Whitney Houston’s story has been surrounded by tragedy both in life and after her death: Her untimely death followed by her daughter’s; her father’s company’s $100 million lawsuit against her while she was still alive; how the media and pop culture treated her addiction to drugs and Bobby Brown like a joke. But perhaps one of the biggest is Houston’s loss of her own narrative.
Like what you see? Sign up for the THINK newsletter to get the week’s most important cultural analysis
Houston’s incomparable talent and beloved status made her a global icon, but no matter how many interviews she gave or cameras she allowed to follow her, it could feel like the real Whitney was buried somewhere inside of her public persona. After her death in 2012, Houston’s story was offered up by her family, her husband and documentarians Nick Broomfield and Kevin Macdonald, alongside tabloids and gossip blogs. These various people were all trying to tell us who Whitney truly was. But it was clear few could agree when it came to Houston’s sexuality, especially her relationship with long-time friend and openly gay woman Robyn Crawford.
Unless some kind of lost diary surfaces, fans will never hear from Whitney directly. But Crawford’s new memoir, “A Song For You: My Life with Whitney Houston,” offers a perspective that doesn’t speak for Houston, but for Crawford, who has remained silent about her relationship with Whitney for decades. In an early excerpt published by People and and in an interview with NBC News Dateline, Crawford confirms that she and Houston indeed had a romantic and sexual relationship. The relationship eventually ended because of homophobic pressure.
Get the think newsletter.
There are still very few openly queer black women in the public eye, and while I want to make very clear that homophobia within the black community is not greater than or a larger societal problem than homophobia within white communities or otherwise, there is a generational feel to it. What was once unspoken, taboo, or, in Houston’s case, completely unacceptable, has evolved to become, at the very least, a conversation.
“She said we shouldn’t be physical anymore,” Crawford writes in “A Song For You,” “because it would make our journey even more difficult.” Crawford details that this happened in 1982, just before Houston signed with Clive Davis at Arista Records. Crawford writes that Houston presented her with a Bible, telling her people would use their relationship against them. Notably, one of those people was Cissy Houston, Houston’s mother who, in a 2013 interview with Oprah, denied Houston being anything other than straight. If her daughter had been gay, Cissy Houston said, she wouldn’t have condoned it.
“Whitney told me her mother said it wasn’t natural for two women to be that close,” Crawford says, “but we were that close.” Crawford says she and Houston, “never talked about labels, like lesbian or gay. We just lived our lives and I hoped it could go on that way forever.”
Both 2017’s “Whitney: Can I Be Me” and 2018’s “Whitney” highlight the familial homophobia that surrounded Houston, as well as the pressure she felt from a homophobic, racist, patriarchal society and entertainment business. Some parallels were drawn to Houston’s eventually ending her working relationship and friendship with Crawford and her descent into addiction. In 2016, Bobby Brown told US Weekly: “I really feel that if Robyn was accepted into Whitney’s life, Whitney would still be alive today.”
Crawford’s memoir offers yet another outside view of Houston from an insider, someone it could be argued who knew her more intimately than most. No one in Houston’s life has denied how important Crawford was to Houston, whom she met when they were both teenagers. And while Crawford has been talked about in interviews, depicted in Lifetime movies, and highlighted in both documentaries, “A Song” will be her first acknowledgment of the “Nippy” she knew and loved.
“I watched her rise to the top of her game, and I felt compelled to share who that woman was behind all of that fame,” Crawford said Thursday morning on the “Today” show. “I never envisioned speaking publicly about my life. And then I asked myself the question: What would Whitney want?”
After many years of seeing her story dictated by others, “A Song” is a gift for those looking to hear from a person who didn’t seem to want anything more from Houston than for her to be happy.
While there will be those who undoubtedly treat the book’s contents salaciously, this isn’t some tabloid scoop. Like Houston, Crawford’s life and story has been monopolized without her input or control. Now, as a black and openly gay woman, she’s reclaiming who she is, and who Houston was to her. She didn’t owe it to anyone, but after many years of seeing her story dictated by others, “A Song” is a gift for those looking to hear from a person who didn’t seem to want anything more from Houston than for her to be happy as herself.
“Why now?” Crawford asks in the book. “Believe me, I’ve done my best to stay out of the spotlight, keeping quiet while others painted their own pictures of me and us. In the nineteen years since I left Whitney’s company, I have been pursued relentlessly to tell my story. I believe it is my duty to honor my friend and to clarify the many inaccuracies about myself and about who Whitney was.”
It’s been too often expected of these few black queer women to create and lead the conversation themselves (Sheryl Swoopes, Wanda Sykes and Robin Roberts, for example). But now, a new younger generation like Lena Waithe and Amandla Stenberg are willing to include advocacy and education into their social content and overall personal brand.
“The music business was a world that we were learning, and we didn’t want anything to interfere with where she was going,” Crawford told “Today.” “I just felt that I wouldn’t be losing much. I still loved her the same. And she loved me. And that was enough.”
It’s hard to say if Houston would have been able to speak as a part of the LGBTQ community were she still alive — no one can say for sure, and no one should. But what Crawford allows us to ruminate on is how others have been able to dictate a culture of homophobia. It is a culture that cannot be fully discarded without first being discussed. “I owe it to my friend to share her story, my story. Our story. And I hope that in doing so, I can set us both free,” Crawford writes.” The conversation continues, and Crawford’s memoir is a part of that sea change.