Thousands of people flooded Prospect Park Saturday afternoon for Michael Jackson’s 51st birthday party. Hosted by Spike Lee (who worked on the “They Don’t Really Care About Us” video), the five-hour event, held together by an epic, all-MJ set from Brooklyn’s DJ Spinna, offered the chance to gawk at the King of Pop’s biggest (and most impeccably dressed) fans, as well as myriad impersonators and a handful of celebrities roaming the crowd (we spotted Ed Lover, ex-106 & Park host Free, and Rosie Perez, among others).
Al Sharpton, naturally, kicked things off for those who braved an initial sprinkling of rain: “51 years ago today, history changed,” he began, going on to herald MJ’s “triumphing over social odds” while shouting out both Ted Kennedy and the four-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Spinna came back on the turntables with “The Way You Make Me Feel,” immediately transforming the thoughtful/somber tone into a dancing sing-along.
In an interview with The Root, Lee had said he wanted to make the event “A Brooklyn style block party… a joyous, festive, celebratory party.” A birthday fete, not a memorial service, in other words, which explains the huge, white birthday cake. There were ice-cream trucks and light refreshments (if you could find them), signs that read “Ma Ma Se Ma Ma Sa, Ma Ma Coo Sa” and “Yeah Yeah,” and an unending swirl of colorful balloons and birthday hats dotting the crowd. A large screen projected the stage to the thousands sprawled on the grass; the camera focused on moonwalking/pelvic-thrusting MJ impersonators (some a little creepy) and fans decked from head to toe in memorial buttons, leather, sequins, and that signature hat. Frequently, we were encouraged to “Make Some Noize!!!” Special guests included both the expected (Marty Markowitz) and unexpected (Tracy Morgan, who offered one of the day’s most poignant epitaphs: “I can’t remember my life without Michael Jackson. He was everything”).
By 4:45, Lee had started warning partygoers (all still crammed as close to the stage as possible) that the show would indeed end on schedule at 5. “Man in the Mirror” served as the climax, played karaoke-style, all the lyrics projected onscreen, the backing track drowned out by the roar of thousands singing. The camera surveyed the crowd to show some folks crying and some dancing (sequin-gloved hands in the air), while others just stared in awe at those around them, clearly moved by the overwhelming outpouring of emotion. As we all filed out, I heard a nearby woman lecturing her young daughters: “You’ll never understand what that man did for the world. I brought you here so you can remember this day, you hear me? You remember this and you tell your girls, you hear?”