I was in Kananga when I first heard that Michael Jackson died. There was someone from North Carolina staying in Tshikaji who mentioned it somewhat flippantly in passing. My reaction was, like that of many people around the world, literal disbelief.
I returned to Kinshasa on that Friday evening and my friend’s nephew Patrick, who is in his 20s, picked me up to take me to campus. One of the first questions he asked me was, “Is it true that Michael Jackson has died?” As an American, he expected me to have some sort of privileged insight or authority. I responded that I thought it was; I heard the same thing as him. We spent a couple of minutes commiserating about how great he was and how sad we were. Through our conversation, though, I sensed something else happening. His sense of disbelief was different than my own sense. For him, there was real uncertainty that this was the truth whereas for me it was disbelief as a result of shock and sadness. So I asked him, when and how he heard the news. He told me that late Thursday night (around 11pm, which would be 3pm in California), radio announcers started talking about it. This is the way that news spreads in Kinshasa. It is through rumor, only some of which ends up being truthful. The newspapers and other conventional media often report unfounded rumors. There is even a name for such grapevine reporting, radio trottoir (sidewalk radio). There is a lot of irresponsibility in the media in Kinshasa, though I do admire the public’s sense of skepticism of sources that folks in the US so often accept as beyond reproach.
The story does not end there.
On Sunday, a friend told me that Tabu Ley Rochereau, perhaps the greatest living Congolese musician, also died on the same day as Michael. Here he is with the great Mbilia Bel, his former wife.
I was shocked that I had not heard more about this. Tabu Ley has been sick. He was revered, and served as a governor of Kinshasa until recently. I asked a couple of other people who confirmed it too. Eventually I met some skepticism and, within a couple of days, it was revealed to be a false rumor. You can read about in French. Apparently there was a similar rumor a couple of years ago.
Then, there were reports that the most famous Congolese actor known as “Sans Souci” (né Mateya Matondo) has died as well on the same day as Michael Jackson. Sans Souci was only in his early 50s and starred in many popular television comedies. You can read an obituary here and see a tribute featuring some of his work:
This turned out to be true, but also passed through the rumor mill. When I was with a friend toward the end of my trip, he received text message on his phone that had been making the rounds. It said, in effect, that Michael Jackson was not really dead, but that his death was staged to overshadow the passing of Sans Souci. My friend, like nearly everyone else I imagine, laughed it off.
Throughout the city, there were many memorials for Sans Souci. As with Michael Jackson, the overwhelming sentiment in Kinshasa was deep sadness. Being there really enabled me to appreciate the incredible adoration of Michael Jackson throughout the world. I had a student who told me that he was so sad he did not speak or eat for two days! There was a memorial held for him at the Académie des Beaux Arts, which you can see here: