It is Donny Hathaway’s version of Leon Russell’s “A Song For You” that I am most familiar with, his husky voice painfully singing, “I've acted out my life on stages, with ten thousand people watching, but we're alone now and I'm singing this song to you.” He croons, “You taught me precious secrets of a true love.”
When you listen to the lyrics, it makes sense that Robyn Crawford — now best publicly known as Whitney Houston’s longtime best friend and one time lover — would name the book after this song that seems almost tailored for the life of Whitney Houston; a woman that acted her life out on stages for millions.
This week, Crawford revealing the intimate and romantic nature of her and Houston’s relationship shook a heternormative public where queerness is still a scandal, a thing to garner headlines and conversation. And much of the fascination is elementary: The Voice of all voices kissed a girl and liked it. Gasp.
However, what Crawford truly offered when you look beyond the lens of a tabloid, is a revaluation of why and how we lost the greatest voice American music has ever known.
During Robyn Crawford’s interview with professional gossip, Wendy Williams, she quoted Houston softly and tenderly as it concerned her awareness of a homophobic culture, “I don’t think we should be physical because where we’re going if people found out about it, they would just use it against us.”
After their romantic encounter and once Houston decided to enter the arena of pop music, she knew what she had to do, and perhaps most tragically what she could not do. Crawford in her own words says, “You don’t go around professing something that’s beautiful. You kinda keep it safe and that’s what we did. We kept it safe.” Referring to the intimate nature of their relationship, Crawford says, “We sacrificed that for where we were going and because of that, that rise was beautiful.”
With reverence and respect, it isn’t the rise of Whitney Houston that propelled Crawford to write this book and it isn’t her rise that answers why people have made an industry out of retelling Houston’s personal history even seven years after death — it is the fall. Because betraying one’s truth and remaining silent about it is swallowing poison and digesting it. And for many years, this is precisely what we witnessed, but for a long time we didn’t know exactly why.
And now, in the wake of Crawford's book, contextualziing Whitney Houston as a Black queer person opens up a long rumored culprit for her fall: homophobia.
Whitney Houston’s drug use, the danger she put her child in, and the abusive relationship that was acted out publicly makes sense when you understand before the world even knew her name, her original sin, the betrayal of herself, was already committed. It makes sense once you understand that people put themselves and their loved ones in an array of compromising positions in order to relieve the pain of not being able to live authentically.
But it wasn’t Houston’s fault that we live in a culture that made a queer sexual identity and success contradictory elements that could never mix. Even today, people are more fascinated with their image of Houston as heterosexual being interuppted than the fact that it was addiction, fueled by not being able to live authentically in her Blackness or her queerness that had her succumb to her own habits in a bathtub in 2012.
We can now see that Houston simply observed the reality of homophobia and chose a life that wouldn’t make the angel that lived in her throat a secret. And there are no healthy choices in a culture of domination and hegemony where one can’t be a female superstar and love another woman, but just because the story isn’t special doesn’t negate it as poignantly tragic.
More than scandal or headlines, what Robyn Crawford’s story — her song — should propel American culture to do is look at itself and apologize to not just Whitney Houston, but all of the other queer lives that have had to learn how to cannibalize their spirits just for societal acceptance and a chance at happiness. That is a cost too high, even for a dream.
And it should make American media evaluate all current conversations around sexuality and gender to make sure we don’t reproduce the same tragic tale.
In "A Song For You," Donny Hathaway’s cover that shares a namesake with Robyn Crawford’s Whitney Houston biography, he sings, “I love you where there is no space and time. I love for my life, you are a friend of mine.” This is divine poetry, but it is unjust when I think about these lyrics being delivered from Robyn, to Whitney.
Because Black queer people deserve to share love, grace and beauty with the world in front of space, time, and the public.
In one of the most public forums we have today, a Today interview, Crawford shared a story about Whitney Houston’s first tour where she was playing The Dome in New Orleans where she was to have an audience of forty-thousand people, but only ten thousand tickets were sold. Her response according to Crawford was, “Well, they bought tickets too.”
Imagine a world where this was Whitney Houston’s sole legacy, but for now, we can hope the public can give her as much grace in death as she gave us in life.