Amid the developments of the ongoing Jackson vs. AEG trial, claims about Michael Jackson's posthumous earning power have been in the news lately. Recently, Cirque du Soleil premiered "Michael Jackson One" in Las Vegas, a co-creation with Jackson's estate. Meanwhile, Cirque's record-breaking touring show "Michael Jackson The Immortal World Tour" has earned an estimated $300 million since it opened in 2011. As the fourth anniversary of his death nears, Jackson undoubtedly remains a money-making machine.
Yet the King of Pop gave the world more than entertainment and escapism: he also offered it charity and civic engagement.
The "King of Hearts" is how a twenty-something Chinese fan from Guangzhou province described the King of Pop to me.
A noted humanitarian, Jackson was hailed in the Guinness World Records for the most charitable contributions for a pop star (thirty-nine). He recorded charity singles such as "We are the World" and donated proceeds from multiple world tours to charities.
The deceased Jackson has in fact emerged as a global platform for philanthropy.
Spurred by Jackson's premature death at age fifty, fans from Asia to Africa make donations in his name and partner up with non-profits and charities to help complete Jackson's goals to raise awareness about the environment and provide charity for the impoverished and sick.
I witnessed firsthand Jackson's ability to inspire when I attended a Jackson fan tribute in Guangzhou, China, in 2011. During the unveiling of a sculpture of the King of Pop, fans took up a collection for UNICEF. Surprisingly, I heard from numerous Chinese fans that they preferred to watch footage of Jackson's philanthropy - visiting hospitals and distributing gifts to burn victims and cancer-ridden patients while on his world tours - even more than his performances.
Fans in Beijing took Jackson's messages about the environment to the streets. On the first anniversary of Jackson's death, they organized a "green bike march" in the highly polluted city to raise awareness about toxins and encourage the reduction of car emissions. Wearing Jackson T-shirts and sequined gloves, fans biked around the city blasting Jackson's music from boomboxes and carried signs such as the one that proclaimed in Chinese and English, "Protecting the environment starts with yourself -- I Heart MJ".
Chinese fans continue to follow Jackson's example, raising money for children with diseases. Some fans note that as a result of their exposure to Jackson's messages about the environment and charity in his lyrics and music videos, they are more aware of energy conservation, recycling, and wildlife preservation.
Then there's the American organization A Million Trees for Michael, a non-profit that partners with American Forests. AMTFM plants trees around the world in honor of Jackson. Their website states, "We're committed to carrying on with Michael's message...Our hope is to have 'Michael Jackson Memorial Forests' in as many countries as possible, on every continent, as Michael was so beloved all over the world."
Founder Trisha Franklin claims she was moved by Jackson's lyrics and visuals to save the environment in his posthumous concert film "This Is It", and wanted to put his plea into action. As of June 2013, AMTFM has planted 26,922 trees in Michael Jackson's name with contributions from the international fan community.
Another project to which Jackson fans contribute is the construction of an orphanage in Liberia, Africa, called "Everland". Initiated in 2011, this project helps children from Liberia and the Ivory Coast who are displaced and orphaned from civil war and the effects of disease. Everland is organized by Michael Jackson's Legacy, an Anglo-American charitable organization. MJL was founded by Dee, who was orphaned as a child and who, according to the site, "credits Michael for getting her through a traumatic childhood and later, for instilling in her a commitment and dedication to helping those less fortunate." As of June 2013, fans from thirty-one countries have donated $49,471 to Everland.
Apparently, the realm of entertainment provides an alternate route to civic engagement, as USC's Henry Jenkins has pointed out. Professor Jenkins studies the Harry Potter Alliance, a non-profit organization that uses themes from the Potter franchise to engage youth and encourage real-world social justice. The HPA's site claims to "empower our members to act like the heroes that they love by acting for a better world." The HPA mobilizes fans to raise money for disaster relief in Haiti, donate books for literacy projects, and raise funds for civilians in Darfur.
To be sure, philanthropy cannot fully address structural issues of development and inequality. Yet as concerned citizens we want young people to become involved in caring for the planet and its peoples. My students are interested in the HPA's work and intrigued by the possibilities of fan philanthropy. Fan philanthropy, in that case, can be a powerful tool for civic engagement and social change.