Sunday 3 January 2010

2009: A Year in Review

It is difficult to know where to begin in my summary of 2009. It has been action-packed, for sure.

2009 has seen me make the surprisingly speedy transition from college student to award winning writer. Within months I made the leap from writing essays and attending lectures to penning stories for the country's biggest newspaper, being interviewed on several news channels and even contributing to a bestselling book.

It has all been a bit of a blur but in hindsight I have squeezed a lot into the last 12 months.

I have stood metres from Michael Jackson as he annouced his comeback concerts inside the O2 arena and later stood outside the arena in the rain, watching his memorial service on a giant screen. I have interviewed rappers, filmmakers and jazz musicians, then published the stories in my own magazine. I have trodden the red carpet at a London film premiere and shared a stage with Motown legends.

It has been a year of extraordinary highs and lows, the highs understandably including my press accreditation for Michael Jackson's concert announcement. Other highs included completing my graduation ceremony without falling over, walking down the red carpet at a film premiere without falling over and accepting my Guardian award without falling over.

The lowest low, of course, was the death of Michael Jackson just weeks before I was due to see him live at the O2. In a way I had never quite believed that those concerts would go ahead, but I certainly didn't think he was going to die. I remember receiving a text message from my friend James, a jovial comment along the lines of 'What has Michael gone and done now?'

As I watched the news unfold I was initially not too concerned. I suspected he had manufactured some illness or injury in an attempt to postpone or cancel his comeback shows. Behind the scenes, Jackson insiders had been speculating all along that he would 'do anything' to get out of them.

When TMZ first announced Jackson's death I was again largely dismissive, partly because blog sites had inaccurately reported his death in the past and partly because it seemed like an impossibility that Michael Jackson could be dead. For Jackson at 50 years old to join the ranks of deceased icons like Elvis Presley, James Brown and Ray Charles - it seemed implausible; far too soon.

When BBC confirmed the news, I wilted.

Less than three years previously I had seen Michael Jackson and James Brown within weeks of one another. I had seen James Brown deliver what would become his last concert on British soil in late October 2006 and I saw Michael Jackson appear at the World Music Awards in November. I never dreamed that so soon afterwards we would have lost them both.

Speaking of Mr Brown, he figured into my year quite prominently for a man who had been deceased for the best part of three years. Before that concert in October 2006 I had been invited to Brown's pre-show press conference, where he spoke to me about an album he had been recording. In the wake of his death I wondered what had become of that album; surely that was the smartest time to release it? In the aftermath of Ray Charles's death his new album posthumously soared to the top of the charts. The same happened to Luther Vandross.

As time passed, I forget about the album. Then, in early 2008 I was dispatched by the US magazine 'Wax Poetics' to interview Brown's former sideman Fred Wesley. Knowing that Wesley had contributed to Brown's lost album I asked him about it and got to thinking that there could be a story in there somewhere.

I emailed a music magazine contact, who said they were interested in a piece about the album, so I set about researching it. I contacted and interviewed everybody I could who was involved in the recording - songwriters, session musicians, core band members, backing vocalists, studio engineers, managers and more. Then I got back in touch with my music magazine source and was discovered that they had lost interest in the project. Saddled with tens of thousands of words' worth of interview transcripts, a hefty transatlantic phonebill and no outlet, my research began gathering dust.

By early 2009 I had decided that if nobody else had the imagination to publish the article, I would do it myself. I believed in the piece. I knew it was a good story and I knew it was significant; Brown is widely considered to be the most influential musician of the 20th century and my research documented a significant milestone in his recording career; his final work. I set about whittling my interview material into a coherent piece - James Brown: The Lost Album - and published it in my own magazine; JIVE.

JIVE launched in May 2009. A one-off publication, I saw it as a reduced prototype for a British answer to VIBE or Wax Poetics, covering the areas of black music ignored by the UK's mainstream music press. With Brown as its cover star, the magazine also boasted in-depth interviews with rapper Sway DaSafo and calypso legend Eddy Grant, as well as an advance preview of Zaire '74 documentary 'Soul Power' and a candid chat with jazz stalwart Digby Fairweather, who mused on why musicians so frequently fall victim to addiction and detailed his own battle with the booze.

