Verdict in the Michael Jackson Trial
Singer-songwriter Michael Jackson waves to fans after he is found not guilty on all counts in his child molestation trial at the Santa Barbara County Courthouse June 13, 2005 in Santa Maria, California.

Opinion: We Can't Ignore 'Leaving Neverland'

After part one of 'Leaving Neverland,' I still wasn’t convinced about Michael Jackson. Part two changed that.

Leaving Neverland is not the documentary I thought it would be.

Dan Reed’s two-part, four-hour long HBO docuseries is polarizing and controversial. Subjects Wade Robson and James Safechuck were two of a series of boys Michael Jackson befriended during the height of his fame, and Leaving Neverland chronicles their accounts of meeting the star and being brought into his inner sanctum: touring with him, spending extensive amounts of time at Neverland, gifts and favors bestowed upon the boys and their families – and Jackson’s alleged sexual abuse.

The controversy around the documentary, however, isn’t whether Robson and Safechuck’s stories are believable, but whether it merits watching at all.

Jackson superfans have been rabidly swarming anyone who mentions Leaving Neverland on Twitter, sending court transcripts and links they argue debunk allegations made over the years and discredit Robson and Safechuck. Some fans have complained about black writers, especially, who’ve reviewed the documentary without dismissing it as a farce.

Those fans are about to be mad at me.

I believe one’s approach to Leaving Neverland depends on what Michael Jackson era they experienced. I’m old enough to remember Thriller’s release (I was in elementary school), to remember the “Black or White” video premiere on TV (middle school), and to remember the Wacko Jacko tabloid era. Michael Jackson was synonymous with scandal for over a decade. Severe alterations to his appearance; questions about his sexuality – or lack thereof; his unusual obsessions like The Elephant Man’s remains; his propensity to take a chimpanzee with him everywhere, and then take young boys with him everywhere; his incredibly strange marriages first to the princess of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Lisa Marie Presley, and then to Debbie Rowe, the mother of his children (who seemed like the most random white woman on the planet for Michael Jackson to procreate with); and finally his behavior as a father, covering his kids with masks in public (which I think many of us understand, now), and dangling his infant baby over a hotel balcony. For much of the ‘90s, Michael was prime tabloid fodder, and his relationship with black culture was complicated. Black comedy was peppered with MJ jokes, including jokes about his alleged pedophilia. Even as we were jamming to Dangerous, we still clowning him – I remember the extensive analysis of his awkward kiss with Iman in the “Remember the Time” video. Michael was weird, but he was still a musical genius. There wasn’t a conversation, then, about the limits of separating art from the artist.

When 13-year old Jordan Chandler accused Michael of sexual assault in 1993, I was a senior in high school. I don’t remember if I believed it, but I know I didn’t not believe it. I at least believed – as I still do - that Michael’s relationships with the boys in his life were completely inappropriate as a grown ass man. Even if he was a socially and emotionally regressed Peter Pan-figure. I wasn’t that invested, though, because by 1993 Michael wasn’t the mythological, faint-inducing King of Pop he was when I was a kid. He was a deeply flawed character who still put up some bangers. Like I said before, it was complicated.. By the second trial a decade later, I believed the accusations. I followed the spectacle and had seen the surreal Martin Bashir documentary, Living With Michael Jackson, which prompted Jackson’s 2003 arrest on nine counts relating to child molestation, but I was even less invested. Michael was acquitted both times, but also settled with both families.

Over the years, however, I’ve grown doubtful. There were walk backs; Jackson’s housekeeper’s son said during the Chandler investigation that Michael had fondled him, only to then refuse to go on record with the statement or testify. The 2005 Arvizo trial was messy: Bashir doubled back on previous public comments to defend Michael’s relationship with the children. Witness testimony from the alleged victim’s brother came apart during cross-examination. Questions about the Arvizo family’s intentions and credibility arose with revelations that the mother was under investigation for welfare fraud and the father had pushed the young sons to shoplift in the past. Also, since I wasn’t actively engaged during the trials, I hadn’t closely examined all the details. But I’d watched every interview and statement - Michael hadn’t done as much public speaking as he did following the first set of accusations since the beginning of his solo career. It was morbidly fascinating. I thought I knew real facts and not misinformation or spin, but I felt I needed to take another look.

