Saturday, March 5, 2011

What the Whole World Knows, But Doesn't

The whole world knows of Michael Jackson’s humanitarianism now that he has gone. Charities and organizations he supported during his life-time can be easily found on the internet, and it’s an impressive list. The sort of list that when looking at it triggers a twinge of guilt or shame, and the feeling that a period of self-reflection is long overdue and well in order.

Yes, the whole world now knows of Michael’s habit of giving freely without expecting anything in return, but why didn’t the media report on this while he was alive? For the most part, Michael didn’t want it publicized. It wasn’t about getting good press or photo opportunities or making himself look good. It came from his heart and he did it for love, quietly and unobtrusively without the prying eyes of the world watching.

And perhaps there was another reason he discouraged publicity surrounding his acts of love and generosity, especially toward children. The rare times was actually filmed visiting hospitals and orphanages, and at Neverland when he hosted special visits from underprivileged and sick children, it was often down-played or underscored as an act of kindness, and sometimes found questionable by those who didn’t understand, didn’t want to see it for what it was, and alluded to something far darker than his innocent and pure love for all little ones. That  left the door open then, for more sinister elements to enter Michael’s life and take advantage of him.

And those that did take advantage of his love for children, and used it for their own nefarious gain; the circumstances surrounding the situations, the gossip and innuendos fueled by the media, the resulting court case, stigmatized and branded Michael forever. It didn’t matter that he was found not guilty. In the eyes of the armchair critic’s who sat before their television sets night after night watching one man’s life ton apart, he was guilty, regardless of the verdict. Yes, he was guilty, but only of his simplistic trust in the goodness of the human heart. For this he was judged, condemned and forever remembered for the things he never was, instead for all the things he should, and deserves to be recognized for.

One man, with so much love to give, donated millions of dollars of his own hard-earned money to countless charities. He donated medical equipment to hospitals. He paid for transplants and surgeries; opened up his life and home to hundreds of kids and their families, and people gratefully accepted his kindness. They were touched, affected and changed forever through his gift of unselfish love.

Charities and organizations were grateful also.Through Michael’s generosity, their work in helping the disadvantaged, underprivileged, sick and terminally ill, was made just a little bit easier. It helped continue the humanitarianism that echoed so strongly in Michael’s heart. But hearts beating as one in an instant, in the flash of a camera, in a news broadcast, in an allegation and trial, faltered and skipped a few beats. And after the acquittal, for some it was too risky, too controversial, to pick up and unify the rhythm again.

Having Michael’s name associated with their charities became an embarrassment for some. The money had been accepted, spent wisely in most cases and used where it needed. “Very much appreciated and thank you very much Mr. Jackson for your kind donation, but….” And that is a very loud "BUT." Even now, approaching some of these charities and hospitals to ask if they will help support or sponsor new projects that will ensure Michael’s legacy continues, and also bring attention to their needs and continuing work, there is a reluctance, flat-out refusals or total silence.

And still today publishers are reluctant, if not un-willing, to print books on Michael’s life unless they are tell-all’s that focus on negativity, hearsay and gossip. So many positive and beautiful books that have been written both by Michael’s friends and his fans, have been turned away and not afforded their due, forcing authors to self-publish. Without marketing, distribution and promotion, these books do not have the range to reach a mass readership, therefore denying countless readers easy access to a better understanding and insight into the real truth about Michael.

How sad it is that this one slight man with a voice that brought even men to tears, that engaged generations in a love affair of the heart, mind and spirit, who gave so much, did so much to help others, is still seen as a pariah in society. It doesn’t say much for humankind.

So what can we do? How can we change an opinion that has been engraved upon the public’s mind through the clever manipulation of words, and that has been accepted as a truth by those willing to believe everything they read? We can continue walking the path we are on; all of us. Fans, friends and associates of Michael are all working toward the continuation of his legacy each in our own ways. We are fighting for justice, seeking the vindication of his name, paying tribute to and honoring all that he accomplished and stood for. We are trying to live his message everyday and we are showing the world by our example, the truly special gift that Michael was and still is.

Everything we say and do causes a reaction; a ripple in the universe that becomes locked in the time of that precise moment when action produces effect. Essentially, it becomes a part of history because the clock cannot be turned back. We cannot change what has been said and done. Let our words and actions become a part of Michael’s history so that when future generations read of this time, when they read of how it all began, they will see how the negativity and lies were silenced with truth, and by the roar of millions of voices speaking one language for a common good.

This video was made to honor all of Michael’s fans and friends, and all the websites both tribute and justice that are dedicated each in their own way to the continuation of Michael's legacy and the vindication of his name. Thank you all for your tireless work and love.
Valmai Owens


© Valmai Owens, 2011. All Rights Reserved.
No reproduction without permission from author.

This article appears in the publication Dot to Dot: Keeping Michael’s Legacy Alive, and its content is the property of the authors and the Michael Jackson Tribute Portrait. Articles and exclusive interviews are copyrighted; therefore there should be no republication without permission. You may email with any requests for republication. If permission is given, credit must be given to the author, Dot to Dot: Keeping Michael's Legacy Alive and the Michael Jackson Tribute Portrait.

Interview With Jonathan "Sugarfoot" Moffett

He has toured, performed and recorded with some of the best artists of our age. He is an accomplished musician, songwriter and producer with a career spanning 32 years. His unique and powerful drum technique has earned him respect and acclaim worldwide, but at heart he is humble, caring and spiritual, with a warm and funny sense of humor. He is Jonathan Moffett, and I had the pleasure in talking to him recently in an exclusive in-depth interview about his career, and his professional and personal relationship with Michael Jackson.

Transcribed by Valmai Owens 

Valmai:  Jonathan, you started playing on a marching snare drum when you six. What made you choose the drums out of all the other instruments you could play? Did you always know that you wanted to play the drums?

Jonathan:  Well, actually no. I was kind of stuck with the drums actually, to tell you honestly.
I was six years old when my father came home from work; he worked at the main Post Office in New Orleans, Louisiana. Some friends of his that worked with him, or one of his friends had sons that played music, and he got the notion that yeah, that’s great, get them into music; my kids into music, and get them off the streets and keep them out of trouble. So he decided that he needed to come home and ask us, my two brothers and me, they’re older than I am, if we wanted to play music. Being young kids we were very excited and said, “Yes, we want to play music!"

So, in my mind I immediately wanted to play guitar, or bass guitar; be up front and everything. But I was the youngest of the three so my oldest brother got the first choice, and he wound up saying, “I wanna play bass guitar.” I said, “Oh, I wanted to play that one.” In my mind I wanted to play that one, but he got first choice.
My father asked my second brother what he wanted to play. He said, “I wanna play guitar, I wanna play guitar”, and I said, “Oh man, I wanted to play that.” So I missed out again. Then my dad asked me, “Jonathan what do you want to play?” I said, “I wanna play guitar too,” so he said, “Well, we can’t have all guitarists in the family. Someone’s gonna have to play something different.” I thought, oh no, I want to play guitar. The only other thing I knew was drums, so I said, “Okay, I guess I’ll play drums,” and my father said, “Okay, you can play drums.” 

So I was stuck with drums in a way, but not knowing how much fun it would be later on until we started getting private lessons with a gentleman. He was a teacher, and he taught music in a local Elementary school. He also taught at home on Saturday nights in his spare time. My father booked him, and we would go to his house every other Saturday night and individually have lessons of one hour each.

So I got started learning drums, and after several lessons I started realizing how challenging and fun it was that when I could to learn to do something like that, it was fun to accomplish. I started to like the rhythm; playing the patterns and rhythms, and it became fun gradually.

Every birthday I would get a new part to a drum set that I would learn how to use; learn how to incorporate that into playing. I realized how challenging and exciting it was, and I started liking drums. I started to apply myself and practice every day.

By the time I was eight, nine years old, I was playing at local parties, talent shows at the school, different private things, you know. My brothers and I had a band called the Cavaliers, and we would play at local events and dances.

Then, by the time I was ten years old, they got an offer to play in a night-club. They were only like a year and a half older than I was and each of us from each other, so they’d sneak this kid, this little boy in the back door. I played the gig and fall asleep across their laps going home.  

That’s how my career basically started. I was making money and playing music from the time I was ten years old, well actually nine years old at the talent shows and block parties, but making the real money in the night-clubs at ten years old. And that’s how I got stuck with drums.

Valmai:  Well, that probably takes care of the second question because I was going to ask if you had ever taken lessons. I think you have already answered that one.

