Friday, June 26, 2009

Reflections on the Death of Michael Jackson, and the Worship of Celebrities

By Ibrahim Abdil-Mu'id Ramey

Like almost everyone, I was stunned to hear the news of Michael Jackson's sudden death on Thursday, June 25, 2009. The community around Georgia Avenue in Washington, DC was literally buzzing with the news. As I walked toward my apartment after a long day at the office, several people even stopped me on the street to ask if I had heard of Jackson's passing.

Somehow, the man-child who dominated the universe of popular music for nearly 40-years was someone who seemed to flirt with immortality. Michael Jackson, to hundreds of millions of people who celebrated him with a passion that bordered on worship, never grew old, and wasn't supposed to die. But now that are confronted with the reality that, at the age of 50, Jackson, is indeed, dead.

As the Qur'an teaches us, from God Almighty we come, and to Him, we shall (all) surely return.

As I contemplate on the life and death of Michael Jackson, described by another famous recording artist as "a major strand of our cultural DNA", a second Qur'anic truth resonates with me: there is no deity worthy of worship but the One Lord of Creation. How true these words must be for those of us who believe in God.

Yet we live embedded in a culture where the mass adulation that society pours out on athletes and performing artists approaches, and all too frequently crosses over into, the territory of idolatry.

Michael Jackson, for all of his obvious troubles and even moral ambiguities, was truly an "idol" for millions. His phenomenal talent as a child leading the legendary Jackson 5 had grown, over the years, into entertainment legend equaling that of Elvis Presley and the Beatles.

Our culture looked beyond his fixation with self-mutilation and his fascination with children; brushing them off as nothing more that the eccentricities of genius.

And when reports revealed that Jackson's $20 million annual income could not pay for his extreme spending habits, our culture brushed it off, and seemed prepared to pour more money into his gigantic pockets of self-indulgence; feeding his appetites and the legions of sycophants feeding off him.

As we come to terms with Jackson's untimely demise, a deeper question comes to mind: "When the music stops, who, or what do we actually worship? And what is the nature of our relationship with God if the objects of our adoration are nothing more than false deities?

I believe Michael Jackson was a mirror held up before society, and one that yielded a reflection of the shape and form of modern form of idol worship.

How often do we hear the word "idol" used in context with our celebration of mega-athletes and entertainers? And how is it that we collectively allow these "idols" to hover just above the moral judgments that we reserve for lesser mortals?

When a ballplayer injects steroids, or kills someone while driving under the influence of alcohol, or when an actor gets busted for drug possession at an airport, we say, "So sad", "Too bad", "It's so unfortunate". And within just a few short weeks, after the intervention of a few ultra-expensive lawyers and a team of public relations professionals, we place these "idols" right back in the temple of collective popular worship.

The world treated Jackson the same way.

His phenomenal talent trumped his need to carve away his face and bleach his skin to the point transmogrifying his African-American identity into a white death mask.

And the numerous allegations of his sexual relationships with minor children – one of which was "settled" out of court for a reputed payment of $10 million to the family of the boy who filed the lawsuit – dissolved in the brilliant light of his on-stage persona.

Even when Michael admitted to sleeping with children who were not his own, we winced and kept giving him props, love, and adoration; and yes, the fuel of nearly all idolatry - money.

But now the "King of Pop" is gone, and like all earthly kings who pass away, his soul must answer to the Celestial King of the Universe.

Don't misunderstand me. I'm not complaining about Michael Jackson's phenomenal talents, fame, or earlier financial success.

In the final analysis (as once shared by another deceased icon, Tupac Shakur) only God can judge Michael Jackson.

Collectively, however, we can, and we must, judge ourselves for the celebrity worship that permeates modern culture, and ignores the need to give real help to our "famous" – and very human – brothers and sisters when they spin out of control.

I pause to mourn with the rest of those alarmed and saddened by the passing of Michael Jackson, and I offer my sincerest condolences to his family and loved ones.

But I must remind myself, and everyone, that the worship of celebrity, any celebrity, is both false and utterly destructive to the objects of worship and to those who bow down before them.

Let us honor great talent, but save worship for the Almighty God alone.

Michael Jackson Dead at 50 (LA Times June 26, 2009)
Sony Comments on the Passing of Michael Jackson (NY June 25, 2009)
Jackson's Legacy Remains Unsullied by Scandal (Arizona Republic, June 26, 2009)
Jermaine Jackson Press Conference on Michael Jackson's Death (June 25, 2009) (Closing comment in video: "May Allah be with him, Michael, always.")

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