In the cases of Robeson and Safechuck, neither ever brought accusations against Jackson while he was alive. In fact, both testified in his defense against Chandler, adamantly denying Jackson had ever been inappropriate with them. Robson initially declined the request to testify again in 2005, but said his mother convinced him support Michael. Safechuck’s mother also told him he should show up for Jackson again, but he refused. The men also hadn’t cut Michael out of their lives. Robson, best known as the creative director for *NSYNC and Britney Spears at their massive peaks, took his wife to meet Jackson soon before his death and even discussed collaborating. He and his family attended Michael’s funeral at the Jackson family’s invitation. Then, several years later, both men publicly alleged Jackson had abused them for years, and sued the late entertainer’s estate and existing companies. The lawsuits were both dismissed because too much time had passed since the alleged abuse happened; there was no decision on the credibility of the accusations.

I not only understand the skepticism around this documentary, I shared it. Why now? Are Reed, Robson and Safechuck trying to ride the #MeToo wave? Is it a money grab? (Reed says Robson, Safechuck and their families weren’t compensated for their participation.) Also, this docuseries doesn’t meet the investigative standards of Surviving R Kelly, with reporters, people who worked with the artist, psychologists, industry executives, and multiple points of view presented. While there is video footage of Michael with Safechuck, Robson and their families, and at points relative news and TV clippings to establish time and circumstance, this is solely their and their family’s side of the story. The Jackson Estate and family have condemned the documentary and the accounts.
I was honestly watching it just to be able to say I did my due diligence before dismissing it.

I was caught off-guard.

Leaving Neverland isn’t just a story of Michael’s alleged abuse. It’s a story of how grooming and long-time abuse affects victims and their families. In the first part of the documentary, both men recount how their relationships with Michael developed and evolved, starting with the awe of having the sun of the biggest superstar in history shine on them, and growing into grooming - not just of the boys but their families - and eventually alleged physical abuse. After part one, I still wasn’t convinced. I believed some of it, but the very graphic details were hard to reconcile.

Part two changed that, for me. Reed told Oprah Winfrey during her post-show special that Leaving Neverland “isn’t about Jackson, it’s about what happened to Wade and James.” In the second part of the series, Robson and Safechuck tell Reed how Michael’s influence affected them as they grew up. How they handled his distance as they got older, how they and their families supported Michael during his trial, how emotional trauma started showing up in their lives, how they processed his death. Most importantly, why they finally decided to tell their story, and how it impacted their families.

Nothing rang false. Nothing felt contrived.

Now, I have to process what this means for my personal relationship with Michael and his music as a fan. After his death, I simply placed all the problematic questions about him to the side and celebrated the parts of him I loved, as I believe many of us did. We started filling in the gaps in Michael’s story - his emotional trauma, his loneliness, his desire to recreate childhood. I had even come around to the theory that Michael was completely asexual. But I also believed he was manipulative; enough stories from the music business exist to confirm that. And I believed he didn’t think the normal rules of life applied to him. Now I believe it was much deeper and more disturbing than that.

Some of the fans I’ve seen rallying furiously against the documentary in an effort to protect Michael's legacy seem too young to realize that his legacy was complicated and murky when he died, that he was redeemed in death. But we can’t afford to keep ignoring inconvenient truths about the figures we love. No matter how much brilliance and joy they gave the world, no matter how troubled or broken. Leaving Neverland and the reexamining of Michael is not a smear campaign against Jackson, this is a reckoning.

