Renée Graham

Leaving Michael Jackson

AFTER THE GUEST of honor was roasted and toasted at her birthday party last year, the DJ cranked up the evening’s playlist.

One of the first songs was R. Kelly’s “Step in the Name of Love.” As most people in the room got giddy and loose, I stood on the side having a conniption.

“Are you kidding me?! R. Kelly?! For real?! How y’all still playing R. Kelly?!” I wailed to no one in particular, and no one paid any mind to me or my righteous indignation. (They’d heard it all before.) I found it unconscionable that anything associated with someone long accused of sexual assault could be part of a festive gathering.


Of course, if the song had been, say, Michael Jackson’s “Workin’ Day and Night,” I’d have led the charge to the dance floor.

Lately my own hypocrisy is becoming untenable. The only difference between the two musicians is that Kelly’s alleged victims are female, while Jackson’s are reported to be young boys.

Nearly a decade after Jackson’s death, those allegations are again news. On March 3 and 4, HBO will air “Leaving Neverland,” a four-hour documentary featuring two men who say that, as children, they were first befriended, then sexually abused by Jackson. In the film’s trailer, one of the accusers says Jackson told him, “If they ever found out what we were doing, [you] and I would go to jail for the rest of our lives.” Later he adds, “I want to be able to speak the truth as loud as I had to speak the lie for so long.”

Jackson, who was acquitted in 2005 on all charges related to another child molestation accusation, always maintained his innocence. After “Leaving Neverland” debuted at the Sundance Film Festival this year, Jackson’s estate excoriated the accusers. In a statement, his family said, “The facts don’t lie, people do. Michael Jackson was and always will be 100% innocent of these false allegations.” Now, Jackson’s estate is suing HBO for $100 million.


Not once have I doubted the brave women who’ve spoken against Kelly, thoroughly documented by Chicago journalist Jim DeRogatis who first broke the story and has followed it into very dark places for nearly 20 years. More recently, the documentary “Surviving R. Kelly” revived interest in the allegations. Kelly has since been dropped by his longtime record label. Friday, he was charged with aggravated criminal sexual abuse.

I don’t believe most people are inclined to concoct harrowing tales about rape, sexual assault, and molestation. And while I always thought it highly inappropriate that Jackson shared his bed with children who were not his own, I refused to think about it much beyond that. I allowed my lifelong fandom for Jackson to overshadow the possibility that he groomed children and their starstruck parents, and ruined young lives.

A few months after the #MeToo movement went worldwide in late 2017, I pulled from my bookshelves and CD racks everything featuring a musician, actor, director, or producer outed for sexual misconduct.

There were Mozart symphonies and Rossini operas conducted by James Levine, the former Metropolitan Opera and Boston Symphony Orchestra musical director; acclaimed films co-starring Kevin Spacey; Academy-Award winning movies produced and distributed by Harvey Weinstein’s companies; and a stack of classic hip-hop from Def Jam Records, co-founded by Russell Simmons.


Notably absent from that pile was anything from Jackson – and I have plenty, from original vinyl to boxed sets. There are also ticket stubs from two concerts, a poster from my college dorm room, and even an original black-and-white photograph taken by a photographer friend at a 1975 Milwaukee concert that still hangs in my study.

Believe survivors, I’ve often said. I believe Bill Cosby’s accusers, and the many grown men and women who say they were sexually abused as children by priests. I always believed Anita Hill. I listened to every word of Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee last year, and heard only truth.

I know survivors are scorned and accused of seeking money or attention, and how their revelations can leave their lives in tatters. It’s not that I thought Jackson’s accusers were lying; I simply, and willingly, ignored the accusations because Jackson was too much a part of my life and history to abandon.

Before their national debut on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” I first saw the Jackson 5 on a Miss Black Teen pageant. Yes, I was mesmerized by the songs, the harmonies, and the sharp choreography. Still, it was also the improbable sight of these African-American kids on TV who could have been plucked from my own neighborhood. I felt a pride previously unknown, especially in Michael who was closest to my age. I was hooked.


Now the accusations against Jackson may be too compelling, even for lifers like me. Scheduled for fall, a Chicago tryout for “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough,” a Broadway-bound musical about Jackson, has been cancelled. A show spokesman claims the change wasn’t fueled by “Leaving Neverland,” but one has to wonder about the timing.

Jackson’s family has called the film “a public lynching.” It’s a tactless reference — for historically obvious reasons, but also because Cosby’s and Kelly’s advocates used the same revolting phrase in shameless attempts to silence accusers. Jackson will continue to have his defenders, especially because he’s no longer here to defend himself.

I can no longer be one of them. Holding dear my childhood memories pales when compared to what others kids may have endured at the hands of a man I’ve adored for as long as I can remember. Now I am leaving Michael Jackson, as uncomfortable stories are again unearthed and idols crumble from gods into monsters.

Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.