Jonathan:  Well, I had lessons in Elementary School, Junior High School and one year of Senior High School. I was in a concert band in those schools so I never had a drum set where I was taught the whole set, because when I was with the private teacher he only taught me on the snare drum; the marching snare drum. All the rest of it I learned, and listened to records of big artists who were popular in the day. I’d be fascinated, and wanted to learn that when I got my drum set. I would spend hours and hours putting the needle back; we had turntables back then, and practicing and learning it, remembering. So I taught myself, in other words.

Valmai:  Yes, in some ways you were self-taught later on.

Jonathan: Yeah, and the main thing with a full drum set, I taught myself totally. I never had one lesson. On the snare drum I had lessons at school; the rudiments.

Valmai:  Jonathan, you did your first major tour with the Jackson Family in 1979, and again in 1981, but the largest one was the Victory Tour in 1984. What was this experience like for you personally?

Jonathan:  It was absolutely magnificent because at that time there had been no tours of that magnitude. They were attempting to do something unprecedented in music and concerts. It was the biggest tour ever been done. It was absolutely incredible; the size of the staging, the size of the production. They had theatrical creatures, it was like Broadway. The opening of the show meets rock in roll, pop music, and R&B music. They had a video in the front of the show; they had all kinds of things.

They really pulled together different elements on a massive scale because it was one of the few times artists played all stadiums, so every show was at a big stadium somewhere. The show was huge, even actually too big. We couldn’t bring it over to Europe for the same cost. It was too expensive to bring to Europe or anywhere overseas because it was the magnitude of the show, it was too big. It was too expensive. We wouldn’t make any money.

So, it was very exciting to do something on a scale that hadn’t been done before; to make history doing that tour. It was very exciting, and there were a lot of elements to it. The show was really great. New albums were promoting it; the Thriller album, Off the Wall album, and the big three album from The Jackson’s, so in that one tour we promoted three albums of all great music. It was really wonderful.

Valmai:  Yes, I  wish I had had a chance to see it. I would have loved to.

Jonathan:  Well, they’re talking about releasing it on video, DVD, now. I heard a rumor; talk that they are going to release that one, and also the History Tour, which is the last one Michael did with them in '96-'97.  It was an unbelievable show!

Valmai:  I think they should. There are so many out there that would like to see it; have a copy. Jonathan, you have performed with so many incredible artists, Madonna, Stevie Wonder, Sir Elton John, to name a few. You seem to have this ability to slide into their particular genres with ease; it’s very fluid for you, but what would you classify as your genre?

Jonathan:  I think all of them were because Pop is not that far removed from R&B, and R&B is not that far removed from Funk music. I think there are just slight differences in the feel of the music that distinguish them from one another. I don’t think there is a broad difference like there is for instance between Pop and straight-ahead Jazz. That’s a broad, broad difference, but those are things that I do.

I do smooth jazz as well, which is basically a jazz version of Pop. I’m basically the same with all. I just adjust my touch,  my approach, my attitude and the feel and the emotion of it just a little bit for the different category or classification, meaning the class we call Pop, Rock, R&B.

Rock is different. It’s high energy and it’s a different emotional feel. It’s more aggressive. Of course I play aggressively with everything, but Rock has a more of an animalistic type feel to it. It’s real aggression. I play with a lot of energy on all of them, and I think that’s what people and artists look for because it brings power and authority to the show. It’s just the way I mix playing Rock music’s energy with Pop and R&B and Funk. I use the same intensity and energy of Rock, power wise when I hit the drums, as I do when I play R&B, Pop or Rhythm and Blues.

So that’s my sort of “speak.” My language and approach to drumming is to play it with a lot of hearty articulation and power. I think it suggests to the audiences in a greater, more dynamic way and artists that I work with like that.

Valmai:  What drummers are your mentors or that you admire the most?  If you had the opportunity play with anyone just for fun, who would it be?

Jonathan:  Okay, going back. I like Buddy Rich. I studied from Buddy Rich. Louis Bellson, I studied from him. A little bit of Tony Williams. Billy Cobham was a big, big influence on me and James Brown. They were some of the earliest and influential to me in my playing style and career. They still show today. Clyde Stubblefield, Jab’o Starks and Melvin Parker are the three main guys. There were other guys, but they are the three main ones from James Browns drummers and bands.

This home-boy of mine, Joseph Zigaboo Modeliste; he’s a drummer for a group called the Meters, The Funky Meters out of New Orleans where I’m from. He was like my first hero because we’re both from New Orleans. His band; it was just an amazing, amazing band. Zigaboo basically wrote and created his own language on drums that is very hard to do. I mean I can play it because I’m from there and I studied him so deeply, but most people can’t play that music because Zigaboo originated the style of the drumming that he does. It’s totally free-form, and the swing on it and the way he mixes the rhythm up is unmatched. He’s influenced a lot of top drummers today, of course me included. He was my first hero. Then I got into the James Brown drummers.

David Garibaldi from Tower of Power had a huge influence on me, but he studied Zigaboo Modeliste, so Modeliste was his hero also. He took what Zigaboo did, and created his own Oakland style and feel to it with the Tower of Power music. So, David Garibaldi was a hero of mine.

Bobby Colomby from Blood, Sweat and Tears, Danny Seraphine from Chicago were a big, big influence on me. I learned all of their styles. Sandy McKee is a little known drummer out of the Oakland area, and he was with an original band called Cold Blood. An amazing band. They were like another Tower of Power and their styles were very, very similar. Sandy’s style was very similar to David Garibaldi. He was an incredible drummer; a little talked about, a little known. That’s why I try to give him as much publicity as I can because he was a big influence on me as well.

Buddy Miles was a big influence on me as well: Lenny White, Harvey Mason. Ringo Starr had a simplistic style, a very simple style, but it was effective and appropriate for the Beatle’s music which I was a big Beatle’s fan. There are a lot of other drummers. Carmine Appice, and there’s a lot of Rock drummers as well. John Bonham, I can’t miss him…I could go on and on listing the drummers I’ve been influenced by…Freddy White from Earth, Wind and Fire is another one. James “Diamond” Williams, from the Ohio Players was a big influence on me. I loved his playing. It was amazing! It’s a long, long laundry list.

Valmai:  But out of all them, if you could play with just one for fun, who would it be?

Jonathan:  That I haven’t played with as yet, I would have to say Prince. I always knew from the first time hearing Prince that he was a genius. I knew he was an unbelievable guitarist, songwriter and artist; his artistry was beyond most. I knew that he would be an incredible artist and that he would do something beyond what most artists do. My buddy’s a drummer for him, John Blackwell. He’s a good friend of mine and Prince’s drummer, and not to take his game, I have always wanted to play with Prince at one point or another.

Prince would see me with the Jackson’s. He’s seen me with Cameo and some other artists; Sir Elton John, George Michael, Madonna. Each time he would see me after the show at the after party, he would acknowledge me as he walked past. He’d nod his head, smile and he’d say, “That was bad, you’re bad,” It was a compliment. He wouldn’t say much. He’s a man of few words. I would shake his hand and he would shake my hand with a smile and say,” You totally drummed up.” So I’ve always wanted to work with him.

Valmai:  Can you tell us your most memorable moment on stage during a concert; one moment that stands out for you from all the others?

Jonathan:  Well, there are really too many moments to choose from. It’s hard to choose one. There are some incredible moments all through my career if you name the artists I’ve worked with. I mean, you can imagine there have been some phenomenal moments that I’ve had with those artists. There’s not a single one. With certain artists there’s more. Like with Michael there are some great ones. With Madonna there was some incredible ones. With Elton John, there were some amazing moments where he had so much energy and intensity in the show he was doing playing solo wise; playing solo piano. It’s hard to say there’s one particular moment.

I think each artist had magic, and certain shows it’s like sometimes it just happens; something incredible just happens that’s different from any other show. In other words with that question, it’s hard for me to pinpoint. I can’t say,” I know this time.” I can’t say, “Oh, I remember” because there is just many moments that magic happened.

Every time I saw Michael dance he would dazzle me with something I’d never seen him do before, and I always thought I’d seen everything he did. I’d watch him; I’d keep my eye on him and he’d do a spin longer than I thought was possible. He’d moonwalk faster and smoother sometimes than anytime I’d ever seen him or he was just like a machine, like Terminator, like some kind of unrealistic human being or robot, you know? I’ve seen him do some amazing, dazzling things.

Madonna’s energy is so intense. She commands a whole audience and gets them in a fever. She’s got great dance moves, and things that happened in the production of her stage show are just remarkable. Like I said, Elton’s piano playing and voice; it varies from artist to artist. It’s hard to say. I’ve just been blessed with so many magic moments; great moments. It’s hard to decide. There’s a great multitude of them for me.