The magazine launch was attended by none other than the legendary, Grammy Award winning music writer Cliff White, with whom I chatted at length about his memories of James Brown, George Clinton, Bernie Worrell and others.

Creatively, the magazine was a success (apart from a few typos, inexplicably undetected by the countless spellchecks I carried out - curse you, Adobe InDesign!!). Financially, however, was another story.

The magazine, like the Brown article, was a labour of love. I conducted all of the interviews, I wrote all of the articles and I undertook the vast majority of the design work. I even included some of my own photography. However, I also footed the printing costs. The magazine was distributed for free apart from a handful sold over the internet, meaning that I made a net loss somewhere in the region of £900.

Taking home a prestigious Guardian Award for my James Brown article went a long way towards cushioning the blow of the £900 deficit. I had felt disheartened when I couldn't place the James Brown piece. At the time I had felt angry that the article was overlooked - that nobody saw the same potential in the story as I did. When members of the Guardian judging panel told me it was possibly the best piece they'd ever seen, I felt vindicated in my decision to pour so much time, effort and money into researching and publishing it. I had always believed in it and it was nice to know that I wasn't the only one.

In spite of Michael Jackson's passing, 2009 was a good year for live music. A mid-summer evening spent in the company of BB King was a highlight. The aging blues man's vocals and guitar work don't betray his age whatsoever; his rendition of 'Thrill Is Gone' sounded no different to the original 1970 recording. At 83 (now 84) he seemed to have years left in him.

October offered a double helping of Motown magic. First, Gladys Knight enchanted Wembley Arena, ably supported by Tito Jackson. The pair played to an audience which included Jackson family matriarch Katherine and British pop sensation Boy George. Tito Jackson and his Bowler Boys delivered funky renditions of Jacksons classics such as Dancing Machine, Shake Your Body and This Place Hotel. Gladys Knight's followed with a plethora of hits including a gutsy delivery on Licence to Kill, performed to a backdrop of Bond title-esque flames.

Three weeks later Smokey Robinson breezed into town for the BBC's Electric Proms. I watched from the front row of the Roundhouse's standing pit as Smokey crooned his way through hits from his own back catalogue as well as songs he penned for other acts, such as the Temptations' Get Ready and My Girl. Like Ms Knight, Smokey remains on fantastic vocal form and his unique performance style sucks the audience in. During ballads such as 'Ohh Baby Baby' and 'Tracks of My Tears' Robinson paced the stage, holding eye contact with what seemed like each individual member of the front row at one time or another. As his piercing blue eyes lock onto your own, he holds you captive and his syrupy falsetto digs deep into your soul.

Smokey Robinson performs at the Camden Roundhouse

November saw a roster of Motown legends perform a week of engagements in London. Described by the Jazz Cafe's Chris Steele as 'a week of real Motown, true Motown', the line-up included several significant figures from Motown history; Mable John - the first female act signed to Motown, Chris Clark - the first white artist signed to Motown, and Thelma Houston, the first Motown artist to win a Grammy.

Supporting the line-up was none other than Jack Ashford, the legendary percussionist and last surviving member of the original Motown Rhythm Section. I interviewed Jack in January 2008 for Wax Poetics and we have remained in touch. He kindly invited me backstage during rehearsals for the Hammersmith Apollo DVD recording. As it turned out, backstage meant onstage. My friend Angela stood to the side of the stage as we watched the Supremes rehearse their set before they were joined by Mabel John, Thelma Houston, Chris Clark and Brenda Holloway. Then we watched Jack put his Funk Brothers through their paces as they rehearsed songs including Dancing In The Street.

Jack Ashford conducts his Funk Brothers during a rehearsal

Afterwards, we joined Jack in his dressing room as he was interviewed for the DVD extras and chatted with him briefly before making our way to the auditorium and taking our seats. For Motown enthusiasts there was much to enjoy; Mabel John looked and sounded sprightly at 79 as she prowled the stage during hits such as 'Same Time, Same Place', 'Able Mable' and 'Who Wouldn't Love A Man Like That'. Thelma Houston's performance of 'Don't Leave Me This Way' got the whole auditorium on its feet and Scherrie Payne's vocal performance on Supremes hit 'Stoned Love' ellicited a huge response.

