When I was in the seventh grade, it was an awkward, weird time for me. I was far from pretty, with one bad perm after another, glasses and several extra pounds. I had friends, many of whom I maintain friendships with to this day, but at the time I wasn't quite sure where I belonged. I wasn't super-popular, I wasn't quite completely nerdy, and I was quiet, shy and introverted. (Wow, have I come a long way! :D )
My escape was music. I played piano and sang as much as I could. I sang in church choir, in the car and at home, in my room. But my favorite place to sing and truly escape was the swing in my parents' backyard. Nearly every afternoon after school, I'd head there with my dual-cassette boombox. (Later I got fancy and had a cassette/CD player.) It was there that I found my voice, singing along with my favorite singers, such as Madonna, Debbie Gibson, Billy Joel, Rod Stewart, Michael Jackson, Elton John, and...
Whitney's voice transported me. And the more I sang along with her, the better I got. I had a similar mezzo-soprano range, so it was great practice to sing with her. I realized that singing was something I would always NEED to do, like breathing. My identity was forming, my true self emerging. And music and singing were at my core. My family already knew and my parents encouraged and supported me in all my musical attempts. But at school, it isn't that easy when you're shy and unsure.
One day, during P.E., it was a no-dress-out day where the coach allowed us to just get our exercise in by walking the campus yard. A few friends and I stopped to rest and talked for awhile. Somehow, my cousin Kevin convinced me to sing something for the group to hear. I was reluctant and shy, but came around after their encouragement. I sang Whitney's "Where Do Broken Hearts Go" and I felt, for the first time, that I was staking a claim to something. I was becoming Ami, the singer. It's a risky thing to open yourself up like that and show your innermost self, but at the same time, it's something you WANT to show. And bless their hearts, they loved it.
We all have defining moments in our lives. And if we're lucky, we have the presence of mind to recognize when they're happening. This was a defining moment for me, for sure. After that P.E. class, the news spread. People stopped me and asked me to sing. I was no longer in the shadows. I had an identity. My classmates, friends and the whole world, it seemed, welcomed this information, this previously-hidden part of myself.
I could sing, and the world knew it. Well, my little world, anyway. ;D
After that, I simply blossomed and happily grew more into this identity. I sang all throughout high school, in Literary trio, solo, and in our school's show choir. I sang solos in church. I sang in weddings. I just sang. And to this day, I am never happier than when I'm singing. It will always be at the center of who I am.
So that leads me back to Whitney. Her music helped me come out of my shell. Everything happens for a reason, and it was not by accident that her music first fell upon my ears, was imitated by my voice, and settled to make its home in my heart. She was one of my first and most powerful influences, musically. She inspired me.
She died Saturday. And the whole world is buzzing about it. But very little is being said about the huge talent she shared with us, the musical legacy she leaves us, and her value as an artist. Most people are diminishing her life to be solely about her drug addiction. That's sad to me. She was so much more than that. Maybe not to everyone. But she was to me. Small things become big things. A music note becomes a song, a song becomes an album. And a musician, singer or artist, when influential to you at a critical time in your life and development, becomes a part of you forever.
I've been observing people on Facebook in the couple days since her death. I read someone say, "Don't mourn her."
"You don't know her personally."
"She wasn't a good role model."
"She was just a junkie."
And now I've even started seeing pictures of soldiers' coffins, draped with flags, with a caption that says, "Whitney who?"
No one did this a few weeks ago when Etta James died. Was it because Etta didn't have a drug problem? Etta (and rightfully so) received love, adoration and recognition. And people openly mourned her passing. Does Whitney's alleged drug problem make her trash, unworthy of compassion? I don't think so. Everybody has their problems. Their addictions and demons. It doesn't have to mean those things define them and what they bring to the world.
Of course all lives are important. Soldiers' lives are very important. EVERY life is important. It's not a competition between Whitney Houston and every.other.person who suffered, struggled or died. No, everyone isn't going to make the news. And that's ok. Don't diminish what she was just because she's all over your TV and you don't think that's fair to everyone else who has died. I'm totally fine with not making the news when I die. I haven't contributed talent, defined what music would become for generations after me, and had an impact on billions of people. I'm ok if I go quietly. :D
Whitney Houston was one of the great artists of my generation. Her music and style contributed to our culture, our society. She was a role model for me, growing up, both with her then-clean, Christian lifestyle and her musical influence. She paved the way for many female African-American singers. She was the most-awarded female act of all time. She was truly a pioneer for today's R&B, pop and gospel genres, and the ripples of her influence continue in the music of many great artists today. So no one should dare say she wasn't a good role model. She influenced me, I looked up to her, and I didn't grow up to do drugs, drink or participate in crime. Score one for Whitney!
I don't care how many drugs she did or how many poor lifestyle choices she made, she deserves credit, recognition and RESPECT for what she did for music. You don't have to even like her music to appreciate her as an artist and the contributions she made. She is not solely her poor choices and mistakes. She is so much more than that. She deserves to be so much more than that.
And I can totally mourn her. No, I didn't know her personally. You don't have to know someone to mourn them. To mourn the void they are leaving. To mourn what they COULD have been. When someone's music has an impact on me, I feel it deep within my soul. Music is not just "fluff" to me. It's not just something in the background of life. It IS life. It's ingrained in me. And Whitney will always be a part of that. So I will mourn that she is gone, that her life didn't turn out differently, and I will mourn that the voice that impacted BILLIONS is now silent. I will mourn her openly, defend her without apology.
She shouldn't be judged. No one knows her circumstances. None of us really knows *anything*. All we need to know is that she was a monumental and crucial figure in music, someone whose legacy will remain long after we're gone. That's something to celebrate, not condemn.
I will always look back on Whitney's earlier career with very fond memories. I will always appreciate and respect her as a singer. I will always be sad that she couldn't overcome her troubles, her demons and go on to do greater things. But I will always, always celebrate her music. And I will always be grateful that her music was with me during a defining moment in my life. I will always be PROUD to say that Whitney Houston's music is forever a part of me, my culture, my generation and my heart.