Valmai:  I know you have been asked this question before because I have seen it other interviews, but one of our team members wants to know how you got the nickname “Sugarfoot.”

Jonathan:  Okay, everybody asks that one. Actually I was like twelve years old and my brothers kicked me out of their band. I got fired by my own brothers because there were certain other clubs they wanted to play in that were popular, and they wouldn’t allow a ten or eleven year old boy to come into. So they kicked me out, I got fired. But people had seen me with them, and there was a band named The Brotherhood; at the time they were named Spectrum. They changed their name later on to The Brotherhood. The leader of the band was named Curtis, and he contacted me. At that time I was despondent because of my brothers kicking me out of their band, and I said I don’t ever want to be in a band again.

So the band contacted me and said, “We want you to be the drummer; we want you to play for us. There’s an audition. Will you play for us?” I said no at first, and they kept begging me and begging me. I said, “Okay, I’ll go see, maybe play a few shows with you guys, but I’m not going to be in your band.”  They said, “Okay, okay.” So I went to their house with my drums and set them up. Then I played a few songs and they heard my drumming. I’m from New Orleans. In New Orleans a lot of the drummers play from the bottom up, and strum bottom is like that too. We play with very intricate bass drum and patterns and technique.

I really wanted to be a bass player earlier, you know, when my dad asked what instrument we wanted to play, guitar or bass guitar. So I had a tendency to listen to the bass parts. And when I’m learning a song, I learn the drum and I learn the bass parts. I learn how to do it on my bass drum technique, playing both rhythms at the same time, just thinking that’s the way I want to do it. It sounds bold, and I wanted to do it that way knowing that it would become something unusual or difficult to do.

So, at the audition I start playing with the band and they hear my bass drum [technique]. They were marveling at that and they said, “Okay, we want you to be in the band. You’re our drummer, you’re our drummer.” So I said, “Okay, I’ll play a few shows with you guys.” They said, “Okay, but to be in our band; everyone in the band has nicknames. You got to get a nickname.” So I’m thinking; I read comic books, I’ve been doing that since I was about 7 years old. I’m seeing all these super hero names and I’m thinking, oh man, I’ll be Thor or I’ll be Duke or the Ace or maybe Titan, something like that. I’m thinking of cool, cool names; powerful names because I’m a drummer.

They said, “I got it; I got it” and I said, “Okay what?” “We’re gonna call you Sugarfoot.” I said, “Sugarfoot? I don’t want to be no Sugarfoot. I’m not gonna answer to that.” It sounded corny, so I said no, I wasn’t gonna answer to that. And they said, “Oh yeah, you got that sweet foot and that’s a perfect name for you.” And I said, “I’m not answering to that. I wanna be something different, Ace or Duke.”  “No, you’re Sugarfoot.” And that came from hearing my bass drum technique. That’s what it’s based on.  I said, “No, I’m not answering to that, that’s corny. I’m not gonna do that.” They said, “No, you’re Sugarfoot. Every time we play in a show I’m gonna announce you as Sugarfoot, and everyone is gonna know you as Sugarfoot. I said, “I’m not going to acknowledge it.” So sure enough on every gig, they would announce me as Sugarfoot and I would turn my head to the side like I’m ignoring them, and people would start clapping.  

I was walking in downtown New Orleans, and people way across the street who had seen me in the show at clubs would say, “Hey Sugarfoot, hey Sugarfoot.” I would hear it, turn my head and pretend I was looking in a store window shopping because I wasn’t answering to that. Then I realized at one point, ‘You know what, everybody knows Sugarfoot, but nobody knows Jonathan Moffett. They’re not even going to call you Jonathan Moffett. Well I gotta answer to Sugarfoot I guess.’

I didn’t want to, but it was forced on me. So I started acknowledging Sugarfoot not really liking it, and that’s how the name started sticking because when I left that band, I got with another band. They knew Sugarfoot from me playing with the other band, and so forth, and from band to band it spread around. And even out here to California. Before I came out here, we had a singer that stayed out here from New Orleans that took tapes, and Jermaine Jackson heard me on the tape.  He said who’s this drummer? And they said Sugarfoot. So my name preceded me out here. And I had to start acknowledging it, but I always wanted to be Thor though.

Valmai:  And the name has stuck with you because that’s who you are known by, all through the years.

Jonathan:  Yeah, and it’s not sexy or nothing. I wanted a sexy cool name. Sugarfoot? What is that? I don’t want to answer to that!  But I wound up having to answer to it in the magazines, in the newspapers everywhere, on videos. But oh man, why I couldn’t be Ace or like John Wayne, The Duke, or Titan, or especially Thor the comic book character. So that’s how I got the name and it stuck. It’s still with me after 33 years.

Valmai:  Yes, it is, it is…if you do a Google search on you it comes up Sugarfoot; Jonathan “Sugarfoot” Moffett.

Jonathan:  I know I hate it… (Laugh) But people say it’s catchy, “We like it; we love it.” Alright, alright, I guess I’m Sugarfoot, I don’t wanna be it, but I guess I will be it.

Valmai:  No, I think you have to go with the majority on that one I think. (Laugh)

Jonathan:  Yeah, but I’d rather be Thor or Man of Power or something you know? (Laugh)

Valmai:  Jonathan, I’d like to ask you a few questions about Michael now. You worked with him for many years after he became a solo artist. What was it like to tour with him? Are there any experiences you are able to share perhaps, that were funny or poignant or that stand out above all the rest?

Jonathan:  I have to say that working with Michael was amazing, absolutely amazing! That’s no overuse of the term and the word because he was such a genius; beyond the word genius a lot of times. Michael was a true genius. His gifts and his talents, his dancing and singing just denoted that he was a genius, you know? Everybody all over the world was in love with him. His sound and his moves, his image, his nature, I mean, he was just truly, truly gifted and blessed.

Working with him, and watching and learning from him, from a genius, lifts your abilities up, your vision, your view, your capabilities and possibilities. It was brilliant for me having the opportunity to work with Michael. I learned a tremendous amount from him; working with him on how to do things the right way, on perfection, on the meticulous, on dynamic’s and on being bigger than life. That was one term he always loved to use, “It’s gotta be bigger than life, and to make such an impression on people they will never forget it for the rest of their lives.” So working with Michael was just phenomenal.

To watch him dance at each concert was like me looking for a new planet; a new galaxy and discovering it because every time you think you know all of his moves, as I mentioned earlier, he does something that just dazzles you. And I’m back there; I’m supposed to be working, but I’m back there screaming and shouting, “Go Michael!” I’m like the fan on the other side of stage, but it was so amazing when he did something so totally, totally stunning. Every night I looked forward to that.

And his voice was just so remarkable and emotional and passionate, way beyond most people. There are very few singers who have such great passion and emotion, Stevie being one of them, but there’s a very, very limited amount of artists that can evoke such emotion. That, coupled with the dance, coupled with the imagery and his vision that he brings into concert, it’s just unparalleled. And the greatest of technology in his shows, his vision and creativity as you see in This Is It, how to put together a show and how to make things beyond belief so to speak, Michael had that. I learned a great deal from him and working with him was one of the greatest treasures. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life and career to work with the absolute best in the world. It was just amazing. I learned a lot in putting together a show and performances and theatrics and stuff.

But, one of the special moments can be found on one DVD. I think it’s on You Tube. We were in Germany filming for a live broadcast, and during the middle of the show he’s talking a little bit in the middle of the stage between songs. This little bug comes on stage, a love bug or some kind beetle bug. It’s on the floor and he sees it. He gets so concerned about this little bug and says, “Wait, wait, wait, there’s a bug on stage.” And people started laughing. He said, “Security, Security...Come get the bug.”

So people started cracking up and laughing, but he wouldn’t let the show go on because he was afraid he was going to step on the bug. And people started clapping because he had that kind of concern. Something as simple as that, as caring and emotional as that was a great moment, and a glimpse into his life as to whom he was. He stops a big production, a big machine of a production to protect this little bug so it didn’t get hurt with the dancers all over the stage. So that was a very special moment I think; something as simple as that, but very dynamic that he would have that much concern for the smallest life was very special. That’s one thing that stood out in mind as part of the show. His performance speaks for itself, but outside the performance, it shows the human being that he was.

Valmai:  Yes, and I’ve seen that video; I’ve seen it on You Tube.

Jonathan:  Yeah, it was a magic moment.


Valmai:  Oh, yes, very. Jonathan do you feel that Michael helped you to become a better musician?

Jonathan:  Of course, yes, absolutely! Working with and observing from behind, I had the best seat in the house. Observing from behind the greatness and magnitude of the performance, and watching how he delivers dynamics and excitement in his performance, you learn a lot in the process of putting a show together. Like on This Is It, everybody could see how he puts it together, and I’ve been in behind the scenes watching that for thirty years and learning from him. So now I have great confidence when I do my shows.

