Tito Joe 'TJ' Jackson Remembers How Grandmother Stepped Up After Mom's Murder: 'A Place of Safety and Stability'

Michael and Janet Jackson's musician nephew calls his grandmother Katherine Jackson, 91, "the maternal figure I needed from that point on"

When Michael Jackson died at age 50 in 2009, it wasn't the first time his nephew Tito Joe "TJ" Jackson had to live through the tragic passing of a close family member under mysterious circumstances.

TJ was just 16 when his 39-year-old mother, Dolores "Dee Dee" Martes-Jackson, was found dead in her boyfriend's swimming pool, in a case that, like Michael's, was eventually ruled a homicide. In true Jackson family fashion, the other women in TJ's life — aunts Rebbie, Latoya and Janet, and especially his grandmother Katherine — helped fill the void left by the loss of his mom.

"I always say to my grandmother that she was the maternal figure I needed from that point on," TJ, 43, a musician who is currently working on his first solo album, tells PEOPLE. "That kept me straight and kept me focused and kept me on the path of a great life. She was that one constant that was always there."

Katherine Jackson helped teach TJ and his two older brothers, Taj, 48, and Taryll, 46, the importance of family. (Their father is Tito Jackson, 68, who split from TJ's mom in 1993 after 21 years of marriage.) He was very close to his "Uncle Michael," and TJ was 8 years old when he and his brothers appeared in the video of their aunt Janet Jackson's 1986 single "When I Think of You," her first No 1 on Billboard's Hot 100.

TJ Jackson Katherine Jackson
TJ Jackson and Katherine Jackson. Paul Archuleta/FilmMagic; Ethan Miller/Getty/Cirque du Soleil

By then, the three brothers already had visions of being music superstars in their own right — just like their dad and uncles, who hit the music scene in 1969 as The Jackson 5 and quickly racked up four consecutive No. 1 hits, including "I Want You Back" and "ABC." Early on, the trio was offered a deal from Motown Records, the label that launched the Jackson 5, but they decided to follow Michael's advice to "enjoy your youth," and turned it down.

"We were chomping at the bit for like three, four years to release music," TJ says. "So we actually held back, but looking back, I'm happy and proud of it because I did get to experience my youth and not have to go from show to show at 12, 13 years old. It all worked out in the end."

Indeed, in 1995, calling themselves 3T and signed to Michael's MJJ Records, the siblings released their debut album, Brotherhood. It spawned the single "Anything," which went to No. 15 on Billboard's Hot 100 and No. 2 in the U.K., where the album produced four other big hits over two years. They were so popular in Europe that in 1996, they were the biggest-selling group there, after Spice Girls. TJ still remembers 3T's first headlining show at Wembley Arena in London — as much for the reaction of their family as for the experience itself.

"My grandmother told us that my grandfather was crying, and just me thinking about my grandfather, Joe Jackson, crying — it's something I can't even think of. She asked him, 'Why are you crying?' He said, 'We've come a long way.' That is so powerful. There was just a lot of pride."

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For all that pride, the boys still weren't quite satisfied with their accomplishments. "We were struggling because we're like, 'We're not there yet. You know, we're not there,'" TJ admits. "Michael was doing stadiums and Janet was breaking records. What were we doing? We were getting in the top five, but we weren't at number one like we were supposed to be."

It was the family's biggest star, the King of Pop who by then had been the biggest thing in music for more than a decade, who tried to teach them the value of patience.

"I remember my Uncle Michael was like, 'Slow down, slow down. You guys are doing so well. Be proud of it. Appreciate it,'" TJ remembers. "We couldn't. And looking back again, he was right. You got to appreciate those moments."

Now that he's older and wiser with less to prove, TJ is finally embracing the advice Uncle Michael gave him all those years ago. As he embarks on a solo career, he's still looking to his 91-year-old grandmother, Katherine Jackson, for guidance when it comes to navigating the treacherous waters of the music industry and everyday life.

"There are many maternal figures in my life," TJ says. "But it was the unspoken language, the connectivity to this world from my grandmother, that I really felt I needed [after my mother died] and still receive. There's no love like it."

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