Michael say that he never wanted to set foot in that place again?

Deb   June 30th, 2009 9:16 pm ET

RIP King of Pop! will forever be in my heart!!!

BEAUTIFUL poem Raymond, thanks for sharing!

Nathalie Cobb   June 30th, 2009 9:34 pm ET

I'm out raged that a public viewing will be held .

Stacie Lauro-Berlowitz, MD   June 30th, 2009 9:56 pm ET

I am a psychiatrist that specializes in a addiction. I have yet to see a patient addicted to a drug that does not have an abuse history. Emotional pain is often translated to physical pain if is it is not dealt with. Michael Jackson has been known to make mention of a very painful childhood... of physical abuse and emotional abuse... at least. He suffered greatly. We heard Deepak Chopra speak about Micahel and he was referring to Michael needing emotional support, love and guidance and not pain killers. I believe you can even hear Michael's plea for help in some of his music. Especially in his song from the movie "Free Willie", appropriately titled, "Will you Be There". It is probably his most spiritual song in which he is imploring anyone who will listen saying things like, "carry me like a brother; love me like a mother; hold me up; lift me up; feed me; bathe me; will you be there?; I am only human; I get lonely" ... Basically he is saying, "meet my basic human needs and nurture me", and it has nothing to do with a whale (from the movie). What happened to Michael is extremely powerful and painful and should be eye-opening. There is help. I would like to be put on TV to speak out against child abuse and to demonstrate that there is help for people's emotional and physical pain. This is such an important issue. We can not let this go by without bringing this to light. Also in this same song Michael says that everyone tells him he has a purpose, but he's so confused, he doesn't know what that purpose is. This is a powerful purpose.

Minhaj Ahmed   June 30th, 2009 10:50 pm ET

Wherever you are MJ, we will always be there for you. Why you left us so soon? We will never forget you. Today the world is mourning and I am crying. Never ever realized, I had to hear this tragic news.

Tiffany K   July 1st, 2009 12:10 am ET

I don't agree with the family having a public viewing in Neverland.. However, that's just my opinion.. It would have been nice if the family decided to have a projected viewing of his body for the whole world to see. having the public view this man's body will cause a problem ( a circus if you will).. anyways, Michael baby.. I am only 21 yrs old, but I love you. I always did believed in you and will miss you forever...
Gone but no Forgotten...R.I.P*M.J*

ron   July 1st, 2009 12:19 am ET

this public viewing thing i dont know whats going to hapeen but its going to be a zoo. no less tha 3million people will be there sorta like obamas election to office. however i want to say god bless u michael and your family your music will stand the test of time and always be loved by millions i think 2 or 3 of his songs are in the top 5 this week. jackson family i wish u the best in your time of sorrow R.I.P MJ WILL ALWAYS LOVE U AND YOUR MUSIC .

clarissa   July 1st, 2009 3:18 pm ET

Jeffrey in the group Shalamar created the moonwalk. He was the 1st man to do it!

clarissa   July 1st, 2009 3:23 pm ET

If you don't like Mj or his singing or his dancing or his behavior. Listen to his lyrics. Micheal defendently had a message in his music

r. kronner md, facs genl surgery   July 1st, 2009 4:13 pm ET

regarding govt medical care

govt will establish fees they will pay, this will lead to provider cost shifting, especially hospitals, thus other payers will be stuck with the actual cost of health care, aggavated by monies paid out for non heath care activities and unnecessary care driven by the fear of hostile peer scrutiny and fear of litigation

r. kronner md, facs genl surgery   July 1st, 2009 4:13 pm ET

regarding govt medical care

govt will establish fees they will pay, this will lead to provider cost shifting, especially hospitals, thus other payers will be stuck with the actual cost of health care, aggavated by monies paid out for non heath care activities and unnecessary care driven by the fear of hostile peer scrutiny and fear of litigation

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