I’m doing tribute shows for Michael now and people really enjoy it. They feel like it’s a “Michael” show.  It’s a one man show; just me, slides and his voice and music from his tour and songs. A lot of comments were that they felt like it was a "Michael show." I didn’t have all the big production. It’s just my giant, giant drum set, and I perform just like we were on tour, as if it was a concert with Michael. That and learning how to put together the right slide at the right time, right moments, and from working with Michael, made that show work. If I had the budget that Michael had, I feel that I could carry on the legacy and the tradition and the class that Michael foresaw because I learned a lot from him; watching how he does it and being around him.


Valmai:  Michael was a master at synchronizing his dancers and musicians so that they flowed together in a seamless and perfect harmony. Can you give us a glimpse into his creative genius? Is there a story that you could tell us that we don’t already know?

Jonathan:  Well, that question is a testimony and demonstration to how much he knows his music. To direct everybody, to know when something is missing, one single note in a chord, he knows it. He points it out, “Something’s wrong with that chord. What’s wrong with that chord? There’s a note missing.” Then he will actually hum the note; sing it out aloud, “daaaaaaaaa”…“Where’s that note? That note’s supposed to be there.” I’ve seen him time and time and time again do that. The same thing with the guitar parts. He’ll describe it; he knows that, he knows everything.

When we didn’t have percussions, we’d have the percussion parts in the computer that we would play to, and if a certain rhythm or pattern, (we had so many rhythms and patterns overlapping each other) if a certain element wasn’t there, he felt it. He feels everything, and his emotions tell him there’s something missing. He’ll think about this and he knows exactly what part is not there, what rhythm is not happening that doesn’t make the machine run smoothly. It’s like an engine. If one of the valves is out it stutters, it splutters you know, and he can feel that it’s not running smoothly. Michael knows all his music like that, and when all the valves are timed and running right and firing properly, Michael knows when it’s right because he feels it emotionally. He has the knowledge of how the music was put together. So I think that’s remarkable and it really answers that question. His band is so tight because he knows when something is missing.

We do all the homework and learn it; we’re supposed to learn it and come to rehearsal. That’s what we are getting paid for, and I make sure, that’s why Michael likes me there because he knows I do that with no excuses. He just trusts me totally because I have the same mentality. It’s got to be perfect, it’s got to be right, it’s got to be what the artist wants because that’s what I am getting paid to do. He never checked me once to make it right for him so he can get his best show. I gotta get my best show just so he can get his best show. He’s counting on me, and the whole show is counting on me. How can I let them down? I can’t. That’s my mentality, there’s no way.

So he trusts that everybody will be that way, and that’s why he hires you; the people that are capable of delivering that. If you’re with him on stage or in rehearsals, it’s because he trusts that you’re on the same level for focus and concentration and desire to be your best. Now sometimes some people fall short, you know, get a little lazy or don’t learn anything right or don’t perform it right, that’s when, like in the movie, he got on the keyboard player. He was the Music Director and Michael had to kind of teach him again. So sometimes that happens unfortunately, but for the most part we all get there and we do what we’re supposed to do. Michael refines it. He’s the chef so he’s putting more seasoning in here and there, “Change this and change that. Play that with maybe a little more attitude right here.” He refines it and mixes all the ingredients together. It’s a recipe, and he makes sure it’s a good dish to serve to the public so that they enjoy the meal of music.

Valmai:  But I think that was part of his genius. With Michael, he just seemed to know everything about every element of the music. And like you said, he felt it inside. I think that’s what set him apart from a lot of other artists.

Jonathan:  Everything is emotion; everything is emotion and feelings. You know, to see things with emotions is just like having a different vision; an emotional vision. I’m that way so that’s why I understand him. I’m exactly that way. I can work with him with ease and it’s easy for me. He and I are cut from the same cloth. He knew it and I know it, so you know, I just thought there was a magic between us. It was something that he felt that’s why he wanted me there. I feel fortunate and blessed to have been able to function on that level and to please somebody like him. I’m all about wanting to please the person and make them want me back, and that second gig and the call backs are more important than the first one. The first one you’re trying to prove to yourself. The second one is proving that you did prove yourself and they want you. So they mean more than the first time you work with somebody.

Valmai:  And you were very, very blessed. You really were.

Jonathan:  I know, I know. I don’t take it for granted. I will always cherish it and I’m very grateful.

Valmai:  Jonathan, people speak of an energy around Michael; a light. Did you ever feel that?

Jonathan:  All the time, every time I am around him. That’s why you know you are in the presence of greatness. That’s why you know you’re in the presence of somebody special. Just count the number of fans and people and the multitude that love him around the world. He’s one man loved by... CNN said that over one billion people mourned Michael from all the remote areas of the world, as well as all the known areas. What other human being can draw that much sympathy and that much hurt from their loss. Michael had something special, a radiance, and when you were in his presence the whole room changed.

People would say, "Michael’s coming," and everybody got nervous. As soon as you had the vision of him, even just knowing he was coming, you felt something, like a tingle happening. Just to watch him walk through the door, it’s like all the molecules in the air stop and you can pinch them with your finger; pick them up. It’s like you could see the smallest speck; you could see the molecules in the air when Michael walked in the room. He changed them; the molecular structure of the air. And that’s the equation of what happens when Michael enters, and everybody in the room felt it and knew it. Then their attitudes and personalities would change. They would perk up their attention, but they would always say, “There’s something with him. When he came in I got nervous. I felt something!” And I would hear that over and over again and I would say, “I know, I know. I’ve been feeling it for thirty years.”

And he was just so pleasant; just something with his imagery. Everybody radiates from a different frequency, and Michael had the highest level of energy I think without being from another world. His gift and his humanity of spirit were just so powerful and great and deep. He was a different human being from most of us; from all of us. He did affect everybody that came around him, from leaders of the world to normal folk, from children to people, grandmothers. Every single person that’s been around him said they felt something, that I remember seeing or talking to.

And that’s why people cry. People absolutely cry. I would sit on stage and watch them pass bodies, like back in the medieval days when people died of the plague. You would see them lift bodies, arms dangling and legs, heads swinging, and there was like an ocean of people with their arms up passing bodies to the front, to the gate. There would be a line-up there of emergency vehicles... five, ten of them lined up. There were stretchers and triages back there. One by one, people were passing them forward; sometimes a multitude of bodies moving across the crowd being passed to the rescue people. They would give them smelling salts and try to revive them. Some people were just totally gone, unconscious, you know, like totally no life in them, and that’s just from being in that stadium with Michael. I just got to just sit back there and marvel at it. It was just the most powerful thing to see, and that’s just from that one man in the center of the stage. He made even men pass out; women and men. That’s a power and Michael knew it. He knew he was gifted with something special, a purpose; uniting the world and uniting people.

Valmai:  In the movie This Is It, you talk of Michael being a gift of God, sent to teach us to love; how to love and how to be. What did you learn from him that you remember every day now?

Jonathan:  That every body’s a human being. Beyond the classification and categories, we are a human race. Michael treated everyone the same no matter what race, religion, and creed. You would see him all over the world on television; with all nations, all people, friends, foe’s, enemies alike, he was always the same. He didn’t stop his love of people or children especially. He would go to one of our worst enemies, the Nation, and he would love the children there and visit them at the hospitals.

And these are some of the kids that might grow up and decide to attack America, or whoever. Michael didn’t see that. He saw the child, the human being, the blessing of life from God. He would give them the gift of money and might even buy a kidney for the same people out of his hard earned money, and he wouldn’t think anything at all about it.

Whatever it cost; buying machinery for the hospitals all over the world, people have benefited from Michael’s gift of life, from the machines that keep these people alive at the hospitals. The kidney for a child, the transplants that Michael paid for out of his own pocket and asking for nothing, most people didn’t know about it until after he passed away or how much he really did. He asked for no publicity. He wasn’t in the newspaper. A foreign newspaper the next day didn’t credit him. That was one of his criteria; nobody knew. He didn’t want it to get publicity because he did it out of his heart.

People say Michael was broke and he was in debt for 300-400 million, but now it’s come out that Michael was one of the greatest, if not the greatest philanthropist that ever lived, and he had given away over 300 something million dollars of his own money he worked for. If he had that 300 something million dollars, I guess he wouldn’t be broke would he? No, I doubt it.

Valmai:  No, he wouldn’t.

Jonathan:  It’s the same amount as what they say he was in debt for. Out of his kindness and generosity and love for people that he didn’t even know and that didn’t really know him, he gave away to help, and then of course he had money problems?

