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Hollywood DJ Says She’ll No Longer Play Michael Jackson; Implores Others to Follow

Michelle Pesce's motto used to be "If all else fails, Michael Jackson."

There’s a moment I keep remembering that hits me hard. It was the Golden Globes in 2018 at the height of the Times Up movement and I was deejaying a major after-party. I ended the night, as I have so many times, with Michael Jackson’s “Man In the Mirror.” It capped off an empowerment-themed music set and a golden globe statuette sat on my DJ booth — its female winner among the last guests. Singing along with the stragglers at the top of their lungs, she looked me straight in the eyes and said, “I will never forget this moment.”

These songs — about making the world a better place; it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white — are concepts that are conscious and evolved and that so many of us strive for. I think about the magic of that night, memorialized on Instagram, and how crazy that scene seems now. I mean, we didn’t know, but did we?

At the beginning of the year, I made the decision to no longer play songs by Michael Jackson during my DJ sets. I choose to believe that, in the wake of the HBO documentary “Leaving Neverland,” you cannot separate the art from the artist when it comes to using your public platform.

Literally, my motto as a DJ has always been: if all else fails, Michael Jackson. When I DJ at an event, whether you’re a guest who’s 13 or 70, you know Michael Jackson and you dance to Michael Jackson. His music has long been my go-to, and for the last seven years, I’ve even co-hosted a monthly ’80s and ’90s night at the Dime called “Off the Wall.”

Back when the Martin Bashir Michael Jackson TV special aired in 2003, I remember thinking about the explanation that was offered: that Jackson, a superstar at the time, had been sheltered for so long that he remained in a child-like state. Maybe we were putting a darkness on it that wasn’t deserved. You want to love the person who stood for universal peace and being good to each other. You want to love someone who made such brilliant art. Improper behavior occurred but the sexual abuse was not confirmed and we all moved on. You don’t want to believe these things. You consider that there’s misinformation or even an agenda. But isn’t that what predators do? Make you question?

When I became full-time DJ, I chose to play his music and don’t recall thinking twice about it. Sure, I heard comments made over the years, but we all loved his messages, the music and the feeling that it created on the dance floor. It wasn’t until October 2018 while sitting in a room in Dublin listening to an interview with journalist Maureen Orth that I knew it was time to gut-check. She wasn’t being interviewed about Michael Jackson, but having done a tremendous amount of research on him, she shared, rather matter-of-factly, that he was the biggest predator she’d known.

Reality smacked me in the face. Had my own love for — and even need to play — this artist outweighed what countless victims have endured? To speak their truth and to then be vilified, ignored or forgotten.

For so many years, I chose to put this in the back of my head. With the documentary, where allegations of sexual abuse are made by Wade Robson and James Safechuck in stomach-churning details, most people are now believing the victims. But I also have compassion for Michael as a victim, as well. He too was abused and had unresolved trauma.

People have been messaging me left and right about the documentary, but the reaction among the DJ community is mixed. Traveling to Sundance, I happened to be on the same flight as two male DJ friends of mine and I mentioned the documentary. They were continuing to play Michael Jackson’s music at that point. Others are limiting the songs to those from the Jackson Five era, which I also tried to do. Twice this year, I played Jackson Five, because in my mind, it was child Michael. But I’ve been on the fence about it, too. I believe this will change as more DJs hear the accounts of grooming and abuse from these men.  I personally don’t want my irresponsibility on song selection to be the cause of something that’s highly triggering to somebody who has been sexually abused or mentally beaten in the same way. It’s just so … alive.

As a DJ, I’m constantly finding that balance between being sensitive about a song’s lyrical content or an artist’s controversial past and still enjoying the music. I’ll think, “Do I play this Biggie song that equates a women’s worth with being a sex object?” Disrespectful verbiage and misogyny is all over hip-hop, a genre I love. But in an era of Time’s Up and #metoo, I’ve found myself cringing at certain lyrics. And as a female DJ, it’s getting harder to justify those spins.

If one thing that comes out of “Leaving Neverland” is an uncomfortable conversation, then we should be having it. Because I don’t think people are just evil. We need to try to understand what causes this behavior and go at that with a more evolved approach, rather than just a big middle finger to Michael Jackson. Even better, if a member of Michael’s family could start a real conversation and make this a point of change — that their brother, son, uncle was abused and traumatized. That he was sick, had untreated trauma and these things came out of that cycle. It’s why we need support for mental health within our community, our country and our world.

I’m not the arbiter on what’s right in this situation. I hope that the future shines light on the truth of what really happened. But this is bigger than any one person and it is a divisive topic: can you separate the artists from their amazing art? I can’t and I’d encourage my fellow DJs to follow.

Michelle Pesce is one of the top DJs in Hollywood, founder of artist booking agency nona and a co-founder of woman. Find her on instagram at @djmichellepesce.

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