I do not obsess about celebrities. In fact, I think the level of knowledge and access that we have to them and their personal lives is too much. But yesterday, I sat transfixed as I watched the touching and unforgettable funeral for Whitney Houston, unable, even now, to understand fully that she is gone.
I did not know Whitney, I never met Whitney. I saw her in concert in the ’80s at the Riverside Theatre in Milwaukee when she was an opening act for James Ingram, whom I really wanted to see. Truth be told, I thought she was taking up precious time. I saw her again in 1999 at a concert in Stuttgart, Germany. I had recently had surgery on my foot and couldn’t actually stand. As the crowds rose I stayed seated, unable to put weight on my foot, but I remember the absolute joy I felt, just being there. The venue was electric that night.
In truth, I cannot logically explain the depth and extent of the grief that I feel at Whitney’s passing. I learned of Whitney’s death through an email. Upon waking, I checked my emails and there it was, no commentary just the subject: “Whitney’s gone! What a shame. Gone too soon.” I bounded out of bed and turned on the computer to learn, horribly, that this was no joke. I turned on CNN but the US had been dealing with her death for hours. By the time I’d awoken, it was already becoming “˜old’ news.
Just the week before, I had finally bought “I Look to You” and “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength.” I had been listening to those two songs on an almost continuous loop for nearly a week. As I listened, I was saddened to hear the toll that life had taken on her beautiful voice but, even the raspiness of her vocals matched the phase that we find ourselves in. Her voice, lower and raspier than The Voice we all knew and loved, seemed to capture and reflect the highs and lows of life’s journey. Her voice reflected the evolution of the female soul when its been refined in the fires of life.
For me, Whitney’s death brought back a flood of memories. Beginning in high school, Whitney’s music provided, like for so many others, the background music to my life. My Facebook status that day said:
“I am in mourning. What a rude way to wake up, to the incomprehensible news that The Voice has been silenced for good. Just bought the songs “I Look to You” and “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength” this past week. The words are even more heartbreaking in light of the news. There are no words. Godspeed. Your music has touched me, supported me and carried me through times for which there are no words. Thank you for the music and may you rest in peace.”
I then spent the remainder of the day crying, off and on, unable to comprehend what I kept hearing and reading. No matter how bad the stories, she always looked so alive. The vibrancy and life force that she channeled through her music seemed all-encompassing and inexhaustible. It had a pulsing life to it that defied the notion of death. Of course we knew she would die, we all must but, not now, not yet. It’s too soon. When you listen to the words of “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength,” you do not believe this person will soon be gone.
I cannot begin to imagine the level of grief and sadness that her family is experiencing. Those who have followed her career and embraced her music have loved her from afar based on who we thought and wanted her to be. As I listened to the memories and love from her friends, family and those who knew her personally during her funeral, the picture of a woman who was so, so much more than the caricature that we associated her with became even clearer. And that makes it all the worse.
I have asked myself so many times over the past week: What made Whitney so special? Yes, she had The Voice, but it went beyond that. It transcended mere sound. What did she have that others didn’t, why did she seem to mean and to have meant so much to so many. The ’80s and ’90s were interesting times growing up in America. Whitney’s rise corresponded to the rise of rap and hip hop and movies such as New Jack City, Boys in the Hood, Poetic Justice and Do the Right Thing and so much more that was defining and portraying the urban experience. Whitney provided a cultural counterweight that, at minimum, provided an outward counterbalance to what the world was seeing of black America.
I still remember that crimped blond hair and the frightful pink lipstick as she bopped around in those early videos; I wondered, even as a young teenager, who did that to her? But, I was touched by the words, the music and the message. As a young teenager, belting out the words “Saving All My Love For You” was perfect for that first real crush. Yes, we knew she was singing about an affair with a married man, but it didn’t matter, the sentiments still applied. And then, as that first real relationship met the bumps and trials of teenage romance, she was there with “All At Once,” and you took comfort that you were not alone. Whitney’s music was there, meeting us, comforting us, and embracing us at each step along the journey. Each album seemed perfectly timed and choreographed to correspond to the ebb and flow along life’s path.
When Whitney sings, you feel it at your core. You experience the emotions that she is conveying. When she sings,
“The greatest love of all
Is easy to achieve
Learning to love yourself
It is the greatest love of all”
you feel your soul rise up to meet the challenge to be the best that you can be, to grow within and beyond yourself. Whitney’s music expands you and increases not only her stature, but yours as well.
