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Whitney Houston's legacy lives on 10 years after her death

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

You know this voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WANNA DANCE WITH SOMEBODY")

WHITNEY HOUSTON: (Singing) Oh, I want to dance with somebody.

FLORIDO: It is the voice - Whitney Houston.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WILL ALWAYS LOVE YOU")

HOUSTON: (Singing) And I will always love you.

FLORIDO: An icon whose work is still celebrated and whose influence is still felt 10 years after her death. Music critic Gerrick Kennedy has spent a lot of time researching and thinking about Houston's lasting legacy. And he's written a book about it, "Didn't We Almost Have It All."

Gerrick Kennedy, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

GERRICK KENNEDY: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.

FLORIDO: The subtitle of your book is "In Defense Of Whitney Houston." Why did you feel the need to write a book defending one of our country's greatest superstars?

KENNEDY: You know, the thing with the subtitle is she came up in a time where we didn't have the language that we have now around accountability or even our understandings culturally around the spectrum of sexuality or addiction or mental health or even race in America. And I think these are all things that were so crucial to the story of Whitney Houston but also to the way in which, you know, we sometimes were very unkind to her. So when I say in defense of, it's both a defense of who she was and who she wasn't but also who we didn't allow her to be.

FLORIDO: So much of the public's focus on Houston was, as you suggest, you know, with this very harsh critical eye. But that's obviously not what drew you to her as a fan. What first drew you to Whitney Houston, you know, on a personal level?

KENNEDY: I think it's the same for so many people, which was just the absolute majesty of her voice. You know, this book starts with me kind of just walking you through how I fell in love with her really and truly, which was, you know, seeing her in "The Bodyguard," where it just felt like this was this woman who was bigger than life almost, you know? I thought this voice was so special. I loved her music videos. I would dance along to them.

But there was something different about then seeing her in this role and seeing her in this light of just pure superstardom. And, gosh, you know? It's - and there's a particular scene, and it is when her character, Rachel Marron, is - she's literally running through heaven in a music video, which they did for, you know, "Run To You," which is my favorite Whitney Houston ballad, by the way.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RUN TO YOU")

HOUSTON: (Singing) I want to run to you.

KENNEDY: I was just like, oh, my God. This is the coolest woman on the face of the planet. You know what I mean? Like, this voice is out of this world. I literally felt as if I was being transported out of my seat.

FLORIDO: And one of the themes in your book is this exploration of all the things that Whitney Houston felt she had to hide from that spotlight because she was at the height of her fame at a very different time. Why were you so interested in the reasons that she felt she had to hide and had so much to hide?

KENNEDY: You know, what fascinated me about it is it honestly was - and, you know, people get - they get kind of jarred when I use this word, but the level of violence that I think that she faced. And when I say violence, I mean, you were talking about a level of anger that she was met with by critics and reporters on a fairly regular basis. You know, why won't you tell us who you're sleeping with? Why won't you tell us who you're dating? You must be hiding something. It allowed for this narrative to be created about her that she was not fully in control of.

But also, that sort of almost diminished her in so many ways because you had this question around, well, why are you singing these songs in this particular way which is more pop-leaning when we know that you are from the church? We know that your lineage includes, you know, Aretha Franklin and your mother and, you know, Dionne Warwick, who - even though she was performing pop, it's still this idea of, you should be doing something differently. And we don't believe that you are singing the songs that a Black woman from Newark, N.J., should be singing.

So it became this question around her Blackness. But then it became an attack, and that was an attack that she was faced with with both white media and Black media. So she was getting it from all sides.

FLORIDO: Were there any clues in any of the interviews she gave about how that harsh spotlight affected her?

KENNEDY: Yeah. There's so many breadcrumbs that she left us in her interviews over the years. And I think you actually watch her stop code-switching. You actually see her - you can see her frustration, and she doesn't hide it. And that was something that I always thought was so great about her. But it was also the Blackest thing about Whitney Houston - is just, like - the one thing that we all know as Black people is how often we do have to have this sort of, you know, double conscious of who we are because we are constantly faced with this. So you have to think about, you know, being a Black woman from Newark.

And you now have not just, like, Black folks, but you have white folks. You know, you have everybody that's interviewing you asking you this question around your Blackness or suggesting that you're not Black enough. Or then you're getting booed, you know, at the Soul Train Awards.

And so yes, these - this frustration will come out often in interviews. And there's plenty of times where she's saying, I don't even know what you mean about singing Black enough. Like, I'm singing the songs I want to sing. And I'm singing them the way that I want to sing them, which is - she was singing, you know, from her spirit, which she learned in the church, in a Black church. So there was the gospel vocalizing that she brought to everything she sang. No matter if it was something as upbeat...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOW WILL I KNOW")

HOUSTON: (Singing) How will I know if he really loves me?

KENNEDY: ...Of "How Will I Know" or something like, you know, "Didn't We Almost Have It All," they're so emotional. Or even when she sings the national anthem...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HOUSTON: (Singing) O'er the land of the free...

KENNEDY: All of that is rooted in, you know, gospel vocalizing, which is inherently Black, obviously. And there was something about that that I thought was so fascinating that she had to continuously defend because people were just automatically dismissing it. So the fact that she had to constantly defend that - you could see her level of frustration. And sometimes, yes, it became anger.

FLORIDO: It's clear from your book that you wish that she was still alive not only because she died so young, so tragically and was such a huge superstar but also because you wish she could have seen the ways that our society has progressed in the last 10 years. In what ways do you think she would have been treated differently today?

KENNEDY: We have arrived to a place that - even though it's not what I would like it to be in terms of representation, as far as, you know, queer artists goes, especially queer Black artists, there are more than I had growing up. So to have that, yes, I would have loved for Whitney to be around for this moment because then I think when she's going and doing these interviews, maybe the question then wouldn't have been the same.

Or maybe she would have felt, you know, empowered to say, you know, hey; I had this experience when I was 17, 18 years old. You guys have asked me all these years, and I never wanted to talk about it. But, like, this is what it was. Let's move on. Or, you know, take it or leave it. Or just have that moment of not feeling like she was being attacked for it, which is what happened to her for so very long.

If she would have been here to see now, yeah, there's a part of me that believes that maybe it would have went away. Maybe the ways that we talked about her addiction would have been a little more kinder, and it wouldn't have been met with so much ridicule because we don't do it as much anymore.

FLORIDO: We've been speaking with music critic Gerrick Kennedy. His book "Didn't We Almost Have It All: In Defense Of Whitney Houston" is out now. Gerrick Kennedy, thank you for joining us.

KENNEDY: Thank you for having me. It was such a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIDN'T WE ALMOST HAVE IT ALL")

HOUSTON: (Singing) Didn't we almost have it all? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.
Ayen Bior