Abstract: Ghana artist Amaarae recently referred to Michael Jackson as “the world’s most famous man after Jesus” MJ Studies Today columnist Kerry Hennigan considers this statement in the context of Jackson’s global following, and his appeal across many cultures where it is expressed not just in record sales but in tributes paid by his fans.
Column by Kerry Hennigan, editor of the monthly newsletter, A Candle for Michael, administrator of the widely-subscribed Facebook group “Michael Jackson’s Short Film ‘Ghosts’” and MJ blogger. Student of Ancient History, Archaeology and Anthropology.
Hennigan, Kerry. “MJ Studies Today LXXVII: The greatest superstar in the world? An assessment of the global phenomenon of Michael Jackson’s fame.” (14-5-2022). The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies 8, No. 4 (2022). https://michaeljacksonstudies.org/mj-studies-today-lxxvii/
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The greatest superstar in the world? An assessment of the global phenomenon of Michael Jackson’s fame.
By Kerry Hennigan
Approximately twenty years ago, director Erling Söderström filmed a group of Amazonian Indians watching video footage of major news events, such as the moon landing, 9/11 attacks, a major soccer star, and also Michael Jackson performing onstage during his HIStory world tour (1996-1997). They didn’t know about the moon landing and were concerned about the negative impact it could have for conditions on Earth. They couldn’t understand modern warfare and appeared to be shocked by the footage of the 9/11 attacks in New York. Neither did they know France’s most famous soccer star of the day. However, all the young members of the tribe were familiar with Michael Jackson. The interviewer told them Jackson was considered the greatest superstar in the world. Wherever in the world one went, there was always someone there who knew of Michael Jackson, he told them. 
In order to have the recognition that Jackson had during his career, and continues to have posthumously, one needs to have a global following passionate enough to keep one’s fame growing. That’s certainly true for Jackson, though, of course, he’s not the first this can be said about. However, where Jackson wins out over most artists who have gone before him is his appeal to audiences of many cultures, countries and ideologies. Not only has his music been heard all over the world, but he toured in many places other Western artists had seldom visited at the time. He went to former Eastern bloc cities like Prague and Bucharest; he went to Tunis, Tunisia in North Africa where few other western artists had ventured. His short films were shot on location in countries like Hungary and Brazil.
In African countries the locals celebrated Michael as someone who had “come home” when he visited there, which he did often, whether or not he was on tour. Nelson Mandela considered him a “son.” In India he has long been accorded the status of an icon – someone loved by many of the country’s own entertainment luminaries and frequently referenced by them in their own performances and films.
In various Asian countries Jackson left memories that continue to surface online when a significant anniversary occurs – perhaps putting on a charity concert, visiting an orphanage or handing out Christmas presents to children in lieu of Santa Claus. Those children may not have known who Jackson was at the time, but you can be sure they do now. In China his fans in many cities have funded statues of their idol which have been erected in public places with the blessing of local authorities, yet Jackson didn’t perform a single concert in China (though he did visit Zhongshan City in Guangdong Province on a seven-hour day trip from Hong Kong in 1987). 
Ghanaian female artist, Amaarae (real name Ama Serwah Genfi) recently tweeted something that provoked a media headline in her own country. “After Jesus, Michael Jackson is probably the most famous human being to ever exist,” she wrote on her official Twitter account Fountain Baby @amaarae.  Whether or not this is a reasonable statement to make would depend on the social and cultural context from which it comes.
Regardless, of its relevance, it is interesting to ponder what Jackson himself, raised a devout Jehovah’s Witness, and someone who continued to reference Jesus respectfully long after his split with the church, would think of such a suggestion. Jackson was raised by his mother to follow the example of the Saviour written about in her Bible. A frequent reader of the Bible himself, Michael took that message to heart, and continued to honour it throughout his life.
Whether he is the next in line to Jesus in terms of world renown probably wouldn’t interest him as much as knowing he continues to inspire others to pursue careers in entertainment, work for a healthier environment, or simply to share the love he believed needed to be put back into our wounded world.  For Michael, I think the measure of his fame that would be most important to him would be the amount of good that has come from it.
Fan-generated charity groups and sponsorships of children’s charities, human rights, animal welfare and environmental campaigns are probably the best reflection of Michael Jackson’s status as a global entertainment icon and cultural phenomenon. It tells us that many of his fans have taken to heart his message about the importance of love, demonstrated by caring for one another and taking care of the planet.
“The foundation of all human knowledge, the beginning of human consciousness, must be that each and every one of us is an object of love.”
– Michael Jackson. Oxford Union speech, 2001. 
 The Hidden Tribes of the Amazon. (2002) Directed by Erling Söderström. Watch relevant excerpt on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eafOkWXjqjc
 ZS News “When Michael Jackson Visited Mainland China.” 29 June 2009. https://worldmeets.us/CSNews000001.shtml#.YnPBy-hBy3C
 Ghanaweb.com “Amaarae declares Michael Jackson as the world’s famous man after Jesus.” Published electronically 18 Apl 2022. https://www.ghanaweb.com/GhanaHomePage/entertainment/Amaarae-declares-Michael-Jackson-as-the-world-s-famous-man-after-Jesus-1518152
 Michael Jackson’s “This Is It” Speech, 2009 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wPZ39HqROuA
 Michael Jackson’s Oxford Union Speech 2001. Blogged by https://mjjjusticeproject.wordpress.com/2012/03/09/michael-jacksons-oxford-union-speech-2001/
Illustration: “love’s enough for us…” photo montage compiled by Kerry Hennigan. No photographic copyright infringement is intended in this not-for-profit, educational exercise.