I’m that way; I was raised that way too. I see the transparency; people might as well have skin I can see through because I see the heart, the spirit. That’s another way Michael and I were related also. We recognize the same things in each other. We both love children. They’re the closest we will ever get to God, especially in a newborn infant. That’s the closest we will get to seeing God and being with God. So Michael was the same way; we related to each other in that way. We knew without even speaking of it. We knew we had like minds that recognized one another without even saying the words.

One of the things I learned is that I’m doing the right thing. I’m living the right way by being open-spirited. Michael proved that it does work, that it can work and it can make a difference. It can bring a multitude of people together because he did it. He proved it unselfishly. So I learned it’s possible because Michael proved it.

Valmai:  Do you think Michael used his music as a way to get his message out there?

Jonathan:  Of course. It’s evident in his music and songs; a lot of his songs. I mean, he made some shake your booty music too, but a lot of his important music is his message music, and people appreciated it in such a way they didn’t feel like they were being preached too. They wanted to hear it; the music about concern, about love and togetherness. A lot of times people shun away from that music because we feel like we’re being preached too, like we’re at church. We don’t want to hear that. Michael had such a way and such a nature that people wanted to hear it and loved hearing it. It didn’t sound like a sermon or preaching. They were curious and they wanted to become that; they wanted to see that vision he put forth.

He was a prophet in a way you know, in his music; a modern day prophet. Like I said, he was sent by God to enlighten, much like the prophets of old times. A lot of people don’t recognize it because he’s different in that he’s an entertainer, and he was sent in that form of being an entertainer, so a lot of people overlooked the prophecy he was teaching. His teachings of love and concern; you can hear about his concern with "Earth Song," and other songs he preached concern for the planet and people, for humanity, for one another. I think he’s a wonderful human being. I think he’s a lesson for everybody to learn and model after in that light; the light of concern and caring for one another. Sure would be a better world if everybody did.

Valmai:  I know, it would, wouldn’t it? That’s why I think it’s so important to continue the legacy that he left for us.

Jonathan:  Exactly! I agree.

Valmai:  What do you want a generation 100 years from now to know about Michael?

Jonathan: That he was a man of power; of positive power that brought people together in the time that he lived. He brought people from all walks of life, all Nationalities and like I said, friends and foes alike. He was healing in the spirit because he healed a lot of people with his music and with his spirit. Being in his presence when he visited the hospitals, the children would be miraculously healed, I was told. Michael should be remembered for being one of the most positive human and unselfish human beings that ever lived. He just happened to be a singer and dancer too.

Valmai: So Jonathan, what are your plans for the future? Do have any tours coming up? Are you working on anything at present? Any albums?

Jonathan:  Yeah, I’m working with the group Cameo, the funk band. Cameo has been around since 1977-’78. I’ve been with them since ’82 off and on. They let me go for someone like Madonna or Michael; they let me go do that. They say they don’t want to stop me from making that big money, but my chair is always there. “When you come back let us know. When you come back you’ll be right back in.”  So, since Michael passed I’ve been back with them. I left them to do This Is It with Michael, and then afterwards I needed a little time off you know, because it was too much; I couldn’t work right away. So, when I was ready I called them up and they took me right back in. I’ve been back with them since November of 2009, and still working with them.

I’ve been working with Jermaine Jackson; he wanted to do a tribute show to Michael. I work on my own one-man tribute show, like I mentioned, and I work with promoters now who try to book me around the country and hopefully around the world you know, to continue the legacy and the music. I’m Michael’s drummer so I want to continue playing with Michael, the music, the tracks and talking about him, and let people know the magic he and I had together; the caring he had and to keep sharing his music. It’s not like having him there, but with the images and playing to his voice, playing to his tracks, it’s almost like that. It’s the next best thing, you know, not like playing with a cover band or a look-a-like, I would never do that, and I wouldn’t want to do that. This is like playing with Michael; his image is there, his voice is there and all the fans say they felt Michael in the room. This is as close as I can get to that now, and I love doing it because I always loved playing his songs, his music, and hearing his voice and playing with him. So I’m doing that as well as Cameo.

There’s something huge on the horizon I can’t talk about right now, but it’s forth-coming. I just can’t talk about it right now. It’s gonna be unbelievable and I’ve been talking with some people about it. So that’s happening. I’ve got my own music; I have a lot of music much like Michael’s. Like I said, we are very like-spirited, like-minded. I have message music and I’m working on an album, somewhat like Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On; a message album that’s very commercial, but still songs based on the topic of life and humanity, much like Michael’s songs of that nature. It’s in the works now, and I have songs fully or partially written, and I have lots of other music. I have two hundred songs in the works at one stage or another, so I’m trying to get my music finished and ready for release this or next year.

I’m working on a book; a coffee table book that encompasses my career, my artwork. Like I said, I’m an artist and a designer. I design all my drum sets that people see and like. I design clothes; I design bass guitars and other things. The book’s going to have my poetry; my mindset. My mindset is when I watch TV, CNN or anything, and if something comes up about love, society, humanity; everybody has got their own opinion, but I write mine down and my viewpoints so to speak on all of these issues. Then I sign it and date it and people know that in that specific moment of my lifetime; I even put the time, say between 10:12 and 10:25 when I finish thinking and writing it, I put the time I finish, so people can specifically see where Jonathan Moffett’s mind and heart was at that specific point in his life. I have writing like that which goes all the way back to ’76. I’m compiling and working on a book to release those things, along with my coffee table book.
All the memorabilia; I’ve done 24, 25…gotta count, get the number right…I’ve done 24 or 25 major tours in my 32 years of professionalism, and I kept all the memorabilia, pretty much all 99% of it. I’m going to take photographs of it all and that’s going to be in the coffee table book as well. And DVDs’ of the travel footage I have, the sound checks, family footage of people here in New Orleans, so it’s going to be a great multi-media book. I’ve been working on it a number of years now compiling, and I hope to get that out in the next year or two, and a book of poetry.

I mean a lot of things I am working on; drumming and elements of the drumming world. I have never done a drum video so I’m going to be doing a drum video in the next year or two; instructional video. A drum book, so people can read and learn my patterns. There’s just a great multitude of things I have in the works but I’ve been working with others so much, I haven’t had the quality of time to really finish my own projects.

Valmai:  The book sounds incredible. You will have to let me know when it’s published because I really want to own a copy of it. Jonathan, I am so grateful you did this interview; I’m so excited about it and it’s been wonderful talking to you. You have given me such an insight into Michael just hearing you talk; it’s just been wonderful, it really has, and I want to thank you very much.

Jonathan:  You’re so welcome, so welcome. It’s great talking about things. I want the world to remember him.

© Valmai Owens, 2011. All Rights Reserved.
No reproduction without permission from author.

This interview appears in the publication Dot to Dot: Keeping Michael’s Legacy Alive, and its content is the property of the authors and the Michael Jackson Tribute Portrait. Articles and exclusive interviews are copyrighted; therefore there should be no republication without permission. You may email with any requests for republication. If permission is given, credit must be given to the author, Dot to Dot: Keeping Michael's Legacy Alive, and the Michael Jackson Tribute Portrait.

Interview With Mengesha "Mystro" Francis

Mengesha “Mystro” Francis is a wonderfully gifted and classically trained pianist. After attending UCLA and West LA College, he became a music teacher with The Heavenly Vision Christian Academy. He has worked with seasoned Rap and R&B recording artists, and performed at many important events including Michael Jackson’s 30th Anniversary. He is very talented, warm and friendly, and a devoted and loving fan of Michael
I had the pleasure to talk with Mengesha in an interview about his career, his early friendship with Michael as a teenager, and his beautiful tribute video to Michael titled, Michael Jacksonology: Piano Tribute.

Transcribed by Valmai Owens

Valmai:  Your name is very beautiful and it’s very unusual. Can you tell what the name means and what its origins are?

Mengesha:  Mengesha is Swahili for “A Place to be King.” By biological father was from Ethiopia so I’m named after him. I got teased a lot as a kid, but I appreciate the name so much more now because it’s powerful and it’s Swahili.

Valmai:  Well, it’s very beautiful.

Mengesha: Thank you so much.

Valmai:  And the name “Mystro?” How did that come about?

