Whitney Houston: A Final Look
Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson will be forever linked as they brought the world together and made a nation cry. They were God's gift to us mere mortals and in a very brief period of time, they made us believe. They were able to capture through music, what leaders desperately try. And though tragedy would clearly define them, their life and death mirrored a dark poetic beauty that bordered on the mystical; and it would seduce us. And while they tried to quiet the scream, we looked from afar and wondered.
As with Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston's troubled life with prescription drugs is looked upon with both caring sensitivity and impatient disdain; with uncertain and unknowing questions, but also through the unenlightened eyes of racism. The questions continue to reflect our slight but growing awareness. How could someone with so much talent, with so much going for them, throw it all away?
But the very essence that is the brilliance of the rare artist is also the very characteristic that that can push the artist towards extremes, influence chronic bouts of depression, bring unbearable emotional pain and keep the emotions of the artist on the edge of a cliff. It is here, where artistic genius lies but the downside is an enormous one. And regrettably, the emotional sensitivity and awareness that is inherited, is the same chemistry that makes the artist vulnerable to addictions.
The artist is conscious that each time he or she creates from their individual creative universe; one must also confront the savage beast that hangs over their head like an aging guillotine. It's knowing that just around the corner, waiting patiently with a stalking vengeance is the next bout of depression that is going to envelop itself around the soul with a suffocating stranglehold. And once the artist knows there is something available that can bring exile from this debilitating madness, the choice once difficult, now becomes much too easy.
Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston were only a visible reflection of a more significant problem in American society. And make no mistake, this is not a Hollywood problem, this is "our" problem.
According to the Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention (CDC), 40 Americans die every day from painkiller drug overdoses, which is more than heroin and cocaine combined. In 2009, there were 1.2 million emergency hospital visits, which is an increase of 98.4% since 2004 due to the misuse or abuse of pharmaceutical drugs. American's take over 80% of the worlds pain medicines and 99% of all of the vicodin and related generics. The CDC has called it an epidemic of prescription narcotic overdose and it comes at a cost of 72.5 billion dollars based upon government and insurance company data. In 2010, there were enough painkillers prescribed to medicate every single American adult around the clock for one month.
In April of 2011, the Obama administration began seeking legislation that would require doctors to undergo further education and training before being able to prescribe painkillers to patients. The plan also requested the expansion of statewide prescription drug monitoring programs (PMDP's) but there are still those within the medical community that believe additional training for doctor's should be voluntary. We can only hope that those doctors are not our own.
As important as Houston might have been as the greatest songstress in our history, her immense gift was her humility and sensitivity towards her fellow man. It was her desire and compassion to help those with less and it was perhaps her greatest gift and beauty.
In 1989, she opened The Whitney Houston Foundation for Children, a non-profit organization that has raised funds for the needs of children around the world. The organization helps children with cancer and AIDS, children who are homeless and helps them with the challenges of self-empowerment.
She supported St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital that helps critically ill children without asking families for payment and is completely paid for through charitable contributions.
One of her very first performances was a benefit in support of the United Negro College Fund and she also raised a quarter of a million dollars for the UNCF at a 1988 Madison Square Garden concert.
She performed two concerts for the Children's Defense Fund in Washington DC with all proceeds, totaling a quarter of a million dollars, donated to this charity.
She donated all of her proceeds from the recording and home video sales of her Superbowl XXV rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner" to benefit Gulf War troops and their families. Houston's record company followed suit. Houston was elected a member of the American Red Cross Board of Directors in 1991.
She would re-release "The Star Spangled Banner" charity single to benefit the New York Firefighters Disaster Relief Fund and the New York Fraternal Order of Police Fund following terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. She waived her royalty rights to the single, which went on to top the U.S. sales charts in October 2001 and earned more than $1 million dollars.
She donated enough money to the charity based Hale House in Harlem that they were able to build a Learning Center.
She provided considerable monetary assistance to the Rainbow House, which is a shelter for adolescent mothers and children with HIV and AIDS.
She donated her performance proceeds in Russia to the Russian Aid Fund, which supported victims of a bomb attack in a Moscow subway.
