Tuesday 19 March 2019

Brendan O'Connor: 'How 'the King of Pop' groomed the world like a paedophile priest'

For Michael Jackson to operate like he did - in plain sight - required massive complicity from the whole world

Michael Jackson. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Michael Jackson. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

When Barry Hankerson introduced his 12-year-old niece Aaliyah to R Kelly, Kelly was a rising R'n'B star, famous for raunchy performances and songs like Bump n' Grind and Sex Me.

Hankerson had been an associate of Kelly for some time at this point and it's hard to imagine he was not aware of the rumours surrounding Kelly and young girls. Aaliyah had a great voice and Kelly became her mentor. Kelly was the sole songwriter and producer credited on Aaliyah's debut album. The pair spent a lot of time together, and Aaliyah explained that they would go bowling and things like that so that Kelly could get a feel for the concerns of a girl her age, in order for him to write her lyrics.

Aaliyah's album, released when she was 15, was called Age Ain't Nothing But a Number. The title track was a song about a young girl entreating an older man to 'be brave' and 'go all the way' with her. Kelly would seemingly attempt to prove that age was nothing but a number when the then 27-year-old married Aaliyah when she was just 15. One of Kelly's sidekicks, Demetrius Smith, helped Aaliyah to forge documents to show she was 18. Smith kind of smiled inappropriately but in a slightly bewildered way in the documentary Surviving R Kelly, when he recalled "Rob" saying "I do", that day. Smith says he feels bad now about his enabling of Kelly, and so he should.

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One of the things that strikes you most watching the R Kelly documentary is how many people have to co-operate for a sicko like Kelly to thrive and to keep doing what he did. Kelly would go on to become somewhat of a monster. His career would be dogged with incidents and allegations regarding underage girls. He was once charged over a video involving him having sex with and then urinating on an underage girl.

Kelly denied it was him in the video and the victim would not testify. Kelly was recently indicted on 10 charges of abuse involving four different victims, at least three of whom were underage. In recent years, it seems that Kelly was basically running a kind of sex cult where women were brainwashed and kept under his control, having to beg to be allowed to eat and go to the bathroom. Extraordinarily, the sex cult story is still unfolding, with two families currently claiming their daughters are effectively brainwashed prisoners of Kelly.

But until recently none of this stopped Kelly from continuing his successful career. Associates, sidekicks, record companies, other artists who worked with him, all turned a blind eye or decided not to believe the stories about Kelly. The naivete of Aaliyah's uncle would be nothing next to the cynicism of the hundreds of people who would collude with Kelly over the next few decades.

One of the artists with whom Kelly collaborated was Michael Jackson, for whom he wrote the song You are not Alone. Unlike Kelly, Jackson is no longer with us, but his memory is kept alive, both by those who say he raped them repeatedly as children under the guise of expressing love, and by his fans, who continue to deny the accusations about Jackson and to attack his victims.

The attitude in some corners to Wade Robson and James Safechuck, who told in great detail about their abuse at the hands of Jackson in last week's Leaving Neverland documentary, has been seriously out of tune with the whole "I believe her" moment we're supposed to be having. The two men have been portrayed by Jackson fans as liars and gold diggers. It possibly doesn't help that their stories are nuanced and complicated. Like Aaliyah, Safechuck and Robson were delivered up to Jackson by their families, their mothers really, with Robson's mother basically moving the family from Australia to LA to get Wade closer to Jackson.

Watching them speak, it was hard not to judge the mothers. Despite everything that subsequently happened, Stephanie Safechuck seems to still enjoy bragging about how close the family were to Jackson, and she reminisces happily about the lifestyle they enjoyed of first class flights and suites in hotels, even if getting a better suite meant you had to be further away from the room where your son was ensconced with Jackson.

Joy Robson, having spent just one weekend in Neverland with the popstar, then headed off to the Grand Canyon and left her seven-year-old child alone with Jackson. And remember, there were no mobile phones back then, so basically, as Wade Robson points out, his family had no way of directly contacting him.

"Standard instincts and judgment seemed to go right out the window," was Wade Robson's pithy summing up of the situation. No one in their right mind would dream of leaving their seven-year-old in the custody of a weird man they had known for a weekend. But Mrs Robson did. Why? Because Michael Jackson was a celebrity. And in the way that society once deferred to priests, putting them on pedestals and letting standard instincts go out the window, we can tend to do the same with celebrities.

The excitement of both mothers in Leaving Neverland about how Jackson had chosen their families, and would come to their houses and wanted to be friends with them, would remind you of how privileged families felt in this country in the past when the priest came to their house or cultivated their family above others.

But it was hard to judge either the boys or the mothers too harshly. Jackson didn't just groom these two boys, he also groomed the parents in the way that many clerical abusers did, using his position to build trust so that judgement went out the window.

The boys were not just groomed but, as Oprah Winfrey characterises it, seduced too - and it was striking how both were convinced they were head over heels in love, both basically seeming to have come to regard Jackson as their life partner and sexual partner. At the time, they were more upset when Jackson's attention moved on to other boys than they were about the abuse itself. Wade Robson recounted how, when Jackson went into a bathroom at Neverland with a new victim, he felt usurped - because Wade knew what was happening in there, and "I used to be the boy who was in the bathroom with him".

Part of the reason that Robson was blind to how wrong and twisted all this was because, before he ever met him, Michael Jackson was his God. He was blinded by the light and the power of celebrity.

The mothers were blinded by celebrity too, and by the power of this particular celebrity to change people's lives, just as Aaliyah's uncle was presumably blinded by his belief that R Kelly would change Aaliyah's life, and possibly that of her family.

But who are any of us to judge? Because in reality, Jackson groomed and seduced the whole world. What was perhaps most shocking about the footage of Jackson revisited in Leaving Neverland was being reminded of how the whole world was complicit in his abuse.

Michael Jackson essentially walked around, not just in public, but in the glare of the world's media, squiring different young boys at various times. They were there next to him, dressed a bit like him, and sharing his life. Jackson and his 'boyfriends' held hands and giggled and whispered to each other in a grotesque parody of a couple in love.

And the whole world watched and willingly bought into the notion peddled, that the reason Jackson liked to be friends with young boys was because he missed out on his own childhood.

Jackson hid in plainer sight than Jimmy Savile ever did. Look at him, for God's sake. His whole manner of being, his music, the way he carried on, his act, his clothing. This was not just an eccentric superstar. It was all totally weird and creepy.

There was clearly something seriously off about the whole endeavour that was Michael Jackson. But the world watched it all, him and these young boys, and blinded by celebrity, we shrugged and indulged Jackson as some kind of genius, a god.

Can we really deny any more that in the cases of R Kelly and Michael Jackson, they were enabled not just by families, not just by the people around them, not just by the industries for which they were making so much money, but by a whole world that makes special allowances for celebrity - that treats them like gods?

And in one way, that is the real cancer here, celebrity, and our obsession with it.

It is the last magic, the last fairy tale many people believe in, and it blinds and grooms us all.

If there is any lesson in all this, it is that we should not make gods of men, be they priests or celebrities, and that there is something inherently unhealthy about the construct of celebrity, for the celebrities themselves and for those who worship at their altar.

Sunday Independent

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