Death of a diva

2012-02-17 13:14

Last Sunday night the 54th Grammy Awards opened with a prayer for Whitney Houston.

Her body was lying in the mortuary not too far away from the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles, where her industry peers had gathered.
“We had a death in the family,” said Grammy host LL Cool J.

Sitting at the Staples Center surrounded by a galaxy of stars, I felt this was a perfect tribute for a superstar whose roots are steeped in the church – from the small New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, New Jersey where she sang to glory.

Her gospel singer mother Cissy Houston, her famous cousin Dionne Warwick and her godmother Aretha Franklin are all gospel goddesses in their own right.
The atmosphere at the venue, although not sombre, had a tinge of sadness and loss as musicians were still visibly shocked about the 48-year-old singer’s death on the eve of “music’s biggest night”.

“The music world has a hole in its heart,” said Grammy winner Melanie Fiona while giving her acceptance speech. Every singer at the Grammys had something to say about Houston, and mostly their favourite memories of meeting her.

There wasn’t a dry eye in the venue when Jennifer Hudson took to the stage to sing I Will Always Love You at a lower key befitting the moment.

When the news of Whitney Houston’s death broke on Twitter on Saturday afternoon, I was walking around Melrose Boulevard deciding which fashion store to hit next. A bubbly shop assistant informed me of the developments. After seeing the disbelief on my face, she showed me evidence on her laptop, a stream of tweets and websites.

I was devastated but not shocked because the singer was troubled, and struggled with drug addiction, depression and failed comebacks.

Outside the store, the world was carrying on as if nothing happened but the weather on the other hand, had taken a sudden turn for the worse with a chill and a light drizzle. It was as if the sky was in mourning.

On Twitter, where the news of the singer’s death appeared long before the mainstream traditional media channels could announce it, about 2.5 million tweets about her death had filled up the social network in an hour – making it one of the most tweeted event in the medium’s six-year history.

There was a universal reaction of disbelief from the entertainment world with actors like The Game’s Pooch Hall saying “Yeah right, you can’t believe anything TMZ says” in his tweet. He later changed his tune when the mainstream media started tweeting the news.

This news upset me because two nights before her passing I attended a pre-Grammy party at Hollywood nightclub hosted by R&B singer Kelly Price where Houston joined Price on stage to sing, albeit hoarsely, Jesus Loves Me. I didn’t make much of the performance, I could never have predicted that would be her swan song. She cut a dishevelled figure but no one could have guessed that in less than 48 hours she would be dead. As we all know, could-haves, should-haves and would-haves are a waste of energy.

Later that Saturday evening at the Beverly Hilton Hotel where Houston died, I joined throngs of Houston fans in mourning. We lined up to give her a send-off as her body was carried out of the iconic five-star establishment.

I noticed a young man who took his mourning a little further. I thought he was overly dramatic and theatrical – he needed to stop. I soon learnt the lad was Houston’s nephew.

He told us his aunt was found dead in a bathtub, a story later revealed to be true.
At the same hotel, four floors below Houston’s ill-fated Room 434 corner suite, her mentor Clive Davis decided to carry on with his yearly pre-Grammy party with the
crème de la crème of Hollywood.

Stars and icons such as Jane Fonda, Britney Spears, Diana Ross, Ne-Yo, Kelly Rowland, Mary J Blige and others attended what morphed into an impromptu Houston memorial service. It was surreal and eerily creepy that, while Houston’s body was still upstairs, the same singers who expressed shock were downstairs partying the night away. Hollywood is truly two-faced.

“Simply put, Whitney would have wanted the music to go on, and her family asked that we carry on,” Recording Academy President Neil Portnow explained.
Houston’s godmother and music powerhouse, Aretha Franklin, decided not to attend the event. She later expressed her disapproval of Davis going on with the party.

“I thought that was complete insanity,” she told CNN’s Piers Morgan on his TV show on Monday night. “And knowing Whitney I don’t think she would’ve said the show must go on, she’s the kind of woman who would’ve said: stop everything! I’m not going to be there. I don’t know what could motivate a person to have a party in the building where the person whose life he had influenced so enormously died. I don’t understand how that party went on.”

Franklin said she was “paralysed” after being told of Houston’s death when she arrived in Los Angeles and also criticised the person who brought Houston to LA a week ahead of the Grammys as if to say they brought her to the temptation of wild and non-stop partying.

By early Sunday, Grammy morning, the fans and paparazzi who had previously swarmed
the Beverly Hilton had disappeared.

The body had been taken to the LA coroner to determine the cause of death via toxicology tests that can take up to eight weeks.

On Monday, the singer’s family issued a statement: “We are devastated by the loss of our beloved Whitney. This is an unimaginable tragedy and we will miss her terribly. We appreciate the outpouring of love and support from her fans and friends.”

Ex-husband Bobby Brown, who broke down during a reunion performance with New Edition in Nashville, appealed for privacy.

“I am deeply saddened at the passing of my ex-wife, Whitney Houston. At this time, we ask for privacy, especially for my daughter, Bobbi Kristina. I appreciate all of the condolences that have been directed towards me and my family at this most difficult time.”

A visit to the Hollywood Walk of Fame, where about 2 400 stars are minted on the sidewalks of the 15 blocks of Hollywood Boulevard as permanent public monuments of music and film stars’ achievements, highlighted a disappointing fact: Houston didn’t have one.

The Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, which is responsible for dispensing the coveted stars, explained the honour was never given to Houston because no one from her camp could suggest a date for the unveiling ceremony. Her window of opportunity closed in 2000, so she missed out on her star.

Popular wax museum Madame Tussaud, does not have a figure of the star, and yet there are figures of newbies Justin Bieber, Beyoncé and Lady Gaga.

She might have died in LA where she didn’t have a Hollywood star of fame, but in her hometown of Newark, her star shines brightly in the hearts of the townfolk.
Fans have left condolence cards and placed candles, flowers and a rosary in tribute at the New Hope Baptist Church.

According to reports, Houston’s family asked the city’s mayor, Cory Booker, not to host a public memorial for the diva. Her funeral was held yesterday at the church.

As I left the now-chilly City of Angels I ran into my countryman Jonathan Butler who was en route to the Dubai Jazz Festival with his band. He told me that he was not too shocked by the news of Houston’s death.

“People have to realise this thing of prescription drugs is a serious problem in Hollywood. I worked with her a

while ago and even back then, it was shocking how crazy everything was. I hope she has found peace from this life.”

The memories of my trip to the Grammys will always be bittersweet. Whitney Houston had finally faded from earth.

» Seabi was a guest of Channel O and Vuzu for the Grammy awards

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