Bad news always catches you at the worst time. It’s like a snake sneaking from the woods into the cabin when you’re out camping in the wilds. It’s like a slap when you expected a kiss.
I’m getting ready to go out when the phone rings. It’s one of my producers. I’m surprised because on this Saturday, I knew she was going to a pre-Grammy party. I love days like this because I don’t like award parties. A lot of people I know and work with die for awards and parties. A day like this is one when the phone stops ringing for a few precious hours.
But, the phone won’t stop ringing. When I answered it, the news was horrific. My producer told me something was going on at the Beverly Hilton. It has to do with Whitney. It may be fatal. And, that was before the news networks broke the news of the demise of the woman whose voice was from the gods.
You learn not to dismiss calls like this. In Hollywood, the black community is so small and so interwoven that talk of six degrees of separation is more like two or three degrees. When you hear terrible news about a black person in Hollywood from a fellow black person, the best thing to do is to drop to your knees and pray that person is okay.
But, they must have been on a lunch break in heaven. Whitney didn’t make it this time. And, right after the news of her passing broke, the airwaves got polluted with people slinging mud at “those spoilt Hollywood folks”.
Even Rick Santorum, the upstart, latest bride of the messy Republican presidential field got a quick dig in at the departed songstress. “In a sense, celebrities are the aristocracy of America. They’re the kings, and the queens, and the princes of our society,” said Santorum on CNN’s “Piers Morgan Tonight” Wednesday.
“They have a huge impact on the rest of society. Much more than any other group, certainly much more than a politician does. And that’s why this is so disturbing.”
It’s easy to cast stones when you’ve not walked in the shoes of these “celebrities”. Talent and success shoot you to fame. And, many a time, that fame, that very talent that makes you unique, puts you in a box as worse as a jail cell.
I used to read about it as a kid in Lagos. Now, that I live and work in this town they call Hollywood, I’ve seen a lot of it. Stars so popular they’re scared to come out on the streets. Parents so jaded by their kids’ success, they turn them into a mule. Folks binging on drugs like its flakes of gari. Sex so cheap you can snap your fingers and girls would come running.
What destroys you in this town is what you came looking for in the first place. Fame. When you get it, it imprisons you. You become a victim of your own success. Fame in this town comes with an entourage. Friends. Agents. Managers. Publicists. Family. Lawyers. And, they all exist to serve your every need. Sometimes, those needs take you to a dark corner from where you never return.
Whitney seems to have ended in one of those dark corners. But, that is not the way I will remember her. I will always remember her as that woman from Newark with the voice of angels.
I grew up on her songs. I had this little battle trying to decide who’s my favorite female singer was. Michael Jackson had the male corner sewed up. But, the female was always a problem. Would it be Whitney or Sade? Eventually, I chose Sade. Sade was more like me. She was born in Ibadan. I was born in Ibadan. Case closed.
Once I was at a film festival in Asia where the organizers treated the filmmakers like stars. I had a short film and I was just happy they had bought me a ticket and put me in a hotel. But, they wanted me to choose a song to come out to after my screening. It was weird. I am not what you’ll call a publicity hog. But, it’s rude not to accommodate your host.
So, I asked them to play “One Moment In Time”. The song was written for Elvis Pressley whose timeless figure inspired it. The writers envisage it being sung at an Olympics. It’s filled with promise and hope. It’s a song that always stirs my soul. As fate would have it, when the song was finally sung at an Olympics, Elvis had exited the earth. It fell to Whitney to sing it. And, boy did she wow the Seoul Olympics with that song!
I wish I’d gone to Kelly Price’s pre-Grammy party. A friend had asked if I wanted to come and I issued the standard “no” answer. If I’d gone, I would have seen Whitney for the last time. And, I would have heard her sing that melodious “Jesus Loves Me” for the last time.