MICHEL MARTIN, Host:
Michael Jackson was not just an American musical sensation. He was a global superstar. For that perspective, we turn to NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton. She's in Dakar, the capital of Senegal, and it was Michael Jackson's first destination in Africa in 1974 as a lead singer of the Jackson 5. He was just 14 years old. Ofeibea, thank you so much for joining us.
OFEIBEA QUIST: Always a pleasure, even for the - on this sad occasion.
MARTIN: Is it a sad occasion there? How is Senegal, how is Africa, responding to this news?
QUIST: Michel, Michael Jackson was huge on this continent. Don't forget that Africa is a continent where everybody dances and everybody sings, and many people do both well. So he was a hero. And, my, he was such a consummate professional who was such an incredible entertainer. People know Michael Jackson's music. They know the Jackson 5's music. They know how to sing things like "I Want You Back" and so on.
Michael Jackson was a big, big star on this continent. As you say, his first trip was as a wee boy, a teenager, back in 1974 when he came to Senegal with the Jackson 5. And you know, I'm looking at old video and YouTube, Michel, and there is Michael Jackson getting down from the plane with his little, little voice, and the Senegalese are drumming and dancing. The first thing Michael Jackson does is to dance with them, following those steps. And the Senegalese, I can tell you, can dance as well as Michael Jackson, even though their steps may not be as intricate.
MARTIN: This is where I come from. So there is huge sorrow here in Senegal and sorrow on the continent that Michael Jackson is gone at age 50 - so young.
MARTIN: The converse here, of course, follows along two tracks. On the one hand, there's a recognition of his incredible musical ability. On the other hand, he became a very controversial figure, as you know, in recent years with his charges of this child molestation charges, from which he was acquitted, and in some of his personal behavior, his eccentricities. When you talk to people about these issues, which side of Michael Jackson was most prominent? And I understand that you were able to get some voices on this.
QUIST: Michel, you have people in Africa all over - I mean, from east to west, north to south - who viewed Michael Jackson in both those categories.
It's true that Africa wasn't shielded from the controversy and especially from the fact that this hero, this musical hero, was alleged to have molested children, although, of course, he was cleared on all those charges.
So there are Africans who say he was a strange man. And I think even more so, it's those who say why did he change his skin color? And why did he have to straighten his nose? That he was a beautiful, black boy and a beautiful, black man. Listen.
MARTIN: I think it's the death of, as they called him, the king of pop. I mean, it's the death of an icon. It's quite a big event. I mean, he's a star. He's imagined - you know, he's redefined pop music over the last 20, 30 years.
QUIST: And, of course, most people in Africa, Michel, I think are just feeling sorrowful, sad and mourning the passing of Michael Jackson. I mean, listen to this woman in Accra, Ghana. As soon as she heard the news, she started weeping.
(SOUNDBITE OF CRYING)
Unidentified Woman #1: I'm shocked. It's true? You lie to me. (unintelligible).
Unidentified Woman #2: It's not true.
QUIST: And in Kenya, women and men plainly sad that Michael Jackson has gone so early. So I think he will be remembered with great respect in Africa. And let me just chip in here, Michel. I actually met Michael Jackson, a man who shared the same month of birth and year of birth. We were both born in August, 1958, going on 51. I met him in Ivory Coast back in 1992, just the once.
MARTIN: Well, please tell us more about that.
QUIST: It was quite extraordinary. I think Michael Jackson, the troubled soul, had already begun. He arrived in Ivory Coast, and there was everyone from all over, government ministers, waiting for him to come down the plane stairs.
If I remember rightly, I think he did wave, perhaps, at the top of the plane. Then he held his nose, and he raced down the steps of the plane, passed all of the government ministers waiting to greet him, ran into one of these limousines, and shocking to tell, and I mean, everybody (unintelligible) with their mouths open. Was that Michael Jackson? Is that Michael Jackson? Why is he behaving so strangely?
So I think people in Ivory Coast were hugely disappointed, although we did get to ask him one question.
MARTIN: Oh, and what was that?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
QUIST: In this huge limousine, somebody must have slipped the window down, and I stuck in my microphone super quickly, and I said look, hey, I've been a Jackson 5 fan since I was, what, 12 years old. I've got to get one question in to Michael Jackson. So I said to him: Michael Jackson, how's your trip to Africa? How's your trip to Ivory Coast - in the hope that he would reply, and he did.
MARTIN: Beautiful. I love it.
So we got, what, four or five words out of Michael Jackson. He was invited to Ivory Coast to have an honor bestowed upon him, to become a traditional chief.
Now the pictures were gorgeous. He was traditional (unintelligible), kinte(ph) cloth with its beautiful, radiant colors. And so he looked good. But I think a lot of fans and a lot of journalists and a lot of Ivoirians and a lot of officials were a little disappointed that he cloistered himself up in the 15th- or-whatever floor of this five-star hotel and seemed to keep away from Africans, almost as if he were scared of us. It showed the troubled side of Michael Jackson, and I think that really disturbed many Africans.
MARTIN: Given that you have seen both sides of this man and that Africa has seen both sides of this man, what do you think the lasting legacy of Michael Jackson will be in Africa?
QUIST: I think it's his music that is going to be his lasting legacy. It's his music that the young people of Africa, those who may not know the controversies and so on, are going to live with. His music is still played on this continent, and that's what those who come after us are going to remember. And those of us of his age group, that is what we will really remember, the fact that this man was such a musical genius.
MARTIN: NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is in Dakar, the capital of Senegal. Ofeibea, thank you so much for joining us.
QUIST: Always a pleasure.