Mengesha:  I went to a school in South Central Los Angeles called Washington Preparatory High School. The school was bad before I had gotten there, right around the early eighties. The school was horrible; there were guns, you know? The same thing that’s going on now with kids bringing guns to school; not as bad as it is now, but back then it’s kind how gang violence started and all of that. Well anyway, we had a Principal called George McKenna, and in later years Denzil Washington played him in a movie, but he cleaned up the school. He came in there and did it from a different perspective than Joe Clark, who was in the movie Lean On Me. It was right around the same time. McKenna started a Theater Arts program and made us learn singing, dancing and acting. So we became like an African American version of The School of the Arts. So everybody got into the Drill Team, the Theater Arts class, singing and dancing.

I went to school with a whole bunch of people who became celebrities. Gary Gray, who directed The Negotiator and also Be Cool, was in class with me. Then there was Fatima Robinson, who choreographed Michael’s video Remember the Time. She was in school with me. Wendy Raquel Robinson, who is now in the TV show The Game, and was also in the Steve Harvey Show, she was in class with me. And they all became successful.

There was this one guy named “Battlecat.” He was a Rap producer right around the same time as Snoop Dogg. Anyway, long story short, I started playing the piano with him, and because of my classical background he started calling me “Mystro.” And so ever since then everyone in the industry, and because my name is a little bit tricky, they go, “Oh that’s “Mystro.” And that’s where the name came from.

Valmai:  You are classically trained, and I must say gifted a pianist. When did you start learning the piano?

Mengesha:  I started at five, in 1975. I was watching The Jackson Five cartoon; my mother used to sit me down every Saturday morning to watch cartoons. Now mind you, I didn’t even know The Jackson Five were real people. I thought they were cartoon characters. I had no idea that they were a real group, you know, performing. That was my first introduction to The Jackson Five, watching them on TV, so I knew that they could play instruments.

My mother knew that I had a natural gift for the piano because she bought a little tiny organ, and if I heard a commercial on TV, for some reason I could play it. If it was a McDonald’s commercial or a Pepsi Cola commercial, I could pick the notes out and play them, so she knew then that I had a natural gift for the piano. And watching those cartoons I thought, wow! I’ve never seen characters that can play instruments and look like me, being African American. It surprised me.

So I wanted to take music lessons, and a person came to my Elementary school looking for kids; special kids that could understand music and notes, and get them started so when they got older they could get a scholarship and go to College. So I auditioned for the part and I won it. I learned Classical piano, and I learned how to play Jazz, Gospel; I ended up playing for some of my mother’s church organizations. So I really got a Gospel background when I was thirteen or fourteen because she had me in the choir, those sorts of things. Then I became a school teacher, and then Hollywood. There was just a lot, but I was five when I started playing piano. I turn 40 in June, so I’ve been playing now thirty-something years.

Valmai:  That’s a long time. Mengesha, you are classically trained, but of all the genres of music, what one would you say has inspired or influenced you the most?

Mengesha:  I would say Classical. My teacher told me when I was a kid, that if I could learn the technique of playing Classical music on the piano, I would be at the heart of Jazz and everything else. So I would have to say Classical.

I use a lot of Classical chord changes within my music, so if I’m playing a piece that’s not Classical; for example if I’m playing a Pop song like I did with the Michael Jackson piece, I’ll throw in some Classical chords to mix in with what I do.

Valmai:  Do you find Classical music is harder to learn?

Mengesha:  Yes because the whole technique of playing Classical music on the piano is a whole different technique to Jazz. It’s the arpeggio’s; cross your hand over this way, and it’s not just playing the notes correctly, you have to have to have the formation correct in your head in order to play it correctly, you know. My teachers would get on me because I slouched too much. They would say, “You can play Pop that way, but when you’re playing Classical Mr. Francis, you have to sit correctly at the piano.” So there’s a lot involved, yes.

Valmai:  You compose your own music and some of your compositions have been recorded, is that correct?

Mengesha:  Yes, yes, most definitely. I’ve worked with MCA Records. I worked with an R&B group called Jodeci. We created some stuff for their new album. They came around the same time as Boyz to Men, in the early nineties, so I’ve worked with them. I’ve worked with a few Rap artists that were on Virgin Records, and then of course I have my own company.

Valmai:  You said you have worked with some seasoned R&B and Rap artists. What was that experience like for you?

Mengesha:  Well, it was challenging. I think what they most impressed with, with me; most of the artists I’ve ever worked with Rap or R&B, they like the fact that I can play Classical music and incorporate it into a Hip-Hop beat. That’s what got me in the door, because they had never heard a pianist being able to play Classical music in time and sync with a Hip-Hop track. That was just like two things that don’t go together, but I was able to merge them together and they were always impressed with me for doing that.

And I would always play Michael Jackson. I worked with Jodeci who were huge fans of Michael. As a matter-of-fact, ironically, the day that I was working with them on a track, we were in the studio and I was playing on the piano, and I kept hearing this beat right next to us; POW, POW, POW, just hitting on the side of the wall. And Dalvin who is the lead singer of the group and also one of the producers, he said, “Oh, that’s Michael Jackson next door.” I said, “WHAT!” And Dalvin said, “He’s working on this new album. I think it’s called Invincible something.” So I go, “Michael Jackson’s next door?” “Well,” he said, “You can’t go in there.” And I thought, oh, I can’t?

So I just go walk up the stairs, and mind you there are two security guards standing there outside the door, and everybody in the studio is a celebrity. Christina Aguilera had just finished working on Genie in the Bottle, Jennifer Lopez had left only five minutes before, and then we were working on the Jodeci album. So Michael was next door, and his music was so loud it was ricocheting inside of our studio where we were, you know.

So, I didn’t get to see him, but it was so cool to know that he was right next door to me working on Invincible. And I was trying to hear it, but the guy wouldn’t let me get close to the door. I said, “I just want to know one thing. Is Michael Jackson inside there?” And he said, “Yes, he’s working on his music. You can’t come in.” So I thought that’s okay, I’m working next door and put I can my ear to the wall.

Valmai:  That would have been so hard; being so close yet so far.

Mengesha:  Exactly!

Valmai:  Mengesha, you founded your company School Time Hip-Hop Productions right around 2009. Can you tell us something about that?

Mengesha:  Well, that time was hard for me. With that, those are my original compositions. I understand Hip-Hop; I like Hip-Hop, and so I mixed Hip-Hop and education together. Sort of like Schoolhouse Rock. I’m also a big fan of Schoolhouse Rock from the seventies TV show. I grew up on that, so I wanted to incorporate that style with Hip-Hop and have it still be educational for kids.

When Michael passed I had to put it on the back-burner, and only because I just needed time to breathe. I was so excited about putting this out for kids. I was definitely in talks with getting this to Michael Jackson for him to give me the thumbs-up, not necessarily an endorsement, I just wanted him to see this, you know. It’s for kids, it’s educational and when he passed, it was so difficult for me to continue at that point. I had lost people in my personal family too, so I was really not in a good place, but now I’m a lot stronger.

I have been talking to the School Districts to get this out. I’m back trying to make this happen and I’m sure it’s going to take off. I’m really excited about it, and we’ve been getting wonderful revues in just our demo alone. So, I’m still going to push forward with that.

Valmai:  I think it’s a wonderful idea.

Mengesha:  I really wanted Michael to hear it and see it. As I was recording it, all I could think was that Michael was going to love this. It’s Hip-Hop, it’s kids, it’s clean, it’s Rap and it’s still danceable for the kids, and it’s not too commercial. I wanted it to be Jay Z meets Disney, you know? I knew Michael would have loved it.

Valmai:  Oh, I think it would be something he would definitely approve of. You performed for Michael at his 30th Anniversary, in 2001. What was that experience like for you?

Mengesha:  The 30th Anniversary was the last time I saw Michael in person. That really was an incredible night. I had a chance to play and what I did in the video, Michael Jacksonology: Piano Tribute, is the same thing I did in front of Michael at the anniversary; right there with James Ingram standing over me, and quite a few people were impressed with my playing. I was able to play his songs as a medley, and he kept looking at me and giving me the thumbs-up. That was the last time I would see Michael so at least I had a chance to play for him. I can take that and just run with that, you know? 

Valmai:  At that performance you also got a chance to meet and speak with him on-on-one didn’t you?

Mengesha:  Well, yes. I had been friends with some of the family members, and in 2009, after Michael’s passing, I had lunch with Jermaine Jr. and also Berry Gordy’s grandson. We were talking about some things; we were talking about Hip-Hop, we were talking about my piano performance that I was getting ready to do, the Michael Jacksonology: Piano Tribute, so I do have their backing and they know I’m doing this. I just want to keep his music alive, that’s the main thing, and in a different way from most people wanting to impersonate Michael, and that’s still wonderful too, but I really want to showcase something different. Nobody really listens to his songwriting capability, you know, the “Earth Song!”

