documentation, Michael Jackson Memorial Procession, June, 25th 2010
On the night of the anniversary of Michael Jackson's death, participants drove in tandem from Michael Jackson's boyhood home in Gary, IN to Chicago. A playlist of MJ music was broadcast from a pirate radio in one car to the others in synchronicity. The procession was an act of harnessing, re-imagining, and memorializing the sonic space created organically around Chicago on the night of MJ's death.
This project was born the night Michael Jackson died, June 25th, 2009 (although I didn't know it at the time). With text messages pouring in and media outlets carving out their own angles on the circumstances of his death, Chicagoans, as I imagined people all across the country did, played his music. They not only played his music, they amplified
it--windows down, the most popular songs curated, and their attention to the space around them as they announced their acknowledgment of his passing. The convoluded circumstances of his death in this memorializing act became minimized. For a celebrity who transcended normal categories of gender, race, beauty, and even transcended the normal category of 'pop star,' the music boiled down all the creature-curiosities to the end game of the music.
It's not my expertise to write about how Jackson changed music, but I can say that Thriller was the only album my father and I both had. It's hard to think of another celebrity who dissolved so many marketing niches and demographics. It is this phenomenon that allowed for such a thorough street response...and in this case it was a sonic response. The interesting thing about a sonic response is that the music rarely fit the unique narrative of Jackson's life. The energy is anathema to traditional mourning--it's celebratory, body-moving, infectious pop. The sonic memorial became a bittersweet celebration whose rhythms defer our traditional notions of emotional processing. The communal response to his death formed a temporal tribe...a street meditation. Jackson's too fast for a candle-light vigil...he's airless, it's viral, and buried deep in our cultural consciousness.
Shortly after his death, I had many conversations about the street energy of the night of his death, about the unprecedented, unorganized, self-initiated participation and projection of his music, and the singularity of this death as uniquely capable of driving this kind of response. The Michael Jackson Memorial Procession became a gesture toward tapping the residue of empathy, legacy, and response.
Starting the procession in Gary, IN at Jackson's boyhood home was the idea of a friend, and after resisting at first, I came to understand that the complicated logistics of organizing a performance in the midst of Friday night traffic was worth the symbolism, not to mention participating in the temporary community of memorial events and performances on his block. A few days before the procession, my intern Jasmine and I drove to Gary to see the house and get an idea of how our route would take us toward Chicago. Completely post-industrial, under-utilized, and marginalized, the community of Gary has a natural resource in the Jackson home. The house itself, so modest it's almost inert, completely inverts everything Jackson was to become. There were a dozen or so visitors and residents milling the area around the property. Even in an ordinary afternoon the space felt quietly charged, and it managed to keep a couple handfuls of people around at all times.
Arriving close to 5pm in Gary, the media was everywhere. Signal towers changed the modest skyline of Jackson's block. A performance stage anchored an improvised community of commerce and fans. Most compelling for sale were t-shirts featuring an embellished portrait of Jackson with the words 'fallin' angel' levitating underneath him. The mostly black crowd was sweating in the heat, but committed to each contribution of the many performers--choirs, preachers, young dancing prodigies--there was no impatience--every moment carved out a different contribution to this anniversary.
As we left Gary, the procession became self-reliant. Every car, decorated with an orange flag with the letters MJ screenprinted in black as well as personal homilies made with window-markers, became a moving spectacle. The synchronized audio playlist of Michael Jackson music, curated by my friend
Emily (the biggest MJ fan I know) became secondary on the highway, but the slow-moving, marked, decorated cars created a form, and drivers around us mostly enabled the form keep its purpose.
At 87th and I-94, the procession started on the street-grid. Driving north on 87th our music, broadcasting from my car's pirate radio station to the entire procession on the low end of the radio dial, became the sonic memorial I wanted--creating to the stationary onlooker a two or three minute procession undeniable in its purpose. Most satisfying was the lack of preparation the communities had as we drove through...the event was a happening, one that had instant recognition whether pedestrians cared or not.
Moving north, through Pilsen, then east to Michigan Ave, and finally west to Wicker Park, there were so many moments of celebration, dancing, yelling, honking, fist-raising, and as always the unimpressed urban denizen, I knew every moment I experienced was only a fraction of the responses the procession had as it spread out, reformed, and continued on.
At the moment I have only seen the photo-documentation contributed by each participant, there is video footage and anecdotes to collect. But I keep coming back to the image at the top of this post. The procession itself is held at bay by the edge of the frame, a vignetting of light stages the mother, daughter, and baby. A cross splits the space between mother and daughter. The daughter's body language is respectful, the mother's is uncommitted. We are a happening, a spectacle, a self-organized motorcade hellbent on celebrating and projecting while unprepared onlookers knee-jerk respond with a variety of celebration, respect, indifference, and sometimes pause. A pause that I think is interesting, as it lurks at the edges of any self-important parade. A legacy implicitly involves death--an ending. This photograph adds meaning to the procession, it is more complicated than our street mission. It reminds me that a sonic memorial, as any memorial, evokes deeply complicated feelings at its best, and serves to remind us we are always struggling to respond to our world and its predicament.