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.
These testimonies, often including spontaneous singing of her songs, have reminded me of how the Baha'i teachings describe the impact of music on human beings. This is equally true of music in both secular and sacred forms.
Regarding music, specifically the human voice, 'Abdu'l-Baha (1844-1921) made the following observation:
...wonderful sounds and tones, melodies and charming voices...attracts and exhilarates the spirit of man and has great effect upon him: it makes him weep or laugh; perhaps it will influence him to such a degree that he will throw himself into danger...Consider how strange this is, for nothing comes forth from the singer which enters into the listener; nevertheless, a great spiritual effect is produced.
Reading these words, Houston's "Greatest Love of All" comes to mind. There are psychological, political, and social implications to such a powerful phenomenon. Music can be equally use or abused, inspiring both the best and worst in human beings. Hip-hop, whose infectous beats and rhymes have emerged as a global, cultural force influencing the consciousness, emotions, and behavior of millions is but one example of this duality.
Thankfully, there are those who recognize this. Musicians across the globe are striving to create spaces for learning to exercise this power in ways that encourage human nobility and social salvation. Within a Baha'i context, efforts of inspired souls such as Eric Dozier and J.B. Eckl, Badi, and the Dawnbreaker Collective are some sterling examples. We need many more.
In honor of Whitney "Nippy" Houston, whose voice so beautifully incarnated the positive possibilities of music, I'll close with this prayer revealed by Baha'u'llah (1817-1892), Founder of the Baha'i Faith:
"Thou beholdest, O my God, how every bone in my body soundeth like a pipe with the music of Thine inspiration, revealing the signs of Thy oneness and the clear tokens of Thy unity. I entreat Thee, O my God, by Thy Name which irradiateth all things, to raise up such servants as shall incline their ears to the voice of the melodies that hath ascended from the right hand of the throne of Thy glory."
Image courtesy of Wikimedia. It is a work of the U.S. Government and considered in the public domain