I had a contest on my website for all those who are fans of Michael Jackson and of my website. I told them to pick a song for me to play. The song that gets the most hits; the song you think is the best I will perform it. It was a toss-up between “Earth Song” and “Speechless.” But “Earth Song” won out. So that’s why I performed “Earth Song” last on the video. It’s a very, very difficult song to play. Out of everything I played in that video, “Earth Song” was the toughest because it’s simple, but it’s a detailed song; everything has got to be right in place.

Valmai:  And Michael was a perfectionist too, so he would want it played exactly the way he wrote it.

Mengesha:  Exactly. I want to share a story with you on how I first met Michael Jackson, and this is something so profound to me.

I told you the last time I saw Michael, but the very first time I saw him I was about thirteen. And I hate to tell the truth, but…well I’ll say it like this, I left school early; I ditched. I left school early and went to Hollywood. They have these guys on street corners who sell these maps to the Star’s homes. So I bought one because I was determined to find out where Michael lived. I was such a fan, and I had to know. I looked on the map and I saw 4641 Hayvenhurst Drive, so I asked the bus driver how to get to Hayvenhurst. He said, “Hayvenhurst is way out in Encino, that’s a two hour ride.” So I said okay, I guess I ought to do it.

So I get on the bus; it’s a two hour ride all the way to Encino. I go down the street and see this large gate. Finally I found 4641, and I thought this is it? I was expecting Neverland stuff. But it’s a nice big house and I’m sitting there doing my homework thinking, I don’t see Michael Jackson and it’s been thirty minutes…finally the gate opens. A black Mercedes Benz drives out the gate and the window rolls down, and it’s Michael. I’m by myself; this is a regular day and he looks at me and says, “Hey, why aren’t you in school?” And I thought oh no, that’s the worst thing he could say to me. I mean this is like ten o’clock in the morning on a school day, and I’m a 13 year-old.

Anyway, I said, “Well, I wanted to meet you. That’s why I’m here.” And he said, “Well don’t ditch. Don’t ditch school; that’s not a good thing, but I got something for you. If you stay in school and do your work, and do all good things; if you meet me this Saturday at Balboa Park, I’m going to give you an autograph. I’m not going to give it you now. I’m going to give it to you Saturday, so meet me there. My brothers will be there because we play baseball every Saturday.” So I said, “Where is Balboa Park?” And he said, “Its right around the corner.”

So Saturday came along. I got up early, and went all the way back down and found Balboa Park. Sure enough, the Jackson’s were warming up. I saw Jackie, Tito; all of them were there, and the 3T’s were little babies and Marlon Jr was a little baby. I saw this guy on the other side; on the opposite team’s side with a hat and sunglasses waving at me. It was Michael. He was in disguise with a moustache and a hat on. So I walked up to him and he said, “Don’t tell anybody I’m here. My brothers are going to give you the jacket from the Victory Tour, and we’re going to give you the program.” So I asked for an extra one for my mother, and he said, “Okay, we’ll give you two.”

Finally, after the game was over, Jackie and Marlon came up to me and gave me the Victory Tour book. They signed it and Michael signed it too, and then I got the Victory jacket. 

That was the first time I met Michael Jackson, and when I went back to school nobody believed me! I’m saying I met Michael Jackson and mind you, this is 1984-’85; this is the height of his career. I told my teacher and he said no way! I told him I was serious, that Michael lived in Hayvenhurst, I went to a baseball game, and they were like, “Yeah right!” So eventually I started taking pictures at some of the baseball games. 

The night of the 30th Anniversary, I wondered in my mind if Michael knew I was the same little kid that was in front of his house doing his homework, who is now a professional musician. And I didn’t have a chance to tell him that. There was so much going on that night; he was very busy and his table was full, so I didn’t get a chance to have a one-on-one with him.

Valmai:  That story is amazing.

Mengesha: Yes, it’s part of me forever.

Valmai:  What was your impression of Michael?

Mengesha:  He was very out-spoken; he was very stern because I was a 13 year-old sitting outside his house instead of being in school, so he wasn’t soft-spoken to me. He was very direct, and more concerned about me being outside of his house instead of in school. He was like a concerned parent.

I’ve seen him on other occasions too, but one-on-one, I don’t think Michael was as shy; I think he was more business savvy than people see. His public persona is; of course he’s a nice guy and he’s very soft-spoken and wonderful, but I believe when it comes to something serious, Michael Jackson had no problem telling you exactly what he meant. Now, he was nice enough to invite me to his baseball game, but he didn’t have to do that. He could have called the police and said this kid is in front of my house; he needs to go to school. But he told me I could come to his house and he would give me an autograph, just not on school days, and I will never forget that. He could have done a whole bunch of things, I mean that’s trespassing, well not necessarily trespassing, but loitering.

He gave me an opportunity to go to those baseball games, and I used to go every weekend after that. I became very comfortable and I remember seeing Paula Abdul there; Janet Jackson was there all the time. She was no big deal then; I mean she used to just walk out the house. This was in the ‘80’s before she became a star. It was so much fun during the ‘80’s, to be that kind of a fan where we could literally go to Michael’s house and just interact with his world.

I remember one Saturday; normally when Michael comes in, he calls on his car phone from down the street and tells the guards to open the gate. This is like 5 minutes before he actually pulls in. This particular day, the gate was moving but it wouldn’t open. And all the fans that were standing there, we knew that Michael was on his way.

So Michael pulled in and the gate wouldn’t open, so all the fans are screaming and wanting autographs. Michael gets out of the car and says, “Don’t do this at home,” and walks around the side of the gate and hopped the fence. Everybody cracked up. It was so hilarious because we expected him to wait in the car. Finally, the security guard pulled the gate open and drove the car in. That was just a moment that I would see from just hanging around the house. 

I remember when he did Captain EO. I was there that day he went to Disney. He was in the car with Bill Bray. Bill Bray was driving, and Michael waved and said stop the car. So, I was there with a friend and we got up and walked to the car. Michael said, “I’m doing a movie. You got to check it out. It’s called Captain EO. It’s for Disney. Just remember I told you its Captain EO.” And sure enough, I finally saw Captain EO, which is one of my favorites. The day that it opened up, I think was 16 or 17, my school’s Drill Team was opening the Premiere day. So we got to see it ahead of everybody. I got to see it before the public got to see it. I mean out of all the high schools in Los Angeles, my school was picked to perform at the opening, and I was there.

So many symbolic things are wrapped in my entire life from 5 years-old, all the way to being a 40 year-old man, which is centered around Michael. He has been a part of life since childhood; since before I knew music and when he passed, I had people who I hadn’t spoke to since Elementary School call my mother to pay their condolences to me. I had a teacher who remembered me trying to learn “Billie Jean” on the piano, and who found my mother’s number and called to say how sorry they felt for Mengesha because they remembered that when I was 14, all I talked about was Michael Jackson.

So, he has been like a family member more than a Pop superstar. I even got into fights at school over him. I have been expelled from school from having a fight over Michael Jackson because people were saying mean things about him. I used wear Michael’s clothes, like the “Beat It” jacket and glitter socks, and I would get in fights because people would say he was weird. They would take me in the office, and tell me I could no longer wear Michael Jackson paraphernalia anymore because it was causing too much trouble. So Michael was like a family member, like an Uncle, and I was more than just a fan.

Valmai:  What do you see as Michael’s greatest legacy and how does that inspire you as a musician and a person every day?

Mengesha: Just being innovated I think. He was not afraid to step out of the box as an entertainer and a musician, and he was a perfectionist. When it’s 100% right, it’s still not right for him. Michael was a Virgo and they are very cerebral; very mental.

The worst thing about perfection, and I understand it because of him, is that you are looking for perfection when there is none; when you don’t need it. Sometimes you overly try to perfect something when you should just leave it the way it is. For example, I don’t believe Michael would have wanted us to see This Is It, but there was perfection even in that. We got to see him make mistakes, we got to see him correct people; all of these things Michael would never have wanted us to see. Why? Because he is a perfectionist!

So perfection is the thing I see with Michael Jackson. Every little thing has to be where it needs to be. I mean, Michael reminds me of a Broadway musical. Everybody moves as one, everything is in line. All the musicians play a certain way, all of the dancer’s dance a certain way, the lighting has to be correct, the staging, the effects; everything has to be on cue. And that’s what Michael is to me; the epitome of a perfectionist. We don’t get to see that often; once in a lifetime.

Michael was a gift; he was not a mistake but a gift, for everybody. There are people that don’t really like him; it took for his death for them to understand how great he was as a musician and entertainer. Michael stood above all other music. I mean, you get 8 Grammy’s for one album, that’s unheard of. He’s in the Guinness Book of Records as being the greatest entertainer that ever lived! He raised the bar so high that we’ll never see that again in our lifetime. We’ll see great entertainers mind you, but not like Michael Jackson.

