All of the stars had sung their songs and said their goodbyes when a child, just 11 years old, took the microphone. Onstage at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, the family of Michael Jackson, dressed all in black, surrounded the little girl as she spoke. “Ever since I was born, Daddy has been the best father you could ever imagine,” Paris Jackson said of her father through sobs, as the world heard her voice for the very first time. “And I just wanted to say … I love him so much.”
His daughter’s tearful words were the emotional breaking point of a spectacular, star-studded memorial for Michael Jackson on July 7, a day the world seemed to pause together to take measure of its loss. Twelve days after Jackson’s shocking death at 50, his family rallied to stage a massive, full-blown tribute to the singer that, by some estimates, became one of the most-watched broadcasts in history—a fitting send-off for a singular showman. No matter what you believe of Jackson’s legacy—his astonishing talents, or his troubles offstage—there is no denying that Jackson’s life, and now his death, profoundly affected his millions of fans in a way that is rarely seen. And inside the Staples Center, all the controversy surrounding the singer gave way to a simple, stirring theme: remembering all that was good about a remarkable artist. “He was ours and we were his …” Maya Angelou said in a poem read by Queen Latifah. Now he will “sing our songs among the stars and walk our dances across the face of the moon.”
After a private, early-morning memorial at Forest Lawn cemetery in the Hollywood Hills, Jackson’s parents, his five brothers—in matching yellow ties and single white gloves—along with his three sisters and his three young children filled the front rows of the Staples Center—the scene of Jackson’s final rehearsal a day before his death—for a 2-hour 45-minute ceremony that mixed poignant remembrances with stunning musical numbers: Mariah Carey singing “I’ll Be There,” Michael’s brother Jermaine singing a poignant “Smile.” Millions more watched on screens set up across the country: in Harlem near the Apollo Theater, at a museum in Detroit. Everywhere the mood was both sad and celebratory, mournful and thankful.
The memorial diverted attention, at least briefly, away from the many unanswered questions regarding Jackson’s death. The most-pressing concern: his children, Prince Michael I, 12; Paris, 11; and Blanket (Prince Michael II), 7; and who will get custody of them (the next hearing will be held on July 13). Jackson “was a 24-hour father,” says family friend Kevin McLin. “He cared for them more than anything in life.” When they were told their father had died on June 25, the children asked to see him at the hospital to say one last goodbye.
At the private ceremony for their father at Forest Lawn, a motorcade of more than 20 Range Rovers, Escalades and Rolls Royces departed from the Jackson family’s home in Encino, early on July 7. Before the gates on the property swung closed, the family’s dog stood in the empty driveway, turning his head and watching the convoy disappear down Hayvenhurst Avenue.
At Forest Lawn, Jackson’s brothers carried his hand-polished, 14k-gold casket—lined with crushed velvet and covered with red, white and yellow roses—into the auditorium. Afterward the motorcade slowly traveled to the Staples Center on highways closed down by police. At the Staples Center, where the stage resembled a spacious altar surrounded by flowers, Jackson’s casket was wheeled in to strains of the gospel hymn “Soon and Very Soon.” It was placed front and center, just below the stage and a few feet from his family: mother Katherine, father Joe, his brothers and sisters. Fans gasped and cried as star after star came out to honor Jackson. His friend Stevie Wonder told the crowd, “I can’t help but love you forever, Michael,” before singing “Never Dreamed You’d Leave in Summer.” Jennifer Hudson, resplendent in a billowy white dress, sang Jackson’s hit “Will You Be There” interspersed with a tape of Jackson himself slowly intoning the lyrics: “In our darkest hour/ In my deepest despair/ Will you still care?/ Will you be there?”
Diana Ross, named in Jackson’s 2002 will as the person he wanted to have custody of his kids should his mother Katherine, 79, be unable to care for them, did not attend but sent a message saying, “I am there in my heart … Michael wanted me to be there for his children, and I will be there if they ever need me.”
Yet there was more than enough star power on hand. The Rev. Al Sharpton whipped the crowd into a frenzy with his fire-and-brimstone eulogy—”[Michael] outsang his cynics! He outdanced his doubters!”—while Brooke Shields said, “M.J.’s laugh was the sweetest, purest laugh of anyone’s I have ever known.” For the big finale, the stars—and Jackson’s children—came onstage for a rendition of “We Are the World,” the global anthem Richie co-wrote with Jackson (at press time there was no word on when Jackson would be buried).
At the end of the show, right after Jermaine and Marlon spoke of their brother, Paris paid her tribute. “I was okay until his daughter” said Jimmy Jam. “It makes you think about your kids. It just humanizes everything.” For a man who wished to be thought of not as a personality but as a person, Paris’s words would have surely pleased Jackson—and broken his heart.