I’m a Vailsburg girl who grew up in the dawn of the phenomenon that was Whitney Houston. Family, friends and neighbors were all proud of the stunner most of them knew as Nippy. So, I owned a lot of the albums. I have watched some of the documentaries about her and I have read many of the articles. I am a fan who was in search of a way to pay tribute.
The peaches and cream debut album defined my childhood. And at the other bookend The Bodyguard was released just in time for me to claim confidence in my last years of high school. Whitney was my living proof that girls from my background had glamorous futures. Her ability to shift from down to earth homegirl to arena queen encouraged my unapologetic Black womanhood. Her talent for holding notes from spellbinding G5s to the espresso drip C3s are still my true north of vocalism.
In 1993 I went away to college and Ms. Lauryn Hill took the helm as my Jersey girl muse. I left the country in 1996 to spend time in Haiti, England, and France. When I returned home to the United States in 1999 the “I’m Every Woman” Whitney Houston who had become a mother and topped the charts was someone very different. As Lauryn said “they’ll hail you then nail you no matter who you are.” I listened to Heartbreak Hotel over and over to revel in the beauty of these two Newark jewels, Whitney and Faith Evans. Faith was also special to me because I had walked the halls of Newark’s University High School with her. I had watched Mrs. Boxley our music teacher try her very best to give all the singers her attention but arrest the band room to bang out a full piano scale and let Faith lift us all through the ceiling with her powerhouse voice. Recordings do not do her justice. I remember my 8th grade graduation rehearsal where she was practicing a song. Faith Evans’ voice filled that auditorium like an ocean fills around a boat. Interestingly our yearbook theme and walking song that year was “One Moment in Time.” But as I stood at the door to the next millennium, one moment in Whitney Houston time seemed to be upon us. And that moment’s name was Bobby.
On a trip home sometime in 1997, I had been to a celebrity haunt soul food restaurant in Manhattan. I wish I could remember the name of the place but sigh. All I can say is that it wasn’t The Shark Bar and I think it was in midtown. Anyway, my friend and I were enjoying a meal when we suddenly realized that the man at the table across from us talking about shows and parties with a troop of eager women and a couple of relaxed guys looked A LOT like Bobby Brown. We stared for a bit like any New Edition kids would have but then we got back to our meals and neither of us ventured to confirm or ask for an autograph. Looking back on it I think what we didn’t want to confirm was that things between him and Whitney really were not right and maybe, despite the song’s lyrics, it actually wasn’t ok. None of the women draped over him that evening was Whitney Houston and several of them spoke about the man’s marriage being a joke. As I exited with my friend, I remember saying to her “well maybe it wasn’t him” to which she replied with a sigh “it was…it was.”
The joke moved from being their marriage to being what felt like incredibly personal attacks. I admit that there were times when I felt like my childhood neighborhoods along the Newark and East Orange lines were under attack, too. So, I protected myself from a lot of the stories. I turned my head when awful photos of her appeared on the covers of grocery store check-out line rags. I excused myself from conversations about her where they turned to how bad she looked or sounded. And I rolled my eyes when people made fun of her sweating anxious demeanor as if mental illness were some sort of endless book of one-liners. Around that same time, my own mother had been battling mental illness. She fought valiantly seeing doctors, going to therapy, exercising and embarking on new adventures. I prayed for my mom’s victory every day. And triumph she did. She lost a lot during that time but she held on to so much more. One day we were looking at a family photo that had been taken in the basement of New Hope Baptist Church when I asked “do you think Whitney Houston ever goes back there?” My mom responded “oh yeah I’m sure she does” and then the part that always came next when we had this conversation: “You know she had a cousin who used to sing at New Hope, too? That girl could blow. I wonder how she is. She loved Whitney.” This cousin was not famous. She and Nippy were both youngsters to my mom. It was touching to hear mom recall the not-famous cousin who loved Whitney.
When Whitney passed away in 2012, I think I expected people to talk about those folks who loved her and I guess in some ways they did. Some were expected: Cissy loved her daughter and Krissy loved her mom. Some were touching: The Winans loved their sister and Kevin Costner loved his co-star. I take that back; I was surprised when I found out how much Kevin Costner loved her. But it was nice to see. Still, as I tried to come to terms with the untimely death of this woman who had such a profound impact on what I, what we all, knew about singing, I felt empty. I wanted to know where the love was. Not just the love of all the singers she influenced or all the industry folks who had made fortunes on her artistry but just hanging out in the school yard, popping bubble gum and running to the store for a slushie or some ice cream…love.
Halfway through Crawford’s A Song for You: My Life with Whitney Houston I saw it. Here it is, I thought. Someone who saw her, loved her and truly knew her has given us the tribute fans needed. This book struck me as sincere, circumspect, and written with the same care the author took when she served in her highly volatile role as Whitney Houston’s friend, confidante and right hand. I listened to the author read the story captivated by her recall and her tenderness. I nodded and shook my head as I chuckled at the Jersey girl nuances in her voice. I marveled at the strength Crawford had shown in examining herself and taking inventory of the life she had been blessed with thus far. By the end of the book, I was grateful. I also now had living proof that not only did girls from my background have glamorous futures but that they paid heavy prices for them. Moreover, I had proof that behind all the glamour and lights and glitz were real friends who didn’t always get the best end of the sticks. It was heartbreaking, sobering and, uplifting. All at once.
I was left with the overwhelming sense that I wanted to say something to Ms. Crawford. Well, a lot of somethings. Perhaps one day I will have audience with her and be able to say more than this but for now I will simply say thank you, Robyn Crawford. May you have peace and continued blessings in your beautiful life as wife to Lisa and mother to the twins. Your role in lifting up beautiful art and achievement is far from over and it is a pleasure to be a beneficiary of the talent you have nurtured. Life may not have told you all the when’s or why’s but you nailed this exhale. And it was amazing to hear.