Whitney Houston’s Enduring Legacy: Lifting Up Other Black Women

THERE ARE, STRANGELY, a lot of other women in Whitney Houston’s 1993 video for the song “I’m Every Woman,” that can-do anthem powered by Houston’s unparalleled midrange pipes. “It’s all in me,” she sings of a spellbinding force that would seem to make others unnecessary. Yet there alongside her we find the funk powerhouse Chaka Khan, who first recorded the song in 1978; the song’s co-composer Valerie Simpson; Houston’s mother and mentor, Cissy Houston; a dance team of young Black girls; and the trio TLC. Houston recorded “I’m Every Woman” for the soundtrack of “The Bodyguard” (1992), which she co-executive produced, and which secured her megastardom such that “the wonderment of her talent and her career impacted everyone,” as her sister-in-law and estate executor, Pat Houston, puts it. The open secret of this video is that Houston had a hand in that influence: She deliberately used her status as an icon to light up a whole network of Black female forebears and creative descendants.

Now, 11 years after her death, Houston has a new MAC cosmetics line and a Scent Beauty fragrance; her original recordings are featured in the recent biopic starring Naomi Ackie. The coming months and years will bring, among other initiatives, a compilation of her unreleased gospel recordings and a Broadway musical. These ventures — the fruits of a 2019 partnership between the Whitney Houston estate and the music publishing company Primary Wave — invite us not only to look again at Houston herself but to realize that her own gaze was often turned toward other Black women. We now expect celebrities such as Beyoncé, Rihanna, Ava DuVernay and Lena Waithe to share their resources, establish record labels and production companies and engage in collaborations to demonstrate that they, in the words of Issa Rae at the 2017 Emmys, are “rooting for everybody Black” — especially other Black women. Yet it was Houston, who linked arms with gospel icons like CeCe Winans and Kim Burrell, and mentored pop stars such as Brandy and Monica, who pioneered this form of Black female boosterism on a grand scale.

We haven’t been able to see this in part because of the scrim of myth that treats Houston’s Blackness only as a problem for her, not as a source of pride or opportunity. Too Black for the puritanical white pop mainstream, too white for the narrow-minded Black listeners who booed her at the 1989 Soul Train Awards, she married “bad boy” Bobby Brown, we are told, in an effort to regain her hometown Newark, N.J., street cred and to neutralize the whitening effects of her pop hits with Arista, the label founded by Clive Davis. The story of her life, thus staged as a battle between two charismatic men, admits Black women only as historical precedents (her musical mother, Cissy; her celebrity cousin Dionne Warwick), or as illicit lovers. (Her longtime best friend and creative director, Robyn Crawford, writes in her 2019 memoir, published in part to correct the record, that there was a sexual dimension to their relationship in the beginning — they met when Houston was 17 — a point on which the new biopic is refreshingly matter-of-fact.) Houston’s much-publicized addiction — she drowned in a Beverly Hills hotel bathtub, with drugs in her system, in 2012 at age 48 — seals her reputation as a woman who was scarcely in control of herself, let alone over the prospects of other Black women across the entertainment industry. It’s nearly impossible to see how intently and compassionately she wielded that power in the post-“Bodyguard” years, given that most accounts depict that period as a blank free fall toward her death.

YET FOR ALL that, Houston’s boosterism has also escaped us because it was personal. She wasn’t really a race woman: A star of her stature and ambition could not have declared her racial commitments like, say, the actress Ruby Dee, or, later, Rae herself; and Houston bid a raucous farewell to the race woman’s politics of respectability, as well as to the position of role model, with the 2005 reality TV series “Being Bobby Brown.” Nor was Houston a mogul like some of her contemporaries, such as Oprah Winfrey or Spike Lee. (An artist-management company and record label were both short-lived.) But she was part of that same embattled, entitled post-civil rights generation who integrated previously white spaces before drawing other artists into them. And because she was intimately aware of how punishing the spotlight could be, she did not simply guide Black women to greater visibility but tried to ensure they survived it.

McKinniss’s “The Star Spangled Banner” (2022).Credit…Courtesy of the artist, JTT and Almine Rech. Photo: Charles Benton

In a shift signaled by the “I’m Every Woman” video, she began trading in her America’s sweetheart card in the mid-90s for that of Black culture worker, emerging not only as the Voice but as a multimedia strategist with a discerning ear for new talent. In 1994, she performed a series of concerts in Nelson Mandela’s South Africa. In 1995, she co-executive produced and appeared on an all-Black-female soundtrack for the film adaptation of Terry McMillan’s 1992 novel, “Waiting to Exhale,” in which she co-starred; the album featured everyone from Aretha Franklin to the R&B vocalist Faith Evans to the wunderkind Brandy — who later starred in the 1997 multicultural version of “Cinderella” that Houston co-produced (she herself played the Fairy Godmother). She helped put contemporary gospel on the map with her 1996 soundtrack to “The Preacher’s Wife” and by collaborating with Winans and Kelly Price. In 1998, she worked with the musicians Missy Elliott and Lauryn Hill (whom she called “the new breed”) to help produce “My Love Is Your Love,” an album that initiated her turn toward a new bent-but-not-broken brand of hip-hop-inflected R&B. She had Price and Evans sing with her on the sultry track “Heartbreak Hotel.” The song doesn’t call out for a group arrangement, but Houston seemed to want to “shine some light on some other Black females from church,” Evans says. The Grammy-nominated song, as well as the video, brought Evans and Price even greater exposure to a pop audience (while also helping Houston reach the so-called urban music market these younger artists represented). Her last project was a 2012 remake of the 1976 Black film musical “Sparkle,” in which she portrayed the mother to a group of aspiring singers — fitting, given the supporting role she had been playing offscreen for nearly two decades.

Having signed her own recording contract at age 19, Houston was, by her 30s, something of an industry elder. (Burrell, who was one of Houston’s closest friends, tells me that, following an unimpressive encounter with a rising female superstar, Houston wanted to make a documentary on dos and don’ts for women in the industry.) She encouraged Monica, a mentee 17 years her junior, to keep recording then-unorthodox songs about urban life such as “Street Symphony” (1998), and to stick to the thigh-high leather boots she preferred even when she was being told to wear gowns. Monica recalls that Houston also instructed her to keep her notes “pure” so as to distill a song’s feeling, instead of “mixing tones and textures,” the way the younger vocalist had learned to do in church. It was also crucial to find the “spaces and places to add inflections, but not too much,” she says: “Whitney was big on that.”

The point of getting it right was less to impress than to properly perform one’s musical ministry. “It wasn’t about going onstage looking glamorous or wondering, ‘Did I sound good?’” Pat Houston says. “She came onstage to sing to you. She was looking to make sure you extracted what you needed from what she had to say.” The music mattered because it was the medium through which Houston enacted the best of what she aimed to be offstage: vibrantly available, sensitive to nuance and need. She encouraged Burrell’s dream of a church in Houston, where Burrell has served as the senior pastor. When Evans’s husband the Notorious B.I.G. was killed in 1997, Houston got her out of the house. When Monica suffered a tragic loss at 18, Houston flew to the singer’s home in Atlanta, staying for nearly a week.

These gestures and generosities were things only her friends could tell you about. She had no desire to advertise them, not least since her private life had already been thoroughly consumed by the public. Yet she was nonetheless pleased when people found out. In 1998, the future journalist Quencie Thomas, then in her early 20s, interviewed Houston on MTV and thanked her for “employing so many of our people.” Houston sat up straight and said, “Do you know that?” Knowing has always depended on whom you asked, and where you looked.

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