By Robert E. Johnson
When he was out front as the 14-year-old lead vocalist of the Jackson Five singing group, Michael Jackson visited Africa for the first time.
"When we came off the plane in [ Dakar , Senegal ] Africa ", he recalls, " we were greeted by a long line of African dancers. Their drums and sounds filled the air with rhythm. I was going crazy, I was screaming, 'All right! They got the rhythm" This is it. This is where I come from. The origin.'"
Nineteen years later, when Michael, now 33, came off the plane in Gabon , a West African neighbor nation of Senegal , he was greeted by an excited, screaming crowd of grade-school students who carried a banner than proclaimed: "Welcome Home Michael." Drum sounds again filled the air with rhythm that flowed from fans who gathered at the airport and lined the streets in anticipation of seeing the "king of pop, rock, and soul," who would later be crowned "King Sani " in a West African village.
On arrival at airport in Gabon megastar is greeted by cheering children and dignitaries.
Despite or perhaps because of this acclaim, the pop idol almost immediately became the center of an international controversy based on a negative media campaign. The media bashing included these big lies:
The trip was a "public relations disaster for Michael." Truth: It was a triumph in which he drew more spectators in Gabon than Nelson Mandela and more in the Ivory Coast than the Pope, according to African spokespersons.
"The singer cut short an African tour after a stopover generated the wrong kind of excitement." Truth: The sponsors wanted him to extend his tour to meet the demand for his appearances everywhere.
He held his hand to his nose because the African nations smelled. Truth: He sometimes touched his nose, an old nervous habit which earned him the nickname "Smelly", given originally by Quincy Jones because Michael was touching his nose in Los Angeles .
He collapsed from the heat and he went to London for a medical appointment. Truth: He was never bothered by the heat. His personal physician, Dr. R. Chalmers, accompanied Jackson on the trip. Jackson didn't go to London for a medical appointment.
He refused to shake hands with Africans. Truth: He shook the hands of hundreds of people, hugged and kissed children in hospitals and institutions for the mentally retarded.
He is "neither Black nor White" and is not a good role model for children. Truth: After Michael read a prayer in the basilica of Our Lady of Peace in the Ivory Coast , a 9-year-old boy exclaimed: "Michael is love, love, love! I want to be like him."
Because he is well known for his humanity and philanthropy, tour organizer Charles Bobbit reflected on the African tour and said: "I was impressed with the interaction between Michael and the children. He sat on the bed with children who were deformed and children that were ill" He sat there and talked to them, hugged, cuddled them. He shook hands and did not wear a surgical mask like he does sometimes to America.That qualifies him as a role model for children; his deeds and not his looks."
While the international controversy raged, Michael remained aloof, refusing to read the stories and saying that he preferred to let his deeds and his songs speak for him. Strangely and significantly, he had anticipated this and other criticisms in the song, "Why You Wanna Trip On Me", in the Dangerous album. The song says, in part:
They say I'm different
They don't understand
But there's a bigger problem
That's much more in demand
You got world hunger
Not enough to eat
So there's really no time
To be trippin ' on me.
It was clear from the beginning that the African people agreed with Michael. And from the time of his arrival, the native of Gary, Indiana was welcomed like a ruling dignitary and a long-lost son.He had come to the land of his ancestors to participate in a historic ceremony conducted beneath a sacred tree in the gold-mining village of Krindjabo , populated by the Agni tribe and located near Abidjan, Ivory Coast. As the village people stood in admiration, Amon N'Djafolk , the traditional tribal chief of Krindjabo , placed a crown of gold upon the
head of the musical monarch and pronounced him "king of Sani ."
Almost overcome by emotions, the shy, sensitive son of Joseph and Katherine Jackson smiled and said, " Merci beaucoup," to the French-speaking people and repeated in English, "Thank you very much."
He then joined elders of the king's court, signed official documents and sat on a throne of gold as women dancers, clad in white gowns, gave a dazzling performance of ritual dances. These elderly women are the guardians of the village, and their ceremonial dances gave their blessings to the crowning of "King Sani " and asked God for protection at a tree that symbolized the essence of power.
The musical messenger, who journeyed to West and East African nations as a self-proclaimed ambassador of peace, love, and goodwill, achieved a success that exceeded his expectation.
From his sunset arrival in Gabon, where more than 100,000 people greeted him with spiritual bedlam, to his stop in Cairo, Egypt, to which he had paid homage on his newest album, Dangerous, with the best-selling single and music video Remember the Time, Michael was caught up in a hurricane of happy happenings.
In French-speaking, oil and mineral rich Gabon , he received the West African nation's Medal of Honor from President Omar Bongo, who was the official host of the performer's "Come back To Eden" tour.
President Bongo told Jackson that he was the first entertainer to ever receive the medal, which until then has been given only to heads of states and high-ranking diplomats and dignitaries - including Nelson Mandela.
After receiving Gabon 's highest honor , the Medal of Honor , which is usually reserved for heads of states, Jackson leave ceremony with President Omar Bongo in Libreville .
As host of the tour, President Bongo appointed his daughter, Pascaline Bongo, the nation's Foreign Minister, and his son, Ali Bongo, to coordinate the tour along with Charles Bobbit , a consultant to the president, who initiated the idea for Jackson's visit.
Jackson agreed to go on the non-performing tour with the stipulation that his priority was his "desire to visit orphanages, children's hospitals, churches, schools, and playgrounds." Inspired by his belief that children are our future, Jackson visits a children's hospital where he befriends a little tot.
While visiting a grade school, he attends a special show put on by the pupils. He is accompanied by Jet Associate Publisher Robert E. Johnson, MJJ Vice President of Communications Bob Jones and Chief of Security Bill Bray
During his visits to Gabon , the Ivory Coast , Tanzania , and Egypt , he encountered "Michael mania" everywhere. His image was on posters, T-shirts, billboards, a postage stamp (in Tanzania ), and street banners. His music was played on the radio, piped into hotels - Okume Palace in Libreville , Gabon ; Hotel Ivoire in Abidjan , Ivory Coast ; and the Kilimanjaro Hotel in Dar es Salaam , Tanzania .
Energetic and intensely interested in his fans, he logged 30,000 miles in 11 days; passed through 11 time zones, slept in five time zones and landed on four continents: South America, Africa, Europe, and North America . His 26-person entourage traveled in a Boeing 707 Executive plane with stateroom, private bath, open bar, lounges, dining areas, video and audio equipment, telephones, and fax machines.
And when it was over, the entertainer, contrary to false rumors , had given a new Michael Jackson twist to person-to-person diplomacy and had touched the lives of hundreds of thousands of proud Africans.