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Racism, sexism and exploitation: Behind the life & death of Whitney Houston

Published Feb 27, 2012 7:15 PM

Under capitalism — a system that puts profits before human needs — genuine support needed for developing one’s talent is generally not made available, much less encouraged. Luck, along with having influential connections, plays a central role in many instances on whether the individuals become famous or not. What usually happens is that many talented people are left to figure out on their own how best to display their creativity to others as opposed to hoping to be “discovered.”

Whitney Houston at 1994
South Africa concert.

Then, there are those whose talent is too unique and too obvious to ignore. Eventually, they are transformed, usually unconsciously, into a valuable commodity to be bought and sold — superexploited — to make millions of dollars for the entertainment industry but not without its taking its tragic toll on the artist. This was certainly the case for the late, great Whitney Houston.

The shocking, untimely death of the extraordinarily talented Houston on Feb. 11 at the young age of 48 is a devastating blow to music lovers around the world. The medical reasons for her death in Los Angeles won’t be known for weeks. Millions of people by live stream viewed her Feb. 18 funeral with only one TV camera placed inside the Newark church. The coverage of her death before the funeral was nonstop in all forms of media, especially TV and online. Her music and performances permeated every continent in a multitude of languages in remembrance of her wondrous gifts.

With Michael Jackson.

A magnificent voice

If Michael Jackson was recognized as “the king of pop music,” then many critics and fans alike argue that Houston is “the queen of pop music.” Unlike Jackson, who was the consummate innovator of dance moves, all Houston had to do was open her mouth and sing without moving a muscle to totally transfix and mesmerize her audiences. Dubbed simply as “The Voice,” Houston broke all kinds of music records more than 20 years ago which still stand the test of time. She is, to this day, the only artist to have seven consecutive number one recordings; in 1985, her first album, “Whitney Houston,” sold more copies than any other debut album in history. Houston could take a song previously made famous by someone else and turn it into a megahit, like “I Will Always Love You,” which remains the largest selling commercial single record ever.

Similar to Michael Jackson, Houston sold out concert arenas around the world, from Spain to Brazil to South Africa, as well as throughout the U.S., especially in the 1980s and 1990s. She won a total of six Grammy trophies. The Grammy is the highest honor bestowed upon artists within the U.S. recording industry.

Houston made her movie-acting debut in “The Bodyguard” in 1992, opposite Kevin Costner as her love interest. Movie executives were very hesitant to hire her because, even though at the time she was the most popular female singer in the world, they were afraid that with Houston being Black, an interracial love story would alienate white moviegoers. This point was alluded to by Costner when he spoke at her funeral. The movie eventually grossed $400 million worldwide and its original soundtrack, featuring music vocalized by Houston, is still the highest-grossing movie soundtrack ever.

A victim of the racist tabloids

Whitney Houston was born in Newark, N.J., in 1963. Her mother is the famous gospel singer, Cissy Houston. Her cousin is Dionne Warwick, one of the most popular singers during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Her godmother is the legendary Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul. Many popular African-American women artists, including Mariah Carey, Jennifer Hudson and Alicia Keys, give much credit to Houston for inspiring them to become singers.

Music industry mogul Clive Davis first discovered Houston, when she was a teenager singing in a gospel choir. However, she quickly crossed over to pop music when she burst on the music scene at the age of 22. Her rise to stardom can only be described by words like “unprecedented,” “astounding” and “meteoric.”

All of the fame, fortune and admiration could not protect Houston from falling victim to drug and alcohol addiction. This is an all too familiar fate that many talented people are faced with when feeling the pressure to stay on “top” in their profession. Any less than that would be viewed as being a failure.

To make matters worse, when such illnesses and the treatments for them — which should be private affairs for the individual and their loved ones — become public, the tabloids demonize with vile language the very artist that they claim to respect and admire, so that they can make profits. Houston was grilled during almost every interview, whether in audio or in print, about her private life. The tabloids’ treatment of her proves again that they may love and praise you one day, but they will then turn around and hate you the next day if they can make a buck — in other words, the “build you up to tear you down” syndrome. Consistent, unconditional sensitivity and respect from the media do not exist under capitalism. In its recent issue, the notorious tabloid, National Enquirer, shows an unauthorized front page photo of Houston laying in an open casket. Because Houston was an African-American woman, the situation was made even worse. For many years, the tabloids labeled her a “crack addict” — a racist term that stereotypes Black people, especially in urban areas. Despite Houston’s stardom, she never forgot her roots in Newark, one of the most impoverished U.S. cities — and neither did the tabloids.

Whenever Houston made any public appearances during this difficult period, the tabloids would characterize her behavior as “bizarre” and “erratic.” They would publicly say that any problems with her voice had to do with “drug abuse,” though there was no substantial medical proof to back these claims. This woman with an astounding voice, who had given the world so much joy, had been turned into cannon fodder for the press. The media have now stooped very low in demonizing Houston’s 18-year-old daughter, Bobby Kristina, claiming that she is also a drug addict and that she got “high” during her mother’s funeral.

What really drove home the media’s racist and sexist treatment of Houston occurred on Feb. 16, when two bigoted “shock jock” deejays, John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou, referred to her as a “crack ho” on their radio show. This is an outrage! These two should have immediately been fired for this disgusting racist and sexist slur. Instead, they were temporarily taken off the air, given a slap on the wrist.

Past efforts have been made by progressive groups to silence them from the airwaves for their racist tirades against immigrants. The two are scheduled to be reinstated on Feb. 27, which is an outrage. Once again, ratings, as well as big money from advertisers, rule the airwaves. Not even a world-famous artist like Whitney Houston is exempt from the racism and sexism faced by other oppressed peoples.

Her legacy will live on

Houston was far from being a political person, much less a political activist. She unfortunately sang “the Star-Spangled Banner” during the 1991 Super Bowl, following the First Gulf War. She became the poster person for U.S. patriotism.

She nevertheless performed in Johannesburg in 1994 before thousands of adoring fans, including from the Soweto Township, and met with Nelson Mandela. She supported community projects in Newark. In fact, a performing arts school there has been renamed in her honor.

Houston’s real-life bodyguard, Ray Watson, put her life into perspective during his moving tribute at her funeral. He called her “a beautiful, caring lady.” He also said, “Entertainers need to be treated with dignity and love” and people need to “stop ridiculing them,” because they are constantly on the road, leaving their loved ones behind. He went on to say, “Whether they are on court or on stage, they provide entertainment to make our lives a little brighter.”

The greatest tribute one can pay to an extraordinary talent like Whitney Houston is to not only continue to keep her music alive for future generations to admire, but to fight for a more humane society that will enhance and nurture all levels of talent and culture, not exploit it. That will truly be “the greatest love of all” shown for the once-in-a-generation singer known as “The Voice.”