Thoughts on Whitney Houston's funeral and music's sacred, healing powers

Reflections on a service filled with memories and, most of all, song

<p>Young fans pay their respects.</p>

Young fans pay their respects.

Credit: AP Photo

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In the end, it was the bodyguard who said what we all needed to hear—no, not her “Bodyguard” co-star Kevin Costner—but her real-life bodyguard of 11 years, Ray Watson.

As I watched Whitney Houston’s nearly four-hour funeral beamed from Newark’s New Hope Baptist Church, and listened to moving speech after moving speech — all of them heartfelt in their own ways, some more poignant than others—it was Watson’s words that resonated the most.

Unlike some of the speakers, Watson had been with Houston virtually every day for 11 years until she died on Feb. 11 and he saw a side of her that none of the others saw on a consistent basis. As she wrapped her last movie, “Sparkle,” this summer, she declared that she and Watson would drive back to New Jersey rather than fly (and since she didn’t drive, that meant the driving chores fell all to Watson...and, furthermore, despite his speaking tenderly, it was clear that her decision was not up for discussion).

As Watson commented on carrying his “precious cargo” back home, he perhaps, unwittingly, revealed how sheltered and isolated she had become—so much so that he worried about stopping during the trip and leaving her alone in the car when he paid for gas. “I told her, ‘Don’t get out of the car’,” he said.

He also spoke lovingly of her Bible, her constant companion, which he, unbeknownst to her, nicknamed Raggedy because it was so dog-eared and underlined. She took it everywhere. That one story did more than any other to humanize her and it felt authentic and true that despite his grief, he felt  that with her death Houston’s spirit came to him to tell him that he was “free.”  In that moment, I felt his sorrow and relief and, moreover, thought that Houston herself was finally free: unshackled of the demons—whether they be drugs or  the paparazzi — that had kept her in chains for too much of her life.


The other “Bodyguard,” Costner, knew he had to find a way to quickly explain his presence at the service and he did so with grace, acknowledging that first appearances would seem to show he and Houston had nothing in common, but they did:  They both grew up in the Baptist church. After he bridged that gap, he told how he stuck up for Houston and made sure she was cast in their 1992 blockbuster, despite others’ misgivings about showing an on-screen interracial romance. It’s a testament to his charm and obvious affection for Houston, that his long speech, which served him as much as Houston,  was one of the most moving...and was one of the few to hint that Houston’s “stumbles” should provide a cautionary tale to young women to “guard their body.”

The service, filled with moving performances by the Winans family, Alicia Keys, Donnie McClurkin, Stevie Wonder, Kim Burrell, R. Kelly and many others,  felt authentic and filled with love for Houston from many people who knew her in varying degrees, professionally and personally.  But most of all, it was Houston’s abiding, deep faith that stuck with me and that dominated the service-- in almost every word that was spoken and every song sung. Filmmaker Tyler Perry, who had known Houston only for four years, spoke eloquently and movingly of the two “constants” he knew about Houston: her grace and “her love of God.”

As Marvin Winans stressed in his eulogy, there is no shame in declaring one’s faith proudly and loudly. Other than in R&B, gospel, country and contemporary Christian music, musicians often hide their faith for fear of being seen as uncool and unhip. A number of acts, including some huge artists who have transitioned from Christian music to mainstream rock, are told to turn down the preaching or risk turning off fans.  Houston’s funeral and Winans’ words showed how wrong that kind of thinking is.

As the service reinforced over and over again, for Houston, there was no separation between music and her faith. The two were intertwined: her talent was a gift from God and how she shared it with millions was her way of honoring Him for bestowing it upon her.  Music provided salvation, healing, and redemption for Houston, as it does for anyone. Furthermore, as singer after singer  praised God in song, especially the choir member who sang The 23rd Psalm, it felt exultant, as if Houston’s spirit was being returned on the music’s glorious wings back up to God.

And that is why it is called a homegoing. RIP, Whitney.

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