It is unfortunate that in our society we are unable to value and learn from people while they are still living. It is only once they have died and left this plane that we finally begin to look at them objectively and see some of the greatest gifts they gave. Anyone who puts themselves out on the world stage, in any capacity, essentially offers themselves to the world knowing that they can be torn down and destroyed as quickly and completely as we build them up.
When Whitney got together with Bobby Brown, I figured it was her bad boy stage. I mean, isn’t that what many mothers teach their girls: “˜Go ahead, have that bad boy experience now. Get it out of your system so you can settle down later. Sow your wild oats. Party, enjoy your youth so you can grow and mature into the woman you are destined to become.” I was content that it was just a phase she was going through and then, she married him and I remember being really confused. I mean, how could she marry him? She was, Whitney Houston. Whitney Houston does not marry Bobby Brown. I’ll never forget my Mother saying to me, “You draw unto yourself the likeness of yourself.” Did anyone, could anyone, believe that Bobby and Whitney could be alike?
In the years since, we watched the sad deconstruction and destruction of their marriage and, I suppose on many levels, their lives. Their relationship has been called a “train wreck” and we all watched, sighing, wondering – how could she go from the greatest of heights to the lowest of lows? It is clear that she was on a journey that only she could walk. She was following a path that only she could take. But on that journey we went with her, watching, waiting, hoping, praying, just knowing, confident even, that one day, she would come out triumphant on the other side. So many people have had experiences similar to Whitney’s but we are not privy to their stories. For good or ill, she played out her drama for all the world to see and again, we are given an opportunity to reflect, to learn, to process and analyze what this life we have is all about, who are we and why are we here.
Whitney’s life was and is a mirror. Most of us have not and may never reach the level of public adoration and stardom that she did. Many of us perhaps never want to, but, in the anonymity of our own lives, have we really lived any differently? We each have our own dysfunctions that threaten the fabric of our lives. We each have those self-destructive tendencies which, if given free reign, could take us down a path from which there may be no return. Through Whitney and so many others we have been gifted with the chance to see the powerful consequences of the choices we make.
“Choices. Choices. Choices.” Those were the first words I thought after I read the news. The choices that Whitney made, irrespective of the whys and wherefores, are what led to her untimely death, but I want and perhaps need to believe that her death contains far more meaning and importance to us than her physical life.
“Junkie,” “drug addict” and “crackhead.” These are but a few of the painful, hateful words that I have read people use to claim that Whitney is not deserving of the love and grief that so many people are experiencing. Don’t get me wrong: I hold equal opportunity anger at this type of treatment for all of those whose lives have been cut short too soon. Litanies such as these were trotted out for Amy last year and for Michael before her and many others who have struggled with their personal demons in ways that most of us cannot begin to understand.
Is this truly who we have become? Are we so cynical and warped that we now define people by their darkest hours and not their greatest triumphs? Focusing on a person’s struggle does nothing but attempt to tear them down to their basest level, as if no one can ever be more than their worst mistake.
If their struggles teach us anything it is that no matter how high you have risen, no matter how much love you are shown, if you do not feel it inside, it doesn’t mean a damn thing. Shouldn’t their personal struggles awaken within each of us compassion, empathy, sympathy and understanding? Shouldn’t the glimpse they allow us into their lives teach us just how very important it is for each of us to value and love ourselves? How many lessons are we going to be shown on the screen of life before we start to wake up and hear them?
In one of Tyler Perry’s movies, Diary of a Mad Black Woman, the main character Madea responds that “life happened” to someone, causing them to turn to drugs to numb the pain they were experiencing. Life happens to each of us and we all struggle with our own private demons and make our own very personal journey into hell. If we are lucky, we exit on the other side, stronger and the better for having gone there.
Life happened to Whitney and so many of us had been rooting for her to come out on the other side stronger and the better for it. We will never know whether she did. Her death does not indicate that she had lost her battle. Her death does not mean that she had not overcome her struggles. Her death does indicate that whatever she came to this planet to do, achieve and/or teach us had been accomplished. Her role in the physical form was over, and it was time for her to take her leave.
I still struggle to write the words Whitney Houston is dead. I never knew her personally, but her music touched me at my very core. Whenever I needed encouragement, succor or just a reminder that it’s okay, hers was the music that I turned to, and it never failed to support me. The sad irony is that I’m sure Whitney’s music was the background music that accompanied and guided many as they went through their journey into and out of hell; it is such a shame to think,it may not have been enough to guide her out also.
I will be forever grateful to the wonderful gift that she came here to share with us.
To Whitney, thank you and Godspeed.