Valmai:  I think quite a few people agree with you on that one.

Mengesha:  Right, right. It’s a sad thing, but a good thing. It’s a good thing that he left a legacy so high; he’s like the eighth wonder of the world.

What I try to do in my piano performance is push the limit of a piano player doing Michael Jackson’s music. I’ve seen a lot of people play online that play wonderfully, and they’ve done wonderful tributes to Michael, but I just kept hearing him in my mind saying, play harder, give me more, play the arpeggio all the way up there, sit straighter…all these things were going through my mind as I was playing my piano tribute to him.
This is going to sound weird, but I remember playing “Earth Song” and I could have sworn I felt cold wind across my fingers. I don’t know where it came from, but I could feel a wind across my hands. I didn’t stop playing; I acted like I didn’t know, and I asked the engineer after the first cut if he had the air-conditioner on, and he said no.

Valmai:  Do you believe that was Michael?

Mengesha:  Yes, yes! I know what I felt. As soon as I started playing the first chord, it was as if someone was blowing down on my fingers because it tickled a little bit. It startled me, but I kept playing. I think it’s a good thing I felt Michael’s presence while I was playing because in my mind I was playing to him.

Valmai:  A lot of people have had that experience; a spiritual connection with Michael.

Mengesha:  Yes, I think his spirit is around all of us; those who are really his fans, in his corner and have been influenced by him. If he could come back he would be overwhelmed with all the tributes that have happened since his passing. He would be ecstatic about this, I really believe that. 

Let me tell you another story. The night of the This Is It premiere, it was one of the windiest days that California has had in a long time. It was whirling back and forth, and as my friends and I are getting to the red carpet we see a whirlwind, like a tiny tornado that went all the way to the end of the red carpet. We looked at each other like we had literally seen a ghost. I mean this tiny tornado, maybe five feet tall, was just spinning and spinning all the way down the red carpet, and when it got to the end it just vanished.

Valmai:  So, what are the odds, even though you can say it was so windy that it caused this tiny tornado, that it would form right there on the red carpet, travelling its length and then just disappear?

Mengesha:  I know, I mean we stopped; we saw it. As a matter of fact, there was somebody else who was a Star right in front of us, and we all just stopped at looked at it. Everybody just looked at each other; we didn’t say anything, but it was like, what was that?

So his spirit is around us, and that’s a good thing. I believe Michael was sent here to Earth to entertain us, to bring us all together and bring awareness to healing the world, and to dazzle us with his dance moves; just to inspire everybody to be a better person. Like I said, I believe every fifty years God sends down an angel and I believe Michael was that. People all over the world loved Michael, and then of course the world tried so hard; the negative people tried so hard to tear him down.

I believe Michael was a loan from God; he didn’t give him to us, he loaned him to us, and when the loan was up it was time to take him back. I believe God said to Michael you don’t have to do This Is It, you’ve done enough already; your legacy is done. With This Is It, they just need to see the rehearsal. I mean God could have allowed him to live another day or week or two, to release one of the performances, and then that would have been the movie. But we have the making of it, and what is more better? That to me it is very powerful because we are seeing him natural.

All the years we have seen Michael, we didn’t know what it was like to be in the studio with him, now we know what it was like. When I watched that movie, I saw a whole different side to Michael I’ve never seen before.

Valmai:  How do feel about becoming a VIP dot in Michael’s portrait on the Michael Jackson Tribute Portrait?

Mengesha:  Oh, very honored. When I first heard about the portrait, I immediately signed in to become a dot; the first day, so to be a VIP means a lot to me. To be amongst the ranks of all the people who were part of Michael’s life; the musician’s, the singers, the artists, being a part of that is just the greatest honor. I appreciate the fact that you guys selected me.

Valmai:  Well, you deserve to be. Can you tell us what you are working on at present or what you’re future plans are?

Mengesha:  Yes, I’m working with The Jackson Family Foundation. Some subsidiaries associated with the Foundation want me to play Michael Jacksonology: Piano Tribute live. They are working on preparing me to perform this piano piece in front of the family, so that is what I am sort of focused on now. I’m also preparing to make a CD of the Tribute, so I have a lot of labels that are looking at me at this point.
This is an extension of Michael’s work, and this is why it’s so important to me. I mean I’m a fan, but I’m a musician as well, so I incorporated both because I really wanted to put my foot in with this. It’s Michael Jackson and it’s like giving a tribute to my favorite Uncle.

Originally in 2009, when Michael passed away, somewhere in my mind I thought I could do it two weeks or two months later, and that didn’t work. When I tried to do the performance I couldn’t play two notes of a song, and I thought, ‘Okay, well, you’re gonna have to wait.’ That’s when I created those Roller Coasters because I thought I gotta do something creative. I didn’t just want to mourn his death and not do something creative. I don’t think Michael would have wanted that. At the same I’m thinking it’s very sad, but Michael also wouldn’t want everyone to not move forward in their lives and so I thought, no, I gotta do something.

Valmai:  Yes, I think everyone felt the same way. It was like everybody’s world came to a standstill for a long time.

Mengesha:  Oh yeah. I very seldom talk about that day.  I’m still in shock. Its two years later and it feels like yesterday to me. I mourned the whole year, really, to be honest with you. Then I lost my Aunt too, a month before Michael, and my Uncle died in the earlier part of that year, which was devastating to me in itself.

Valmai:  Yes, that’s a lot to handle at one time.

Mengesha:  And I felt so sorry for Michael’s family and everything; I can only imagine. It was very tough.

The world Premiere of This Is It was tough to watch too, to be honest with you. I could barely sit in the seat and watch the whole thing for the first time. That’s why I did the video because I wanted to; I teach kids the piano all the time, I’m a music teacher as well, and I wanted them to understand his music. They know he can sing and dance, but I wanted them to understand some of the technique he uses, the melody lines, the bass lines in “Billie Jean.” Just his creative side. And that’s one of the main reasons I really wanted to do the video, to kind of educate the newer generation about Michael Jackson because our generation, well, we watched him as a kid, but there are ten and nine year-olds who really got more into Michael after his passing. One of my students told me, “Wow, now I see where Usher gets it.” I said, yeah, and Justin Timberlake, Chris Brown and even some of the Hip Hop artists have been influenced by Michael Jackson. 

The Roller Coasters were first. That’s what got a lot people’s attention at the beginning. But that was an accident. Like I said, the original thing I was going to do in 2009 is the video that’s out now. It was too painful though, and I knew it wasn’t going to work.

So, I have a game called Roller Coaster Tycoon. This day I happened to be playing the game and I accidently pushed my MP3 player, and it starts playing Michael’s music. And I thought, ha, I could build Neverland with this game, and put Michael’s music to it and make a whole Roller Coaster theme to Michael Jackson. So, I stayed up until 5am just creating this amusement park with Michael’s music and pictures, and got it out there.


Michael Jackson's River of Dreams / Memories from Michael Jacksonology: Tribute on Vimeo.

I met with Jermaine Jr. right after This Is It, and he said it was brilliant; that he wanted to show Michael’s kids and the whole family. He called me back and said they loved it, and asked if I could do another one, so I started creating a whole series of them. The last one I did was the hardest one. I used the “This Is It” song and I did a log ride where you are riding the log through his career. That was kind of tough for people to watch.

But the only reason I did that, again, is because I couldn’t perform. When I had done enough of those, I was strong enough to do the piano tribute again. That’s when I shot the video; I was ready to do it.
So this is what is coming up for me; getting this out to the fans, especially the kids. I want the new generation to be able to appreciate his music and love his videos, and know that he was a great artist.

Valmai:  I think it’s great that you are continuing Michael’s legacy this way. I think it’s wonderful and the piano tribute is just beautiful.

Mengesha:  Thank you so much!

Please enjoy Mengesha’s beautiful piano tribute to Michael in its entirety.


Michael Jacksonology: Piano Tribute Concert By: Mengesha Mystro Francis from Michael Jacksonology: Tribute on Vimeo.

You can visit Mengesha's website here:

© Valmai Owens, 2011. All Rights Reserved.
No reproduction without permission from author.

This interview appears in the publication Dot to Dot: Keeping Michael’s Legacy Alive, and its content is the property of the authors and the Michael Jackson Tribute Portrait. Articles and exclusive interviews are copyrighted; therefore there should be no republication without permission. You may email with any requests for republication. If permission is given, credit must be given to the author, Dot to Dot: Keeping Michael's Legacy Alive and the Michael Jackson Tribute Portrait.