I had intended to round off my live music year with Chuck Berry, but his tour was cancelled at the last minute. The official reason was that there wasn't enough preparation time, but the tour had been scheduled for months. I hear that the cancellation was actually due to a problem with the promoters.

While 2009 may have been a great year for live music, it wasn't such a great year for film. Highlights were few and far between. Much praise was heaped upon Michael Jackson's This Is It but while it was enjoyable and Jackson did seem to be on good form, the film is inherently untrustworthy. When I saw it I noticed immediately that old vocals had been dubbed into the film. The filmmakers had used obscure vocals in a bid to trick fans - for instance, using Jackson's 1991 demo version of Earth Song instead of the 1995 album track, and using a 1982 demo of Billie Jean instead of the version we all know and love. But it was dubbed nonetheless, a fact to which Sony admitted once the Sun hired audio experts to prove it.

This year's best music flick was actually 'Soul Power', Jeffrey Levy-Hinte's dazzling verite docmentary composed entirely of original footage from the Zaire '74 music festival, organised to coincide with Muhammad Ali's Rumble in the Jungle. Featuring stunning performances by artists including Bill Withers, BB King, James Brown, the Spinners and Miriam Makeba at the height of their powers, the film transports you back to 1974 and viewing it on a big screen almost felt like you were there watching it live. The film serves as a stark reminder of what soul and talent truly mean and proved a glorious antidote to today's depressing music scene.

My JIVE interview with Soul Power director Jeffrey Levy-Hinte

I was fortunate this year to find myself in possession of two tickets to the London premiere of 'The Men Who Stare at Goats', where I repeatedly walked past George Clooney but was more excited by the free popcorn and chocolate bar that awaited me in my seat. Despite a fairly poor critical reception I thought the film was solid. Brilliantly acted by a dream cast including Kevin Spacey and Jeff Bridges, the film was adapted by Jon Ronson's hilarious non-fiction book about the US Army's long obsession with teachng soldiers to harness psychic ability. Although not entirely faithful to Ronson's source material, Peter Straughan did a good job of weaving Ronson's research into a more linear narrative and I didn't feel the film was deserving of the harsh reviews that it received.

2009 will be most remembered for two major world events - the inauguration of America's first black president and the death of its biggest superstar. On a personal level, 2009 has been a good year. It hasn't been without its disappointments but on the whole it has been positive.

My new year's resolution? To make 2010 even better.

FBI File Reveals Attempt to Convict Jackson with Racist Law

Documents contained in Michael Jackson's FBI file show that the LAPD tried to prosecute the star under the same legislation used in the past to smear black luminaries such as Jack Johnson and Chuck Berry.

Records show that the LAPD contacted the FBI on 7th September 1993 to ask whether the bureau would assist in the prosecution of Michael Jackson under the Mann Act.

The Mann Act, also known as the 'White Slavery Act', was introduced in 1910. Allowing officers to make arrests on the vague premise of 'immoral behaviour', the law was frequently used to smear black men, particularly those who consorted with white women.

Jack Johnson, the world's first black Heavyweight Boxing Champion, was the first person to be prosecuted under the act. In fact, Geoffrey C Ward writes in his book 'Unforgivable Blackness' that the potential to smear Johnson had been one of the primary motivating factors behind the introduction of the law.

Johnson was viewed by the press and the establishment as a black man who didn't know his place. Not only was Johnson a black world champion more than 50 years before segregation was lifted, but he flaunted his success in a society which demanded that he be humble. He wore expensive clothes and jewellery and invested his money in a fleet of luxurious automobiles, a hobby for which he was repeatedly punished by white policemen who issued him with undeserved speeding tickets.

But what riled the establishment more than anything was that Johnson consorted with white women. Johnson was often accompanied on his travels by prostitutes, but so were the majority of his white contemporaries.
In 1913 Johnson was prosecuted under the Mann Act for 'transporting a female across the state line for immoral purposes'. None of his white contemporaries who also travelled with prostitutes were arrested or charged with similar crimes.

Johnson's alleged victims had travelled with him willingly and admitted it under oath. Moreover, the trips in question had taken place long before the Mann Act was even introduced. However, an all white jury convicted him regardless.

