"Growing up as a young black kid in a township, you either dreamed of being a freedom fighter or being Michael Jackson. It was as simple as that."
So recalls the leading South African R&B artist Loyiso Bala, whose five South African Music Awards are a testament to the fact that he chose to follow the King of Pop.
The 29-year-old likens Jackson's impact on his family—which includes his high-profile musician brothers Zwai and Phelo—to that of former President Nelson Mandela.
"The whole family would drop what they were doing and watch, mesmerized whenever Michael or [Mandela] came on," he says of life in his Kwa-Nobuhle township home, located outside the Eastern Cape town of Uitenhage.
Lupi Ngcayisa, a DJ on Metro FM, South Africa's biggest national urban commercial station, says Jackson's "rich lyrics changed the complexion of black radio."
"He forced black families to debate issues surrounding individualism and race, so his cultural impact here extended beyond simply the music," he says.
That impact was most visible in 1997 when the HIStory tour came to the country for a five-date run that ended Oct. 15 at Durban's King's Park Stadium, the performer's final full-scale concert in support of a studio album. The shows are still the largest the country has ever seen, attracting 230,000 people, according to Attie Van Wyk, CEO of the presenting promoter, Cape Town-based Big Concerts.
Equally notable for a country just three years into post-apartheid democracy was the audience mix. "Black and white, young and old, Michael drew a huge crossover audience that we still don't see often at shows," tour publicist Penny Stein says.
Duncan Gibbon, now strategic marketing director at Sony Music Entertainment South Africa, who worked Jackson's catalog as far back as the apartheid era, says Jackson sold more than 2 million albums in South Africa. More importantly, he says Jackson's music was a unifying point for a deeply divided society.
"South African radio was very racially segmented in the years before 1994," he says. "But Michael proved to be the one artist whose music was played on white pop stations and black R&B stations. It doesn't sound like much now, but it was a very potent thing when you think back to how apartheid attempted to keep everything about black and white society separate." --Diane Coetzer