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Omar Tyree Headshot

An Apology to Whitney Houston

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I must admit, I was no big Whitney Houston fan as a Philadelphian teenager in the mid 1980s. I loved Anita Baker so much with her hit song "Angel" from her Songtress album, that when Whitney Houston popped up on the scene with plenty of fanfare and won a ton of music awards over Anita, I cried foul. At the time, I considered Whitney to be a one-hit "pop" artist who was "Saving All My Love" for someone else, because it surely wasn't for me. I was more into the authentic "soul" music feeling that Anita gave me. I even hated Whitney's remake of "The Greatest Love of All," a revolutionary song originally performed by George Benson to inspire excellence in black children. But when Whitney sang it, she "crossed it over" to millions of unintended listeners, and I hated that her song no longer spoke specifically to the children of the 'hood.

Please excuse me for this, but I was a young and radical black teenager back then who forgave nothing. Then I headed off to college in the late 80s, where all of the white guys loved Whitney Houston. They barely knew or paid attention to any other black woman in the world, but with her baby face, Colgate smile, and slim trim body, they sure knew Whitney. She soon became the perfect "crossover" queen to sell sanitized "soul pop" to white America. And boy did it work! That only confirmed my inhibitions about her.

Then that doggone Bodyguard movie came out, where the most famous white actor in the world at the time, Dances With Wolves Kevin Costner, saves a fictional superstar black woman from the devious plots of her envious sister. This white man and super bodyguard even gets to sleep with her in the movie, inspiring her to sing the classic "I Will Always Love You," which was certainly a fantasy of a million or more white men at the time.

Meanwhile, in her real life, Whitney surprised everyone by marrying a super bad black man, Mr. "My Prerogative" himself, Bobby Brown, who was several years younger than her, and who definitely didn't fit the perfect "crossover" imagery that I held of Whitney.

I was like, "What? She married Who? Bobby Brown? From New Edition? Get Out Of Here! You're Lying!"

I couldn't believe it. We all thought it was a media trick for Whitney to go hardcore and young again after a failed romance with outwardly Christian football player, Randall Cunningham. But that's when insiders began to school me on who Whitney really was.

"Yo, Whitney grew up in the 'hood in New Jersey herself. She's not some darling little angel like the media makes her out to be. Whitney's always had that raw edge in her. And she really loves Bobby. She's from 'hood in Jersey and he's from the 'hood in Boston. So she can really relate to him."

This information came from people who knew her much better than I did. But I still didn't believe them. Until... Whitney got pregnant and started speaking up for her husband, who was constantly being berated by the media as a bad influence on her life and career. That was a wrap for me. I was finally a true believer.

I smiled and said, "Man, I guess she really does love him. Well, I'll be!"

However, millions of fantasizing white men didn't like this new, real deal Holyfield image of Whitney Houston at all. Suddenly, she was too black, too raw, and wanted to be too down, like Brandy Norwood. As crazy as this may sound, that's when I started to like her. In a flash, Whitney had become the next talented and defiant black woman singer with issues, like Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, Phyllis Hyman and the newcomers, Lauryn Hill and Mary J. Blige.

All of sudden, I could authentically feel what Whitney Houston was going through, like an Anita Baker "soul" song. I was finally "Caught Up In the Rapture" of Whitney and willing to root for her now. That just goes to show you how sick I was, or still am, as a child of the 'hood myself, from the same West Philadelphia stomping grounds that Will Smith raps about before packing up his bags and leaving to become The Fresh Prince of Bel Air out in the dream world of sunny California.

The truth is, many African Americans, whether we want to admit it or not, still have a hard time relating to the dream world where everything goes as planned. We relate more to the sadistic turbulence of life, or what we call "real," which are all of the things that hurt us, or embarrass us, or threaten us, or beats us down and makes us moan out in pain, that "hurts so bad" that "feels so good" that Lauryn Hill sang about on her classic album, The Miseducation.

Somehow we have all been miseducated that way, so we continue to ask Mary J. to return to the sadness of My Life in Yonkers, New York, even though her love don't live there anymore. The sadness is no longer Mary's life, and it's good that it's not. But that "street life" is what we tend to love more, as once sang, "it's the only life I know," the sorrow and tragedy of the bitter journey, while we hate the boring serenity and the sweetness of the stability of success. We tend to like our roads rough and rocky. Until... living that sad, sad journey of "reality" becomes a nightmare that we can't wake up from. That's when it's often too late to turn back.

Our big sister Whitney Houston had arrived at that point where she needed our recommendations of sanity and our collected prayers to wake up from trying to be so real, so 'hood, so gangsta, and so down for whatever, for Bobby, for herself, and for us, just so we could relate more to her apparent blackness. Man, this love/hate relationship in our community is a real sickness! Like Whitney, we need to all learn how to scream, "Hell to the naw!" and turn the reality TVs off for a minute, an hour, a couple of days, or a week even! We have to force ourselves to learn how to hate the ridiculous nonsense and love what nurtures us, what makes us smile, and what makes us stand up and feel proud of one another, like when Whitney Houston sang the national anthem at the Super Bowl in 1991. That was love!

So I apologize, Whitney, now that's it's too late to help save you, while wishing that I could go back to the 80s and love you before the drama, when you still seemed to be a little too perfect and cheerful. We all have to learn that there's nothing wrong with that cheerfulness. A pleasant smile is good for us.

I can still hear Whitney's song, "You Give Good Love" ringing in my eardrums now like it was yesterday, no matter how much I tried to ignore it back then. But now, I wish we did give "good love." I wish we could all learn to celebrate good things before they pass away into memories.

So let's start now and learn to love an educated Lauryn and the good Mary, along with the sunshine and the rainbows that occur after the rain is gone, instead of loving the wickedness of the storm so much... myself included.