Thursday, February 3, 2011

Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye

From the moment the Jackson 5 touched down in Dakar, cameras were rolling to record their every move for a planned documentary, the brainchild of the concert promoter Johnny Secka, a Senegalese filmmaker (not to be confused with Johnny Secka, a Senegalese actor).

Secka had first met Michael and Joe Jackson at the Academy Awards ceremony in 1973, when Michael was there to sing one of the nominated songs, "Ben." According to reports, it was then that Secka told Joe he wanted to get the Jackson 5 to Africa. Secka, then just 26 years old, was quite the entrepreneur. He had moved to the United States to pursue his career, but his heart remained in Africa, and he was driven to get American soul acts to perform there. At the same time, he was also working to get James Brown, B.T. Express, the Staple Singers, and Stevie Wonder to come to Africa. He was acting not just as a de facto goodwill ambassador and concert promoter, but he also hoped to stimulate the economies of West African countries and to get Americans to pay attention to some of the local talent in Africa.

The Jackson 5 tour to Africa was Secka's first big success. The documentary film he made based on their trip, called The Jackson 5 in Africa was really more of a publicity tool than it was a work of art. That's why the 60-minute film appears to American viewers to be more of an educational film than a concert film. Watching the film, we learn more about Dakar and modern West Africa than we do the Jackson 5. In this regard, Secka was really quite the brilliant strategist and businessman, not unlike Berry Gordy, Jr. He was essentially a one-man "USA for Africa" about a decade ahead of his time.

The film itself premiered at the United Nations in November 1974, and got a bit of play in big-city markets, but it was probably not the smash hit Secka or the Jacksons had been hoping for. The most interesting part of the film for J5 fans is, without a doubt, the live concert footage. We see them singing "Hum Along and Dance," "Feelin' Alright" and "You Need Love Like I Do (Don't You)," amongst scenes of them at the National Palace, visiting an artists' village, and awkwardly answering questions at a press conference conducted mostly in French. At the end of the film -- and perhaps most tellingly -- narrator Robert Hooks makes a plea for other Black artists, or "displaced persons," to return to Africa.

Sadly, Johnny Secka never got to realize his dream. He died five years later at age 32. At the time of his death, he was just putting the finishing touches on a tour that would bring Bob Marley and the Wailers to Gabon.

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