She would support many foundations that fought cancer and AIDS, which would include Howard University, the Emmanuel Cancer Foundation and the T.J. Martell Foundation.
She donated her concert appearances in 1999 to the Harlem Boys Choir, the New Jersey State PBA and the Youth of Atlantic City.
She was a supporter of the Special Olympics and performed at the opening ceremonies in 1997 and also recorded and released the song "Do You Hear What I Hear" and gave all the proceeds to the Special Olympics.
In 1991, Houston performed at the "Simple Truth" concert at London's Wembley Stadium and allowed MTV to simulcast her performance of "Miracle" at her Oakland, Calif., concert during a telethon held for the Kurdish Refugee Relief.
She regularly attended the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation's "Carousel of Hope" charity gala and was honored for her giving in 1996 with the Brass Ring Award.
She received an award from the National Urban Coalition for her dedication in helping others. Among her many humanitarian acts are a public service announcement, "Say Yes to a Youngsters Future," urging black and other minority youth to study sciences and math.
She was a lifelong fighter against AIDS and performed many benefits including the Arista 15th Anniversary Benefit in 1990 and the "Commitment for Life" AIDS benefit in 1994.
The National Center for Birth Defects in Boston named a wing after her in recognition of the fund raising efforts she has done for them over the years.
The Newark, N.J.-based UMDNJ hospital named its Pediatric Special Care Unit after Whitney Houston, due to her giving.
Her proceeds from the premier of "The Bodyguard" and "The Preachers Wife" went to the Whitney Houston Foundation for Children as well to the Boys and Girls Clubs of America.
Under the years of South Africa's apartheid, she would refuse to allow her work as a model to be made available in that country and refused to work with any agency that did business with South Africa.
Importantly, she would attend the 70th birthday celebration for Nelson Mandela and Ms. Mandela would write her the following words:
"For a long time, both I and my children have admired you and have always known that you do care. Your participation at the concert will mean so very much to the oppressed in South Africa and I know that as long as we have your support and help we cannot remain oppressed much longer."
In October of 1994, Houston was invited and performed at a state dinner in the White House honoring newly elected South African president Nelson Mandela. She would also perform three concerts in South Africa to honor President Mandela, playing to over 200,000 people. She would be the first international artist to perform at the now apartheid-free South Africa. Her concerts were filmed by HBO with all funds going to various children's charities including two children's museums, the President's Trust Fund (for the freed Nelson Mandela), the Kagiso Foundation along with several orphanages.
She once said, "We are all helpers where we can be. God has truly been good to us. So if you believe in God, you've got to believe that charity begins at home and spreads abroad."
Whitney Houston broke down the walls that would allow future generations of black women artists a chance to be heard. She wanted longevity but it also meant she would be criticized, criticized that she was selling out, that her records did not reflect the soulfulness of her performances. But her criticizers completely missed her brilliance in planning every step and every nuance of her career and of those she pioneered. She understood that if her records were too soulful or too black, the industry would confine her music to a category, but Houston wanted more and would accept nothing less. And for an artist to accomplish this, especially an artist who was Black and who was also a woman, it would take someone much stronger and much wiser than the Record Industry Executives. When others thought she was compromising, she had a vision and a plan that would completely turn the industry upside down and open the doors for other women and Black artists in a way that had never been observed before. It was part of her genius.
Houston was poetry in motion, a mournful sparrow with the enchanting soul of a sweet gentle spirit. She was beautiful and mysterious and created from her own unique musical universe. She had an awareness that was extraordinary and was able to perceive the deepest levels of love, pain and anguish and cared deeply for others regardless of age, ethnicity or cultural differences. She created hope for many but her sorrow never allowed her to escape a dark and lonely cave. Outside of performing; helping others was the only place where she found peace and joy and it would free her from the insecurities that enslaved her. In the end, she gave what was perhaps her greatest gift of allshe gave us her life so that we could live.
She is finally free now, free from the shackles of despair and the emotional chains that ravaged her soul. We should be joyous as she begins her graceful journey home. For Houston, the screaming has finally come to an end.
Page 1: Kevork Djanselian, Courtesy of Reuters
Page 2: Mark J. Terrill, courtesy AP