Harlem, especially the Apollo, is the media's unofficial spot to get Black America's reaction to Michael Jackson's death. Matt Harvey dropped by last Friday and listened in on a conversation that was full of adoration and, yes, angry conjecture.
Hundreds of people - mostly black New Yorkers - are gathered outside of the Apollo Theater. It's Friday afternoon and they're paying tribute to Michael Jackson, the King of Pop. There are moonwalking teens and grown men singing to the Jackson 5's bubblegum soul-ballad, "I'll Be There." People wave freshly minted mementos stamped with different portraits of Michael Jackson's face: T-shirts, flyers for KISS FM and the day's tabloids. And the triumphant scene is beamed across the globe by scores of TV cameras.
But beneath the carnival atmosphere the air is thick with conspiracy theories about the King of Pop's death. Standing in front of the empty lot next to the theater - as white sightseers with digital cameras rush by - a middle-aged black man in green sweatpants cuts through a conversation bubbling up about Demerol, concert promoters and a racist press. Andre Murray thunders, "We wouldn't be surprised if those racist assholes killed him!"
"Those racist assholes," are sketchy actors, but they boil down to white business leaders (and don't forget the government) who began conspiring against Michael Jackson in the early 1980s when he surpassed white pop stars with Thriller. To Murray, and others gathered at the Apollo on Friday, Jackson's lethal heart attack was the final punishment inflicted by White America for his hubris. In this telling, the last shot of Demerol, the fact that Jackson's doctor, Conrad Murray, went missing are the icing on a conspiratorial cake. The wisdom on the 125th street goes like this: Jackson, hounded from dizzying heights into exile, was finally killed when, with his mountains of debt, he was worth more dead to the media-entertainment complex than alive.
Murray has his own little twist on why Jackson was finally killed: he wouldn't tour the U.S. "The CIA did it," Murray explains. "The U.S. was mad at Michael for taking money overseas. They wanted that money." Even a man hawking T-shirts newly festooned with MJ's mug, feels a frame-up in the air. Afraid to tell me how much merchandise he has sold today (it's a lot) he accuses me of wanting to report him to the Feds. "You trying to get the IRS on me?"
Not that everyone betrays his gut instincts angrily. Antonio Hughes, a stocky-guy who has come in from Brooklyn, asks me sarcastically, "Does it look like we're sad?" After greeting a long-lost friend, Kyle Clarke - who announces he's getting a Thriller tattoo on his forearm - Hughes adds, "This is a party!" But even the two upbeat friends admit that underneath their handclasps is bitterness at how Jackson was characterized by whites - and questions about his death. They're not ruling out the possibility that Jackson was murdered, Hughes putting forth darkly: "they shot him with Demerol."
Diane Glover is more hostile than the two old friends. Making a scene for some tourists, the 48-year old, life-long Harlem resident is glances back darkly at a Channel 11 TV van. She rails at the media with, "We don't want to hear that expression ‘Wacko' in the Post no more." As an older gray-haired man pipes in, "yes, that's right," Glover makes a chopping motion with her hand and added, "No more! He wasn't wacko, he was our love." Her voice rising, she complains about sizable numbers of police that have gathered at the nearby intersections, wondering: "would they have done that when Elvis died?" To Glover and several people around her, MJ is part of a long list of black leaders who were taken down either with murder, or in the courts. Asked to whom she is referring to she rattles off some political figures; Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and the rabidly anti-white Nation of Islam minister, Khaleed Muhammad. But Glover also puts the leader of the Temptations David Ruffin - who died of an overdose in 1991 - into the mix. Her voice falling to a theatrical hush she says finally: "they got him too."
In the mainstream media, Jackson is depicted - most charitably - as a freakishly gifted song and dance man-child who was ruined by his own bizarre behaviors and charges of being a child molester. Not for these folks. Everyone I spoke with in Harlem, including several schoolteachers, said they never believed the charges.
On 125th St. and 7th Ave., an African drum circle is popping off around the fountain in front of Adam Clayton Powell Jr. state offices. Mike Randolph, a retired teacher, is sitting in it glumly. He approaches me with a startling observation. Jackson is a shining figure whose importance to the black community was only recently surpassed. After adding that he couldn't sleep the night before, after hearing the sad news, he says: "I didn't realize it until today, but before Barack, Michael was number one." Randolph seems like a pretty moderate guy. But he thinks, at the very least, Jackson was hounded with the big lie of pedophilia until he cracked. Shaking his head softly he says, "The press just hounded him, man." Choking up he adds, "America broke his heart."