[Note from the author: My fellow Field Folk: I originally wrote this for Princeton University’s Hip Hop: Art & Life blog at 5:20pm on Friday, June 25, 2010, a year after the passing of the Gloved One. I find that my sentiments then hold true today, the third anniversary of his going home, and so I offer this post as a chance to reflect on the legacy.]
“Even the sun goes down. Heroes eventually die. Horoscopes often lie. And sometimes “y”. Nothin’ is for sure. Nothin’ is for certain. Nothin’ lasts forever…” –Andre Benjamin
When I first heard “Stranger in Moscow“, on my aunt’s copy of HIStory, I was too young too understand what Michael Jackson was singing about in this song. At the time of the record’s release, he had been thoroughly vilified by a press that lost all sense of objectivity, and yet my family had been able to shelter my sister and myself from the ubiquitous accusations and media slander. Jackson had been a hero to us more than we could even understand, and I must thank my mother, for had she let us understand what the world was trying to do to this man, we would’ve quicker lost an innocence that was already suffering steady blows from the world around us. Had I been exceptionally perceptive those  years ago, I wouldn’t have let myself be hypnotized so completely by the echoing percussion that begins the song, lulled into the beauty without understanding the reasons why it was beautiful. My body and subconscious felt the cold, but my mind could’t fully grasp it. Clearly the song was sad, but what was all this KGB, Stalin imagery?
Years later, I come back to the song more critically aware and with more experience. I know that cold feeling very well. The darkness that comes with a rainy day as I sit at the window, forehead pressed to the cold glass. Tears fall down my face. When a song attempts to remind a listener of a feeling and succeeds, it can change lives. In his lifetime, Michael made countless songs that are effective at doing exactly that; but this song is different. It doesn’t attempt to sound like rain. Or attempt to sound like loneliness. “Stranger in Moscow” simply is both of these things.
How can I connect with the planet – the billions walking the earth right now – when its hard for me to connect with even one person? Whereas in my adolescence I’d built an emotional wall around myself, Michael had to exist as a prisoner, a spirit surrounded by a fortress of early fame and responsibility. When he made “Strangers in Moscow”, and for the majority of the years of his life, there was no way he could have hoped to realistically connect with the people around him personally. I felt him as a teenager coming to terms with myself. I understood.
As a young man now, I hear the song and its metaphors are not lost on me. Everyone wanted a piece of this man. Yet no one tried to put themselves in his shoes. “Take my name and just let me be“. The media seemed determined to break him, and he was willing to let his name, one of the brightest among the world’s popular figures, be defiled if he could just have some peace of mind. Lord have mercy, because clearly no one else did.
I hear this song and my mind conjures the image of his statue on the HIStory album cover. A modern day Ozymandias. I read Shelley‘s poem, I hear Jackson’s song, and the conversation between them saddens me. Jackson describes the process of deterioration for the listener, the erosion of one’s spirit by outside forces that leaves a shattered visage on the ground. Michael was not faultless – the size of he ego is hard to describe – yet the way in which he used his iconic status makes his ultimate fate different than that of the Ozymandias in Shelley’s poem. People look at Ozymandias and are reminded that pride is foolish in the face of time. “The lone and level sands stretch far away from that colossal wreck.” Michael’s love, however, will remain intact in the hearts and minds of anyone who hears his music, now and generations from now.
The song moves me to tears. He screams at the end. Of danger. Of loneliness. It was frightening before his death, but now that he is no longer here, the warning is twice as dire. I hear it and I am motivated to make the most of my connections with people, to tear down the bricks in the wall around me. For that inspiration, that exposure to the extremes of desolation, I have to thank you Michael. Your work will of course live on, but if people really want to understand your spirit, they must look upon this opus and despair. And then love.
I hope you look down and feel us moving closer toward love as a people, even in these trying times. Even as things fall apart around us, you remain.