Even before the Gloved One's death, it had been planned: esteemed, talented local jazz pianist Ben Darwish was to inaugurate an Afrobeat Tribute to Michael Jackson
for PICA's TBA Festival
, making over MJ's works in the style of Fela Kuti, Afrobeat's founder. And well, it was difficult at first to figure out what, about this, was culturally icky, though it was icky. It was, after all a mere piece of technically prodigious musical whimsy: dance meeting dance on the floor.
Still, here's the thing: music, because it's so visceral, is always bound up with politics both public and private, and Afrobeat more so than most. Afrobeat and American soul and funk had a lively cross-conversation going through most of the '70s, bound up specifically in the Black Nationalist and Black Power movements. So, strangely, the concert amounted to an ersatz political and racial rehabilitation of the troubled Michael Jackson, as performed by a stage of mostly white musicians blowing '80s-style riff-based blues figures on the horn--based more in what they used to call "chops" than in the diphthonged soul horns I'd most often associate with Fela.
Viewed through this lens, it was a deeply odd spectacle, especially because of the strange, unplanned scene that occurred at the middle of "Can't Stop Till You Get Enough", the set's no-brainer opening number. The crowd had been glued uncomfortably, chin-scratchingly to their seats until a single crowd member jumped up to the floor to dance. Within seconds, scores of patrons sprinted down the aisles to fill the floor, dancing mostly questionably, drunkenly, with a lot of that funny neck thrusting white people often apply to soul music--as if after an uncomfortable wedding. The audience's eagerness to erupt into movement was so sudden, in fact, that it felt staged, '80s-teen-movie-esque, a bit like Ferris Bueller at the parade, so that finally, in death, John Hughes and Michael Jackson shook hands at an Afrobeat show, resolved together never to understand it.