x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

The day I met Michael Jackson

Maryam Ismail, a columnist with The National, met a relatively unknown Michael Jackson 40 years ago.

A Michael Jackson photographed for the cover of Rolling Stone magazine in 1971.
A Michael Jackson photographed for the cover of Rolling Stone magazine in 1971.

Maryam Ismail, a regular columnist with The National who now lives in Sharjah, met a relatively unknown Michael Jackson 40 years ago when she was a five-year-old girl growing up in New Jersey. Here she recalls the little boy she will never forget. When I heard the awful news, my mind jumped back in time. Back 40 years to a hot, summer Saturday afternoon in Harlem, New York. Back to when I was a five-year-old girl on a day out with my mother. Back to the day I met a rambunctious, smart-alec, 10-year-old boy who wanted to show me his new dance moves.

My mother danced at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem. It was - still is - the spiritual home of black American music, and it was her second home too. She just couldn't stay away. My father was different, he liked to stay home, so she always took me with her. When we got there we would do the rounds, first backstage, then the refreshment stand, and then front-row centre. That was our spot. It was there that I saw them all: the Chi-Lites, the Stylistics, Gladys Knight and the Pips, the Delfonics, James Brown, and other stars that most people under 40 don't know.

My mother knew nearly all the R&B stars of the Sixties and Seventies. It's a tale involving impossibilities, love, and lots of unanswered questions. My parents loved to tell stories, and this was one of theirs: one late night my mother was just getting off work at the Apollo when she met the handsomest man in the world - my father, who just happened to be out front, taking a break from driving his lorry.

Love at first sight made my mother trade in her dancing costume and her baby cobra for a life of love that lasted more than 30 years. It's funny how things start out one way and have a completely different ending. Our trip that day from our home in Newark, New Jersey, took two buses and two trains. I was a little slow following my mother off the train, and got caught between the doors. "Grab my hand. I'll pull you out," my mother shouted. I really thought I was going to die, but she got me out before the train began to move.

It was one of the scariest days of my life, but that's not the only reason I'll never forget it. Coming out of the subway we met this guy who was walking alone, as we approached the Apollo on 125th in Harlem. "See you later," he and my mother said to each other after speaking briefly, and we continued on our way. I didn't think to ask who he was; my mother knew so many people. I loved the Apollo too. Walking under the marquee, I loved to look at the Wall of Fame, a ground-to-ceiling panorama of all the performers who had performed there since the 1940s.

The Jackson 5 were new then. Two years earlier they had won the regular Amateur Night at the Apollo, but they had still to be "discovered" by Diana Ross. That day they were low down on the bill and performed in the early evening. When the curtain went up and this group of five boys stood there ready to dazzle the crowd, the audience seemed more curious than enthralled - even when they performed their soon-to-be hit, ABC. Who were they?

It wasn't until later that evening, backstage, that I realised who that stranger on the street was: Joe Jackson, the family patriarch. In the spacious backstage lounge we met Mr Joe again. Then it clicked. He was with those kids on stage. "Hey, I want you to meet someone," he said to me. Next, here comes this kid with a huge afro hairstyle. He had changed out of the white shirt with the long, pointy lapels into a loose, golden brown turtleneck, two shades lighter than his chestnut brown skin.

Taking a few hops before he landed on the steps where I was sitting, he spoke without looking directly at me, as boys often do with girls. "Hi, how ya doin'?" "Hi." "Look at this." He jumped down three steps at a time." I wasn't impressed. "Is that all?" "No, I can do more than that, you'll see." And we did. Oh, didn't we just. The greatest song-and-dance man of all time, maybe the greatest entertainer of all time.

But that day he smoked me. I guess that's what I remember most about him. I was jealous of his wit. Not mad, just jealous. Of all of the things Michael Jackson later became famous for, no one could imagine the kid that I met that day. But that's the boy I can never forget. The only proof that this other Michael ever existed is in the Jackson 5 TV cartoon, where he was always trying to get in on the action, and his big brothers were always kicking him out with: "This is not for you, small fry." Can you see the irony of it?

How many times have I looked at the Michael we now know and wondered what happened? "What did they do to you?" I've always wanted to ask. When I met him that day he was more than just another talented kid, but he still seemed to know the difference between performing on stage and just being him. When did he begin to feel that the show never ended? Peace, Michael. I pray that in death he has found that peace that so escaped him in life. Through Islam many people find this in their lives. Michael's brother Jermaine, a Muslim since 1989, is the epitome of peace. It is rumoured that Michael converted to Islam in 2008. I hope so. I hope it was purification for him.

When it was time to go that day backstage at the Apollo, we both said: "See ya later." He waved, and he was gone. I never saw him again.