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P Diddy promotes his new Diddy Dirty Money single 'Coming Home' and his headphones DiddyBeats at HMV, Oxford Street on January 20, 2011 in London, England.
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'The Last Train To Paris' Turns 10: Revisit Diddy's Aug./Sept. 2010 VIBE Cover Story

YOU EVER WATCH a control freak mellow out? It’s fascinating. When said micromanager is Sean “Puffy” Combs, it’s an enlightening ordeal altogether. Sitting at trendy Asian eatery Philippe Chow in New York City, two days before LeBron James announces that he’s taking his show to South Beach, Combs has talking points: impact and legacy. “This ain’t a regular run,” says Combs of his two-decade laundry list of accomplishments. “I’m saying that in the most humble way possible. I’m me and I’m seeing it. Most times the impact of what you do you don’t even live to see it.”

He’s the only patron seated for the evening, lounging at a table that comfortably seats eight. This is clearly a Sean John zone. His voice remains even, but the arrogance skyrockets. “It trickles over into sports. It goes into the way the free agent negotiations are going. [Athletes] have that belief. But that level of confidence as Black businessmen wasn’t really there. Unforgivable swagger. That shit wasn’t there.”

Translation: Sean believes that his ambition has been infectious. In his “humble” opinion, his drive has taught the have-nots that not only can they have, but they can be gluttonous and acquire wealth rather than riches. Will it ruin his day if people don’t agree? Not really. But he’d still like the legacy to be accurately documented. His reactionary reflexes have given way to him thinking long term, which could be why he’s unfazed by trivial shots like 50 Cent’s claims of having nude pictures of his artist Cassie. He’s more interested in guiding careers—Rick Ross, Red Cafe and Dirty Money, among them. And really, he’d like to do square biz and have your kids’ kids respect him like his contemporaries admire Warren Buffet. That would truly be money in the bank. In the meantime, he wants to mellow with a plate of chicken satay and talk Diddy legacy.

VIBE: You have said that rap’s heavyweight class consisted of Jay-Z, Kanye West, Lil Wayne and Drake. Do you still believe that?

Diddy: Definitely. I feel like Drake is somebody that entered professionally in the heavyweight division. He didn’t come in as a middleweight, he didn’t come in as a light heavyweight, he came in as a heavyweight. He’s gonna be a force to be reckoned with for a while. He is the definition of a new age musical rapper . . . going forward a lot of rap artists are going to have [singing and rapping] in their repertoire.

What’s the ranking in that heavyweight division?

Jay, Kanye, Wayne, and Drake.

Jay still No. 1?

Hands down as far as worldwide impact and due to this last album [The Blueprint 3]. He’s moved up in the rankings.

People don’t realize that you two are friends and not just industry acquaintances.

Over the years as we’ve grown, Jay and I have needed each other. We’ve needed to be able to pick up the phone and call somebody that can understand what each other was going through. We needed each other to motivate each other; we needed each other to push each other. We needed each other to support each other and also to challenge each other. He’s definitely been a great friend to me. There’s never been anything that I’ve asked him to do or he’s asked me to do that we really haven’t done for each other.

Give an example of when you had to pick up the phone and call Jay for assistance.

I wanted to do something game-changing with Sean John. And I just picked his brain. I did [a fashion line] before him but I think that business-wise he did a lot of things better than me. He picked the right time to get out and get his check, to sell his company. We sat on the phone and talked about itŃput our egos in our pockets. I didn’t see Sean John versus Roc-A-Wear. I just saw that my man over here is doing it [and I had] a couple of offers for Sean John. It was a beautiful conversation, ‘cause we’re sitting down at this restaurant and we’re talking about apparel. We’re not talking about music. It was a beautiful moment. Two quarter-of-a-billion dollar companies—just getting advice from your competitor. It was something that you heard rich White boys do.

Dr. Dre said that the last beat that floored him was “All About the Benjamins.” How does that make you feel?

It’s humbling. I was in the studio with Dre the other day. He started working on a record for me. Watching him as a producer is watching greatness. We had a lot of similar traits. It was like looking in the mirror. He would ask questions like, “How you feel about this?” People don’t really understand true producers want to know how you feel about things. We are some of the most observant people on the planet.

You’re a lot more into the music now than the last time we spoke.

