Don’t Walk Away from Me: A Ballad for Whitney Houston

Whitney Houston performing at the Nokia Theater in Los Angeles at the American Music Awards in 2009. Courtesy of ABC.

In Honolulu — the underdog karaoke champion of the world — there is no hour that someone on the island is not honoring the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, or her pop scion Whitney Houston, in the karaoke booth. Basking by the fluorescent glow of the television, your resident mahu diva, local Filipinx sweetheart or, Samoan crooner is perfectly emulating Whitney’s signature melisma.

You have to have actual pipes and artful restraint to do justice to either singer, but the crystal clean production of Whitney’s pop music allows for a distinct mode of aspiration. We ought to admit it: we all sing Whitney, most of us inadequately. In spite of this universal truth, as a public, we do not honor Whitney Houston with the reverence she deserves. Houston’s creative legacy instead continues to be diminished by tabloid historicity and the spectacle of her demise. What would it look like to remember Whitney without the mockery and judgment of her addiction?

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As cultural critic Greg Tate and his literary ancestor Amiri Baraka have both long contended, Black music is the soundtrack of struggle. You cannot take everything but the burden. The voice is the voice because of the pain. To overlook it is straight up greedy. And yet, both Bobby Brown and Kanye West have done more than just overlook the pain; they’ve capitalized on it, aiming to earn a profit from the intimate suffering of black women by reproducing its hyper-spectacle. West restaged Houston’s death scene on the cover art for Pusha T’s album Daytona, where Brown’s recently released mini-series The Bobby Brown Story revives and reduces Whitney to the insatiable Jezebel addict.

But the singularity of Whitney’s voice emerges from a complicated genealogy of genius and trauma across three generations. Beyond the formulaic march towards death in the biography genre, the recent documentary Whitney (Miramax & Roadside Attractions, 2018) maps out these hidden histories. Directed by Kevin MacDonald, the film rightly centers the black matriarchs and women as the life force of the Whitney ecosystem namely mother Cissy Houston, and creative manager and longtime companion, Robyn Crawford. Cissy blazed the path and groomed her to be a star, while Robyn grounded her reality with unconditional love.

In addition to these pillars, viewers meet the village of extended family who raised Whitney such as Ellen “Aunt Bae” White (Cissy’s sister) who likewise cared for Whitney’s daughter during her primary years. The instant when Aunt Bae’s voice breaks describing her role in Bobbi Kristina’s early life, the psyche links their fates: Whitney to her own child. And we are transported to the simultaneous site of shared tragedy — a bathtub. In the Egyptian faith system Kemetism, when one dies, the soul or ba must traverse across an underworld in a boat made of solar bark driven by the sun god Ra. The bathtub transforms into a baptismal boat towards deathly reunion. May Ra bless their watery sojourn to the sky.

In one of many scenes where Whitney must negotiate her limited energy between her daughter and her drive, we witness a moment between sets during a live performance. Through the hyper energy and swarm of hands prepping her face and hair to return to the stage, Whitney tries to reassure Bobbi Kristina that her presence is appreciated — you are the greatest kid! You’re the greatest kid in the world! But Bobbi Kristina slumps away knowing the battle for her attention will end in defeat.

Nearing the end of the film, the producer of the 2012 film revival of Sparkle Debra Martin Chase shares how Whitney encouraged her not to leave her child behind for long stretches of time. When their mother Cissy went on tour, multiple family members would keep Whitney and her brothers. According to her brother Gary Houston, during these periods both he and Whitney were molested by their cousin. Although this detail in the documentary was meant to humanize her and shift the trajectory of her public struggle, this critical revelation may have fueled more scandal, rather than empathy.

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Watching her history of performances, we have witnessed Whitney become a superhero on stage — the expanse of her lungs manifesting wings of her back and shoulder muscles. If we recognize the necessary physicality of being a professional musician as akin to elite athletes, then we should also observe the profound betrayal when the body no longer obeys your command.

Mother and original diva Cissy Houston trained Whitney to sing from the abdomen, the chest, and the head. In concert with her mechanical capacity, Cissy further explains that Whitney’s true expressive power emerged from delivering each performance with her “heart, mind and guts.”

When black and blue artists like Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Prince and Jean-Michel Basquiat have offered their whole hearts, minds, and guts as they did during their brief but bold lifetimes, could we respond then with the same grace we offer fallen white addicts? Our princess of pop gave us a way to express love in its multiple manifestations from exuberant anticipation to imperfect longing. Through Whitney’s voice, we forgive ourselves for mistakes we would gladly repeat. And yet, we reject her contradictions instead of embrace or accept them as part of the authentic force of her sonic storytelling.

Courtesy of Madam Tussauds. Wax figures of Whitney Houston at Madame Tussauds representing iconic moments (L-R): Super Bowl Performance (1991), Studio album (2009) The Bodyguard, “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” (1988).

America only wanted the Super Bowl Whitney Houston not Newark’s beloved Nippy. When her instrument was damaged beyond repair, and she could not reach that much anticipated climactic high note, the mass consumer rejected her. In the broader history of trans-Atlantic slavery, the black body was synonymous with labor and commodity. So when black entertainers die of depression and addiction, they are often treated as broken commodities. In comparison to the treatment of arguably lesser white counterparts and counterfeits such as rehab’s finest Amy Winehouse, Whitney’s unforgiving audiences likewise reveal their lesser selves.

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Speaking of plantation lullabies, in Hawai’i, the social practice of karaoke traces back to its sugar and pineapple laboring cultures. After a long day wielding machetes on cane and root, workers would gather, make libations and sing together to release the angst and fury of unjust and unequal conditions. Beyond the poetics and politics of karaoke, singing will always be so very human. We sing to feel the vibration of our voice and hence our pulsing lives. We hum to connect our thoughts to our selves. We lull our children to sleep with melody and heartbeats. And we sing Happy Birthday, as Whitney did during many award ceremonies and otherwise to her daughter Bobbi Kristina, because that is what we do to mark rotations around the sun.

If we belt along to their ballads and experience deep catharsis and therefore healing, then perhaps we owe them that much more R.E.S.P.E.C.T. Our personal love for Whitney may overflow in private but the public acknowledgment and dare I say, gratitude remain lacking.

Alright all together now, but this time with feeling — No matter what they take from me, they can’t take away my dignity…

 

 

J. Faith Almiron wants to dance with somebody. Instead she is an assistant professor in Afro-American studies at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. She can’t stop, won’t stop working on a book about Basquiat. Follow her musing on culture on medium and  @makadangdang1.