Years later the Mann Act was also used to sabotage the career of black musician Chuck Berry.
In 1959 Berry met a 14 year old waitress in El Paso and asked her to work as a hat-check girl in his restaurant. The girl agreed and he drove her from El Paso to St Louis on his way back from a concert.

On this flimsy premise Berry was arrested for 'transporting an underage girl for immoral purposes'. He was convicted under the Mann Act and sentenced to three years in prison.

In the same year Berry's white copycat Elvis Presley began openly dating Priscilla Beaulieu, a 14 year old girl. Furthermore, Scotty Moore's biography of Presley asserts that prior to his involvement with Beaulieu, the star had been dating an even younger girl.

Ergo, in 1913 the Mann Act was used to convict a black boxer whose only 'crime' was to indulge in the same behaviour as his white contemporaries. Later, In 1959, the Mann Act was used to prosecute a black musician for giving a job to an underage girl, while his white contemporary repeatedly slept with underage girls and went unpunished.

The Mann Act is an inherently racist law. Whilst it has not been used solely to prosecute African-Americans, the potential imprisonment of Jack Johnson was a primary motivating factor behind its introduction and since then it has been repeatedly used to convict black men of crimes that they didn't commit.

That Jackson was also targeted under the Mann Act is certainly intriguing and could be seen to strengthen the argument that he was targeted by a malicious prosecution on account of his race. Devastatingly, it suggests that for all America's superficial changes, little has changed since the days of Jack Johnson. Of course, the US Attorney's decision not to prosecute Jackson under the Mann Act could be seen as a sign of progress, but the LAPD's decision to pursue Jackson in the first place - given the sheer abundance of evidence suggesting his innocence - remains disturbing.

That Jackson wasn't railroaded when he eventually entered the courtroom indicates at least some progress. That said, the fact that the 2003 allegations against Jackson even made it into a courtroom was proof in itself that Jackson was given a bum rap - the allegations were nonsensical and his accusers were proven con artists. But while Johnson and Berry were convicted, Jackson's jury at least made the right decision.

In Jackson's case it was only the media which tarred him as guilty.

Saturday 2 January 2010

FBI Files Support Jackson's Innocence; Media Reports Otherwise

I should begin by saying that the release of Michael Jackson's FBI file was not motivated by any desire to damage his legacy or smear his name. Many of Jackson's fans are understandably distrustful of the establishment which repeatedly pursued the star on trumped up charges, but the release of Jackson's FBI file is no conspiracy. Jackson's file was requested under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and I was one of those who requested it.

The FOIA allows members of the public to request classified or unattainable information held by any public body. The act is designed to uphold democracy by allowing citizens to scrutinise anything from local government budget reports to dossiers on UFO sightings. Requests can only be turned down for a handful of reasons, including privacy issues and national security.

When I requested Michael Jackson's FBI file, I wasn't even sure he had one. If he did, I had no idea what I would find in it. In Sammy Davis Jr's I found nothing but countless investigations into death threats sent to the singer. In James Brown's, however, I found an explosive re-telling of his infamous 1988 'car chase', which showed the authorities in a very poor light and contained numerous accusations of police brutality.

The FBI released roughly 300 pages on Jackson, constituting less than half of his overall file. The reason behind the withholding of the other half is yet to be made public, but it most likely consists of information on Jackson's dealings with still living figures of interest to the bureau - civil rights activists like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, and the various Middle Eastern businessmen and royals Michael Jackson befriended.

The released half of Jackson's FBI file supports the star's innocence entirely. Perhaps most notably, a lengthy report shows that when Jackson's Neverland Ranch was raided in 2003, the FBI went over every computer seized from the property with a fine toothcomb looking for any incriminating files or internet activity. Jackson's file contained individual summaries of the FBI's findings for each of the 16 computers. Scrawled in capital letters across each of those 16 reports - 'NOTHING'.

But not many media outlets included that nugget. In fact, numerous outlets - including the Daily Mail - inaccurately reported that the file did not include the bureau's findings.