I was waiting to get a lot of inspiration from the outside and it just wasn’t coming. And I’m not knocking anyone’s hustle that’s out there. I just come from musical history that musically people gave more of themselves . . . I was able to go back and listen to all the great records that I made. I ain’t do it on purpose. Like sometimes I’d be in a club and the DJ was just throwing tributes and would go deep in the crates. I would be like, “Damn, I forgot that I made that one.” It just gave me a deep connection and another level of confidence for me to do me.

Are you feeling more comfortable writing on your own?

Yeah. I learned a lot more. I feel a lot more confident and free. On this album, I wrote like maybe two or three records by myself. But I still like writing with somebody. It helps me. Not using it as a crutch, but I get better results from co-writing; having my own feelings and thoughts, and, you know, getting some help with it. I love the feeling of collaboration, community in the studio. I don’t like being the mad scientist and being in the room by myself.

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Desus & Mero Bless A Bronx Bodega With A Year's Worth of Rent

You know them as the hosts of the hit Showtime series Desus & Mero, aka "the greatest show in late-night history, featuring only illustrious guests." These days you might catch them chatting with President Obama, but  Bronx natives Desus Nice and The Kid Mero have never lost touch with their roots as the Bodega Boys.

"On our first podcast me and Mero used to have to ride the train back afterward," recalls Desus. "And basically our conversation on the train sounded exactly like the podcast. And somebody was like, 'Yo, they sound like two guys you hear in the bodega.' Which was true, because when you hear guys in the bodega, they talk very passionately about things. They may not have all the facts, but they're talking with their hearts."

"Their confidence is strong!" adds Mero with a laugh.

"That's just us," says Desus. "We're raised in bodegas. Probably 90 percent of the food we grew up eating was either our mother's cooking or chopped cheese sandwiches."

"Facts," Mero confirms.

Ever since the pandemic hit, New York City's community bodegas have served as a lifeline by providing New Yorkers with daily necessities, especially in neighborhoods where door-to-door gourmet food delivery is not an option. But staying open hasn't been easy—the daily risks of doing business under threat from a deadly virus—not to mention a spike in robberies and violence—has made running a bodega very challenging, to say the least. But day in day out, in good times and bad, they find a way to keep their doors open.

"If your block is the solar system, the bodega is the sun," says Mero. "The hood orbits the bodega."

So when the makers of Pepsi cola decided to give back on the bodega owners who provide life-giving sustenance and ice-cold soda to NYC's five boroughs, they reached out to the Bodega Boys as their official goodwill ambassadors. Today Desus & Mero appear in a short film called The Bodega Giveback, which highlights the way one Bronx bodega overcame extreme hardship—and the way Pepsi is helping them keep going after 2020 comes to an end.

For Juan Valerio and his son Jefferson, the proprietors of JJN Corp Deli & Grocery in the Bronx, 2020 has been a horrible year. Juan still remembers when he came to America with his father in 1990. "To buy a bodega at that time was well over $100,000," Juan recalls in the short film, which you can watch above. "It was a dream that seemed unreachable. I never thought I would achieve it. And now this is what I do. My whole life is here."

Then in April 2020, tragedy struck when Juan's father lost his life to COVID 19. For the first time in three decades, the bodega had to close its doors down briefly. "It’s something very powerful to lose what you love the most in a split second," Juan recalls with emotion as his son comforts him with a hug. "Life goes on. And I decided to come back because he always taught me to work. To stay closed was disrespectful to him."

"He had to shut down for a little bit," says Desus. "But then he reopened cause the community needed him. Cause the lockdown a lot of stores closed down. And in the Bronx, you can't really get stuff delivered. And he's the hub. We heard stories of what he did, so we were like, how can we give back to him? Shout out to Pepsi with the Bodega Giveback. And just giving him a year's rent—that's the most amazing thing you can give a bodega owner. Shout out to Juan and his son. The look on their face when they really get it—you see the appreciation."

