Less than a day after Michael Jackson’s death, the mayor of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, announced that the city would erect a statue of the singer in Dona Marta, a favela that was once notorious for drug dealing and is now a model for social development. The change was spurred partly by Jackson’s 1996 visit to film the video for “They Don’t Care About Us.”
When Jackson came to Brazil to shoot the video, directed by Spike Lee, Rio’s local government became concerned that the singer would show the world an unflattering picture of poverty. At the time, Brazilians, like people the world over, saw Jackson as an idol. He’d been to the country twice before, once with the Jackson 5 in the ’70s and again in 1993, when he played two concerts in São Paulo to 100,000 people each night.
At the time, the concert promoter Dodi Sirena recalls a “sensitive” artist who asked for an amusement park to be reserved for his use, then invited children from the poorest public schools. “He displayed great concern for everything in the country, with poverty, with street children,” Sirena says.
In that context, Jackson’s choice of locale for his video made sense. “The video is about the people no one cares about,” says Claudia Silva, press liaison for Rio’s office of tourism.
When Jackson shot the video in Rio, Silva was a journalist for the daily newspaper O Globo, but Lee and his staff had banned journalists from the shoot because Dona Marta drug dealers didn’t want the attention. But Silva found a family that let her spend the night at their home and saw the favela residents washing the streets to prepare for Jackson’s arrival. “The people were so proud,” Silva says. “That was the best thing for me. People got up early to clean the area, they prepared for him, they took out the trash.”
Jackson arrived by helicopter but walked the streets of Dona Marta shaking hands and distributing candy. “People were very surprised in the end, because they were expecting an extraterrestrial guy,” Silva says. “And he was—it sounds strange to say this—a normal guy.”
Jackson shot scenes in Salvador, alongside throngs of people, accompanied by the Afro-Brazilian cultural group Olodum. In the video, he can be seen dancing to the beat of hundreds of Olodum’s drummers and with cheering fans who reach out to touch him—and at one point burst through security and push him to the floor.
"This process to make Dona Marta better started with Michael Jackson," Silva says. "Now it’s a safe favela. There are no drug dealers anymore, and there’s a massive social project. But all the attention started with Michael Jackson." —Leila Cobo