Can I just say that I am truly saddened by the death of Whitney Houston? It has been two days and I am still shocked, numb and wondering why someone with such an extraordinary gift would be taken away so soon. I sat down to write this piece on Saturday but couldn’t manage to get my thoughts together as details (many of them inaccurate) were published about the death of the woman whom I consider to be the greatest singer of my generation, and quite possibly of all time.
A woman whose amazing voice was simultaneously soulful and commercial — sort of like her appearance — Houston was strikingly beautiful and yet accessible. Houston’s voice was truly a national treasure. One of my favorite early Whitney Houston vocal performances was on the King Dream Chorus & Holiday Crew, where she clearly stole the show with her powerful voice. The 1986 collaboration featured black and brown celebrities singing in support of making Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a national holiday.
Houston, who was relatively new to the music world, outsang everyone on the track, including more established stars. The woman with crossover appeal kept it real and silenced the naysayers by rallying for Dr. King. Later she performed perhaps the greatest rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” at Super Bowl XXV in 1991. Only the versions of that anthem by Jimi Hendrix (who was actually protesting the Vietnam War) and Marvin Gaye are on par with Houston’s pitch-perfect performance. She owned the national anthem in the way that Ray Charles owns “America, the Beautiful,” by imbuing the song with a grace, elegance and dignity that has yet to be surpassed.
It is those images and sounds of Whitney Houston that I choose to remember, not the images that commentators and “journalists” insist on injecting into commentary about her untimely death. Reports about Houston’s passing and the events that followed speak to how far from dignity and grace we have fallen as a society, especially when it comes to death.
How sad is it that we now have to wait and see if the report of a celebrity’s death is real or a hoax? I have to say, after learning that Houston’s death was real, the rush to judgment sickened me. I was watching CNN, and while Don Lemon tried to remind people to take a step back and wait for investigators to do their job, it was falsely reported that her friend, reality star Ray J, found her dead. That turned out to be false.
CNN entertainment reporter Alan Duke was adamant that he had spoken personally with Ray J’s close friend, who confirmed that the reality star was with the legend when she passed, and yet it wasn’t true. MediaTakeout.com ran with the headline “Breaking News: Whitney Houston is Dead … Suicide Suspected,” but without any details about why suicide would be suspected, which brought back memories of Don Cornelius’ death.
It was reported almost immediately that Cornelius had committed suicide, even though the investigation and autopsy had not been concluded. Like many others, I refused to believe that Cornelius’ death was suicide — not because I don’t believe that black people commit suicide, but because all of the facts were not in about Cornelius’ death.
In the rush to be first in reporting details about the deaths of Cornelius and Houston, there was sloppy reporting and commentating all over the place, even from a news outlet like CNN. Who ever heard of reporting what someone’s “friend” said live on a national news channel?
If that wasn’t enough, Clive Davis and company decided to go ahead with the pre-Grammy party that was being held in the same hotel where Houston’s dead body remained. Houston literally lay dead upstairs Saturday evening, while a party where she was supposed to have performed that evening was held downstairs. Initially it was reported that out of respect for the death of Houston, the party would be canceled. It was then reported that out of respect for Houston, the party would be held. Huh?
How much respect could one possibly have for Houston when a party, complete with celebrities posing in front of a step-and-repeat backdrop, continues, while Houston — whose name at one point was synonymous with Clive Davis and Arista Records — is lifeless a stone’s throw away? Call me crazy or supersensitive, but that’s a foul move if ever there was one.
I get it: Business goes on as usual, even in death, but it is Whitney Houston. In my mind a legendary singer who changed the face of music deserves more respect than what is being shown right now by some in the media and entertainment industries.
Instead of jumping to conclusions, I’ll wait until autopsy results have been released about what actually caused Houston’s death. In the meantime, I’ll turn off the “news” and turn on my iPod, and listen to the Whitney Houston I want to remember. I’ll be thankful for the proper Grammy Awards tribute by Jennifer Hudson and remember a woman who could sing any song of any genre, a singer whose songs made up the sound track of my life, a woman whose voice still gives me goosebumps and a legend who set a standard of excellence in music that has yet to be surpassed. Rest in peace, Whitney Houston: much love — and, more important, much respect.
Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., is editor-at-large for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.