"It really hit home," said Mero. "Cause it's like, we're children of immigrants. So that could have been us—if we didn't get seen by the right people and put in the right positions, we coulda been workin' alongside our dad at a bodega. And then watchin' your grandfather pass away and then comin' back because you know how important you are to the community. Like, that's really selfless. It's just a dope story. And those stories occur all over the place, it's just people don't see them. Cause they don't get exposed on a national level. But a brand like Pepsi can put that on a national stage and be like,  "Yo, look—this is a mom and pop establishment for real. And these are the small businesses that you supposed to be supporting."

The release of The Bodega Giveback kicks off a larger holiday giveback from Pepsi this season that includes cash gifts to bodega owners and consumers across NYC's five boroughs.  “Pepsi has so many longstanding bodega partners in New York City,” said Umi Patel, CMO of North Division, PepsiCo Beverages North America. “They are not only pillars of the community, but they have gone above and beyond to take care of their loyal customers during the hardships of the COVID-19 pandemic. They have worked around the clock to stay open, filling shelves to ensure their customers, friends, and family have the essentials they need to stay home and stay safe. They have even shifted their businesses to meet the needs of the community, offering new delivery options, adding crucial items like masks and gloves, and more, all while dealing with their own personal challenges of the pandemic. We are proud to do our part in giving back to these unsung heroes.”

From now until December 20, Pepsi will also be surprising customers at local bodegas across the five boroughs by gifting pre-paid credit cards of up to $100.00 per customer.

As Juan says in the film, "one hand washes the other, and with both, we wash our face."

Check out our full convo with Desus & Mero above and the short film, The Bodega Giveback.

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Courtesy of Level.com

Level Announces Their 'Best Man 2020 Awards' Featuring Entertainment Elite to Everyday Kings

It is a hard feat for media brands to survive the content landscape these days. To pull off the incredible undertaking of informing an audience as a new publication in the digital space is damn near impossible, yet the team at Medium's Level has done just that. To celebrate making their mark as a one-stop information shop for black men with their one-year anniversary this week, the team of bright and witty editors has launched their first annual Best Man Awards 2020.

The plan to honor the brand that started in December of 2019, focused on the interests of African-American males, has expanded into encompassing the efforts of a few good men during this mess of a year that is 2020. In doing so, those that broke through barriers of personal pain, new business frontiers, and support of others are highlighted and given the rightful pedestals to gain well-deserved props.

Of the 12 awards, esteemed gents like Swizz Beatz, Timbaland, and D-Nice are saluted as Quarantine Kings for their Verzuz and Club Quarantine (respectively) social media music creations that entertained the masses during the dogged days of our universal shut-down. There is also a heroic soul of a man who protected a black woman and her family from the surrounding presence of racist neighbors on his own time and dime. They have an award for Father of the Year, where former NBA all-star and champion, Dwyane Wade shines as a glowing example of understanding and ushering in new ways of parenting in today's society.

With the awards being a noble move towards giving Black men some much-needed praise in 2020, Level made sure to round up the last 365 days with themes on "The State of Black and Brown Men" as well. Essays that cover the realms of political ideology, coping with covid among Blacks health care workers,  how Black men fell short of protecting Black women, and exploring what Black men see when they look in the mirror (a piece that is a user-generated content driver/audience-led convo). All hard topics that need to be detailed, yet are rarely in a space for deep-dive convo.

Helmed by former VIBE editor-in-chief, Jermaine Hall, Level's editors explain their thoughts on the special coverage and celebration of their one year old brand:

“With the Best Man Awards, we wanted to lean into people who are doing incredible things to support society and publicly thank them. Anthony Herron, Jr is a hero. He stepped up to protect someone he didn’t know because, as he saw it, harassment is unacceptable. LEVEL wanted to make sure he received a nod for his heroics. But there are also several celebrities who are doing things outside of their jobs. D-Nice, Swizz, and Timbaland helped us cope through music. And it wasn’t a paid gig for any of them. They responded because people needed help healing so they provided care. That’s a strong attribute of the LEVEL man. It’s certainly is the definition of men being their best selves."

Click here to read about these individuals and learn more about the Best Man Awards 2020. Excelsior to Level.

 

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