On a more general level, the files reveal that it was not only the Los Angeles Police force which pursued Jackson for more than a decade and failed to produce one iota of information to connect the star to any crime - it was the FBI too. That Jackson's life was dissected and his bevahiour was investigated for more than 10 years by two major law enforcement agencies and not one piece of evidence was ever produced to indicate his guilt speaks volumes.

On the whole, the media didn't quite tell it that way, though.

The FBI file included numerous allegations reported to the bureau which, of course, the media at large bogusly reported as the bureau's own findings. So here is a breakdown of what the media told you existed in Jackson's FBI file, and what the file actually contained.

MYTH: Michael Jackson was investigated for possession of child pornography.

FACT: The FBI file includes analysis conducted on a videotape 'connected to Jackson' in order to ascertain whether or not it included child pornography. Some media outlets erroneously claimed that the tape had been seized from Neverland. In fact, the tape was seized by customs at West Palm Beach and there is no indication that it ever belonged to Jackson. The file states only that the tape was 'connected with Jackson' and the connection appears solely to be that the programme recorded onto the cassette had Jackson's name in the title.

The FBI file does not contain any indication that the tape included child pornography at all and certainly does not contain any indication that the tape was ever in the possession of Michael Jackson.

But that's not a particularly media-friendly story; a videotape that didn't belong to Michael Jackson was analyzed and didn't have child porn on it. So the media told their own story instead, working on the assumption that nobody would read the files to verify the facts for themselves.

MYTH: The FBI file reveals that Jackson was investigated in 1985 for molesting two Mexican boys.

FACT: An FBI officer recorded an allegation that the bureau had previously investigated Jackson in 1985 for the molestation of two Mexican boys. This allegation was made by an unnamed writer who said the story had been told to him during research for a book. The FBI searched its records and could find no evidence that any such allegation had ever been reported to them:

... but the majority of media outlets failed to mention this important fact. A simple oversight, I'm sure...

MYTH: The FBI found a couple in the Phillippines who witnessed acts of molestation at Neverland.

FACT: This couple - Mark and Faye Quindoy - had worked at Jackson's Neverland Ranch between 1989 and 1991, but left in a dispute over pay. Between 1991 and 1993 neither ever made any complaint that Jackson behaved inappropriately around any child. However, after the 1993 allegations broke, the Quindoys began selling interviews about Jackson's alleged improper behaviour.

The pair's claims were suspect from the outset. They had left Neverland in 1991 in a pay dispute but were now telling tabloids that the reason behind their departure was that they were appalled by Jackson's behaviour around children - a provable fiction. Besides, if they had been so shocked and appalled by Jackson's behaviour, why had they not contacted the authorities?

Mark Quindoy's story changed repeatedly; the more money he was paid for his story, the more appalling the alleged molestation became. The prosecutors in the 1993 Jackson case sent two officers to Manila to interview the couple, but the officers concluded that 'their testimony was worthless and the credibility of their claims was highly questionable'.

MYTH: The FBI found that Jackson had engaged in phone sex with a British boy.

FACT: This story comes courtesy of The Sun.

The FBI file briefly references a newspaper story in which a man called Terry George claimed that Jackson, aged 19, had engaged in phonesex with him when he was just 13.

The Sun was rather proud that this story was referenced in the FBI file because it was the Sun which published it in the first place. As such, the newspaper was quick to toot its own horn with an 'FBI investigates Jackson over Sun's investigation' type fanfare.

In fact, the FBI did not investigate the claim and to date no evidence has been produced to support Terry George's story.

In its story about the FBI file, the Sun repeatedly referred to the phonecall between Jackson and Terry George as a matter of fact, even though no evidence has ever been produced to prove that the conversation ever took place.

George is a man of dubious character to say the least, currently owning a string of smutty phonesex companies. His story doesn't seem to add up, either. Despite Jackson's supposed inappropriate behaviour, George's website carries a photograph of himself with the star more than five years after the phonecall allegedly happened. The two still look like firm friends.

In subsequent interviews George has described how he lost touch with Jackson and resorted to behaviour which could be described as stalking - calling the Jackson all the time, hanging around outside his hotels, trying to bluff his way past Jackson's security. More than anything, George's interview with the Sun seemed like an act of jealous revenge by an embittered former acquaintance. Either way, the FBI found no merit to George's claim.