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Music, mourning as fans say farewell in LA to Michael Jackson

LOS ANGELES — They sang his songs among the stars and imagined him dancing across the moon, and for a few hours, during this most public of memorials, all eyes were on Michael Jackson one last time.

About 20,000 people gathered inside the Staples Center on Tuesday for a somber, spiritual ceremony, watched by untold millions more around the world.

A star-studded lineup of performers closely linked to Jackson's life and music reached back for the essence of the man. They remembered Jackson as an unparalleled singer, dancer and humanitarian whose music united people.

"Don't focus on the scars, focus on the journey," said the Rev. Al Sharpton. "Every time he got knocked down, he got back up," Sharpton said, and the applauding crowd jumped to its feet.

"There wasn't nothing strange about your daddy. It was strange what your daddy had to deal with!" Sharpton said to Jackson's three children in the front row.

Jackson's daughter, Paris, later provided the only real surprise: the first public statement of her 11 years.

"Ever since I was born, Daddy has been the best father I could imagine," she said, dissolving in tears and turning to her aunt Janet. "I just want to say I love him so much."

Unlike Jackson's life, the ceremony was not spectacular, extravagant or bizarre. Outside the arena, however, the celebrity-industrial complex that Jackson helped create ground on.

Memorabilia explosion

More than 3,000 police officers massed downtown to keep the ticketless at bay. Helicopters followed the golden casket as it was driven over blocked-off freeways. A bazaar of T-shirts, buttons and photos sprouted in the blocks around the memorial.

Inside, however, the atmosphere was churchlike, assisted by a video image of a stained-glass window with red-gold clouds blowing past.

The ceremony began with Smokey Robinson reading statements from Diana Ross, "Michael was part of the fabric of my life," and then Nelson Mandela, "Be strong."

A silence of several minutes followed, punctuated only by a steady twinkle of camera flashes.

Celebrities made their way to their places in front of the stage: Kobe Bryant, Spike Lee, Wesley Snipes, Lou Ferrigno, Don King, the Kardashian sisters, Magic Johnson, Brooke Shields, Larry King. While Jackson was among the most famous faces in the world, today's megastars were largely absent. Those present mostly reflected some connection to Jackson's life or work.

Among those conspicuously elsewhere was Debbie Rowe, Jackson's ex-wife and the mother of Jackson's two oldest children.

The fans were a visual representation of Jackson's life: white, black and everything in between; from Mexico, Japan, Italy or the United States; wearing fedoras, African headdresses, sequins or surgical masks.

"Words can't express how I feel," said Dani Harris, a 35-year-old stay-at-home mom from Los Angeles.

"You think about one person, larger than presidents and kings and queens," Harris said. "People in countries you can't even see on the map know his face, his music."

The Rev. Lucious W. Smith of Friendship Baptist Church in Pasadena gave the greeting, standing on the same stage where Jackson had been rehearsing for a comeback concert before his death June 25 at age 50. Then Mariah Carey sang a sweet rendition of the Jackson 5 ballad "I'll Be There," a duet with Trey Lorenz.

Queen Latifah read a poem composed by Maya Angelou for Jackson.

"Sing our songs among the stars and walk our dances across the face of the moon," Angelou wrote.

"We had him, whether we knew who he was or did not know. / He was ours, and we were his."

Lionel Richie sang gospel, "Jesus Is Love." Berry Gordy remembered the prodigy of young Michael, drawing a standing ovation when he said the title King of Pop no longer would suffice: "He is simply the greatest entertainer who ever lived."

The parade of famous names continued: Jennifer Hudson, Stevie Wonder, Usher, Martin Luther King III and his sister Bernice. Magic Johnson cracked up the crowd with an anecdote about Jackson and a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken.

For a performer who smashed the race barrier on MTV and did as much as anyone to make black music mainstream — not to mention was accused of trying to turn himself white through skin treatments and plastic surgery — the ceremony had a remarkably black cast. John Mayer and Brooke Shields were the only white celebs with major roles.

Traffic, crowds manageable

One unexpected aspect was the logistics. The mayhem and traffic snarls that had been feared by city officials never materialized. The city set up a Web site to allow fans to contribute money to help pay for the memorial, which was estimated to cost $1.5 million to $4 million.

It was not clear what will happen to Jackson's body. Jackson's brother Jermaine has expressed a desire to have him buried at Neverland.

The ceremony ended with Jackson's family on stage, amid a choir, singing "Heal the World."

"All around us are people of different cultures, different religions, different nationalities," Smith said as he closed the service. "And yet the music of Michael Jackson brings us together."

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