If they couldn’t be at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, they wanted to be where it all began, in the heart of Harlem, less than a few steps from the Apollo Theatre where Michael Jackson and his brothers first burst onto the music scene.
There were only a thousand fans, but they stood outside of the Adam Clayton Powell State Building on 125th Street enrapt by a scene of admiration. The jumbotron offered the live broadcast of the tribute. As this community of people stood sharing each moment with others who understood their love for the pop idol and what his music means to them. Many had hoped to win a ticket to the official tribute. But a quirk in state law forbids all residents of New York, Rhode Island and Florida from entering the lottery, which awarded 17,000 tickets to loyal fans.
One family drove up from Pensacola, Florida, with their one year old in tow. Another fan, confined to a wheelchair, told us, it wouldn’t matter how hard her journey here could have been, Michael’s “music has kept her going. And I had to pay my respects.”
All of them sang, laughed, and cried together.
When Mariah, Jermaine, or Usher took the stage, Harlem fans broke out in song. When Brooke Shields shared joking with “The Gloved One” about his sequined trademark, the crowd roared. And when Michael’s daughter Paris told the world how much she loved her father, tears fell from almost every eye. (Even reporters and photographers found it difficult to stay composed.)
Tynetta Clark left work to be here. “They’ll grill me about why I wasn’t in,” she told me. “They’ll ask, sick leave?” And I’ll reply, “Michael Jackson leave.”
Everyone seemed to have a Michael Jackson story. A man from Sierra Leone told me he met Michael at his Apollo Theatre concert back in 1975. “I was wearing my native dress,” he said. “He told me he loved my outfit. That just made my day.”
Another woman proclaimed, “Michael Jackson was my first kiss.” She was only ten years old at a concert and her family had been invited backstage. After he signed an autographed picture, and she wished him luck. He smiled, pointed to his cheek and said, “I need good luck.” They kissed each other on the cheek.
She said, “I didn’t wash my face for a month.”
Whatever the memory, Michael Jackson’s tribute brought them all back. No controversy could taint the purity of faith
these fans held for the man they considered the Greatest Entertainer that ever lived. And when the Rev. Al Sharpton spoke of the mess versus the message, many in Harlem said, that point was driven home.
If you just don’t get Michael Jackson, if you don’t like his music, or vilify his memory because of the molestation charges, one woman begged to remember Michael as the humanitarian: The man who raised hundreds of millions of dollars to treat the sick, house the poor or feed the hungry.
And think of his music. “The lyrics alone,” another recalled, “are lessons to live by.”