The news came out of nowhere. I was co-facilitating a weekend seminar for people of African descent at the historic Greenacre Baha'i School and Conference Center. A participant stated without looking away from his iPad, "Could we have a prayer for Whitney Houston?" Various hand-held devices among our group began to buzz with texts, tweets and Facebook updates about another Black American icon gone too soon. So began the ritual of public discourse and reflection about the life and death of Whitney "Nippy" Houston.
Some of this discourse and reflection has been particularly thoughtful. Jamilah King of the magazine Color-lines contemplates Houston's rise and fall in the context of all-too-familiar trajectories of Black artists:
"...her drawn out public decline was eerily similar to personal wars waged—and lost—by other black legends: Billie Holiday, Michael Jackson, Gil Scott-Heron. Houston’s death, though shocking, isn’t surprising. She’s the latest in a series of tortured black stars to fall victim to themselves."
Writing for The Nation, Daphne A. Brooks shifts the focus from Houston's personal life to pondering her place as racial-cultural-political force in American history:
" ...she inspired a rainbow connection of Gen X and Y singers to belt across the colorline. The runs that she so coolly executed and bequeathed to multicultural Mariah, Christina and the legion of TRL acts and American Idols who came after her have altered the standard of pop singing for good."
Whether Houston was a tortured Black star or a pop-culture prophet of an emerging multi-racial America, Barry Carter reminds us on the God's Politics Blog that the genesis of Houston's vocal genius was the Black Church:
"anyone who knew Houston understands that her talent came from one place, the God she served at the New Hope Baptist Church in Newark. This is where it all started for its daughter, where she was the darling of the choir as a child who left people speechless, belting out gospel songs and hymns."
In addition to King's, Brook's, and Carter's observations, I believe it would be fruitful to see Houston's passing as an opportunity to consider the power of music itself. This power imposes responsibilities on both its creators and its consumers. One of the things I've found most striking since hearing of her death are the spontaneous and heartfelt testimonies about the meaning of her music in people's lives.