I am a true music lover, and Whitney Houston has always been one of my favorite artists. After watching and reading all of the coverage and tributes to her this past week, I felt compelled to share my own reflections…..
When I learned of the passing of Whitney Houston last weekend, I felt great sadness and was heartbroken for all who loved her…her fans (I myself have always been one of her biggest), friends, family, and most of all, Whitney’s mother Cissy who is now without her cherished daughter and her beloved daughter Bobbi Kristina who at such a young age must face life without the mother she so dearly loved and idolized.
I was only five when Whitney’s debut album soared up the charts, but when I discovered her music a few years later while going through a family friend’s expansive CD collection, I was instantly mesmerized by this amazing singer who would soon be known as The Voice.
So many of my memories are intertwined with Whitney’s music…I remember sitting with my parents in our den being captivated by her rousing national anthem performance before Super Bowl XXV in 1991. When she made her movie debut in The Bodyguard the following year, I begged and pleaded with my parents to bend the rules and let me see the R-rated film (I was almost 12, definitely mature enough to handle watching an adult film, I argued), and when they finally relented, I was beside myself with excitement.
Like millions of little girls around the world, I spent the months after blasting I Will Always Love You on my stereo and dreaming of becoming a pop star like Whitney, holding my clinched fist up to my mouth in an imagined microphone, lip quivering, as I tried to imitate her signature style.
Later, my younger sister (who we soon discovered was blessed with the powerhouse voice in the family) would join me in her love for Whitney’s music, and to this day her songs remain among her favorite to perform.
As a teenager, I watched Whitney hold her own alongside two of my favorite actors, Angela Bassett and Denzel Washington, in Waiting to Exhale and The Preacher’s Wife, and fell in love with the movies’ soundtracks. And, when my first high school romance ended in disaster, Whitney’s just released Heartbreak Hotel collaboration with Faith Evans and Kelly Price on her My Love is Your Love album became my anthem, and I played it on repeat for weeks as I sought to get over the boy of my teenage dreams who had broken my heart.
When Whitney’s Greatest Hits DVD and album were released in 2000, I sung along to the music videos of her biggest hits and I couldn’t stop playing one of the new songs on the album, the catchy Same Script, Different Cast duet with Deborah Cox, driving my poor college dorm roommate to near insanity. And, Whitney’s One Wish: Holiday Album will forever be a staple in my holiday music collection.
It seemed that no matter what was going on in my life, our girl Whitney and her timeless voice were always there with just the right song. As has often been written since her passing, her music truly was the soundtrack of our lives.
As I moved through my college years and further into adulthood, the focus on Whitney seemed to move from her music to her tumultuous marriage and battles with substance abuse and addiction. As her infamous 2002 interview with Diane Sawyer and erratic behavior on the reality show Being Bobby Brown led to tabloid headlines and produced comedic fodder, we all wondered what had gone so terribly wrong for our beloved star.
After several stays in rehab and ending her marriage, by 2009 it seemed Whitney had turned a corner and was well on her way down the challenging road of recovery. She sat down with Oprah Winfrey for a tell-all interview, poised and refreshed as she candidly discussed her personal struggles and promoted her “come through, not come back” album I Look to You. The album rose to the top of the charts and posted the best first-week numbers of her career.
She made a stunning performance during the 2009 American Music Awards of I Didn’t Know My Own Strength, one of the hit singles on her new album that seemed to perfectly capture her journey:
Lost touch with my soul
I had no where to turn
I had no where to go
Lost sight of my dream,
Thought it would be the end of me
I thought I’d never make it through
I had no hope to hold on to,
I thought I would break
I didn’t know my own strength
And I crashed down, and I tumbled
But I did not crumble
I got through all the pain
I didn’t know my own strength
Survived my darkest hour
My faith kept me alive
I picked myself back up
Hold my head up high
I was not built to break
As she passionately belted out those lyrics, like millions of her fans around the world I rejoiced in the fact that at long last it seemed our Whitney was back.
However, there were more challenges ahead. Her I Look to You world tour received negative reviews after several overseas performances in which she appeared out of shape and struggled to hit notes. She pushed through the tour in spite of being devastated by the criticism, but eventually she checked back into rehab.
Even so, after receiving high praise in recent weeks for both her acting and vocal performance in the soon to be released film Sparkle, again it seemed as if her troubles were finally behind her and that her future couldn’t be brighter.
And then suddenly she was gone.
Her passing seemed surreal, left us all reeling in a state of shock, grief and devastation.
Yes, we knew all too well her battles with her personal demons and the complexities of addiction, knew the risks and saw the toll it had taken on her through the years. But for it to all come to an end in this way, like this…it was the materialization of our greatest fears.
Whether we were someone who knew her well or just a dedicated fan, this loss was painful, personal, and difficult to be bear. For through the years her musical gift had given us all so much, and in the process we forged a connection with her and she became ingrained in our hearts.
And, in spite of her greatness and celebrity, we understood that at the core she was simply an imperfect being striving to make her way through life’s journey…just like all of us.
So we were pulling hard for her, rooting and cheering her on. We so desperately wanted to see this amazing, talented sister find a way to rise above her struggles, hear the return in full of that miraculous, powerful voice, and see her have the chance to watch her daughter grow up and experience everything else that she dreamed.
Her struggles reminded us of our own, and if she could make it, find a way to break through, then it would inspire us all and further fuel our hope and belief that we could do the same too.
But in the end she didn’t have this chance much to our great sadness and sorrow, and we were left to mourn her loss and all that could have been.
During the week between her passing and homegoing sevice, I couldn’t help but be engrossed in all the media coverage chronicling her life. I took a walk down musical memory lane as I watched clips of her classic videos and listened to her albums in my iPod.
