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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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: http://www.%20michael-jacksonology.com/
No reproduction without permission from author.