Now more than ever, the lyrics from her songs seemed ripe with new meaning…
The importance of being secure in ourselves in the Greatest Love of All…(Learning to love yourself/Is the greatest love of all)…
Her loving words for her daughter in My Love is Your Love… (If tomorrow is judgment day/And I’m standin’ on the front line/And the Lord asks me what I did with my life/I will say I spent it with you/Cause your love is my love/And my love is your love/It would take an eternity to break us/And the chains of Amistad couldn’t hold us/If I should die this very day/Don’t cry, cause on earth we wasn’t meant to stay/And no matter what people say/I’ll be waiting for you after judgment day)…
And her acknowledgement for the need for a higher power in the touching spiritual ballad I Look to You… (As I lay me down/Heaven hear me now/I’m lost without a cause/After giving it my all/Winter storms have come/And darkened my sun/After all that I’ve been through/Who on earth can I turn to?/ I look to you, I look to you/After all my strength is gone/In you I can be strong)…
For sure, Whitney possessed a grace, beauty and magical voice that truly was the greatest of our time. She was larger than life, a pioneer for African-Americans and women alike, an icon that forever changed the music industry.
As I watched and read each profile of her amazing record-breaking career, I realized more than ever before that this had been music history, and I felt fortunate it was something that I had the chance to witness.
But aside from enhanced respect and perspective on her musical achievements, perhaps what I have gained most in the past few days is a greater sense of compassion for her personal challenges and a deeper understanding of her humanity.
Each of us in this life have our own unique struggles. We strive to balance the demands of our careers with our families, grapple with our self-esteem, insecurities and sense of self-worth, seek validation from others while facing the pressure of replicating our latest achievement, and search for ways to meet our most pressing human needs – to be understood, accepted, and loved.
And, as Christians we face the daily battle of the flesh against the spirit, of being in the world but not allowing ourselves to conform to its ways as we seek to walk more closely with Him.
As Galatians 5: 16-17 (NKJV) reminds us: “I say then: Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh. For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish.”
To further complicate matters, we often keep our hurts and struggles hidden to preserve our public image. Instead of being honest with ourselves about our problems and addressing the root cause, turning to one another for support, and seeking to find the path that is uniquely ours to true healing, we opt to numb our pain by turning to unhealthy ways of coping.
Indeed, Whitney was no stranger to these vulnerabilities, challenges of the faith journey, and bouts with personal pain. As she told Diane Sawyer when asked what was the biggest “devil” she faced:
“That would be me. It’s my deciding, it’s my heart, it’s what I want. And what I don’t want. Nobody makes me do anything I don’t want to do. It’s my decision. So the biggest devil is me. I’m either my best friend or my worst enemy.”
And, her burdens were made heavier by the unique pressures that come along with the entertainment industry and a life lived in the glare of the spotlight.
As Diane Sawyer reflected:
“When they call you ‘The Voice’ and that’s what it is you bring, it really does create over the course of a career a lot of fear inside you that you’ll disappoint..It really was her talent as her torment because she didn’t have parades of dancing people behind her. She didn’t have lightshows. She had to come out and tear a hole in the sky with her voice, and she wasn’t always sure it was going to be there. And so I think the terror and responsibility of that to her fans really got to her.”
During his tribute to Whitney at her homegoing service, actor Kevin Costner recounted Whitney’s self-doubt as she filmed her first feature film, the Bodyguard:
“Arguably the biggest pop star in the world didn’t think she was good enough. Am I good enough? Am I pretty enough? Will they like me? It was the burden that made her great and the part that made her stumble in the end. It is the inexplicable burden that comes with fame. Call it doubt. Call it fear. I’ve had mine. I know the famous in the room have had theirs.”
However, while Whitney waged her personal battles valiantly, she never let her struggles be what ultimately defined her.
As she explained to Diane Sawyer:
“I don’t care what anybody else says or did or what they claimed I was, I know I’m a child of God, and I know He loves me. Jesus loves me, this I know.”
And in the days ahead, that is my hope for us too…that we don’t allow her struggles or the circumstances of her passing (whatever the final determination may be) to cast a shadow on her legacy. For as her sister-in-law and manager Patricia Houston so poignantly remarked during the homegoing service: “In the final analysis it was always between her and God. It was never between her and the world, anyway.”
Instead, let’s celebrate the full life she lived and remember her for being the trailblazer that she was, the amazing gift of her voice that she shared with us, and, as her friends and loved ones reminded us throughout her moving homegoing service, the essence of who their beloved Nippy truly was – a loyal, giving and caring friend, cousin, aunt, sister, daughter and mother, full of laughter, light and love.
And most importantly, a woman who never gave up hope and whose deep and abiding faith in God and love for Him never wavered no matter what circumstances or challenges she faced.
When asked who she loved during her discussion with Oprah Winfrey, Whitney offered her first response without hesitation: “The Lord. I do. I’m so humbled and so thankful. By His grace, His goodness. And for never giving up on me.”
She may have been The Voice, but Whitney knew – and serves to remind us all – that the most important voice in our lives is that of our Heavenly Father.
As Michelle McKinney Hammond wrote recently as she reflected on Whitney’s passing: “Some He brings out, some He takes home. God alone knows how much you can bear, Run to Him.”
And run to Him Whitney did, loving Him with all her heart and soul, and at His appointed time and hour, He chose to call her home.
And now home she is, resting in peace in the arms of our Savior, no doubt singing with the angels.
Whitney, thanks for the memories and for your incredible music which will live on for generations to come…you will never be forgotten.
We will always love you.
Interview excerpts and homegoing service remarks courtesy ABCNews.com, Oprah.com, and CNN.com