The littlest girl stood between her sisters – so small, pretty, and innocent. Without hesitation she stepped forward, grabbed the microphone, and a long, powerful voice erupted from her mouth. Everyone instantly rose to their feet mesmerized by the sound and poise, reminiscent of a young Whitney Houston. Captivated by this young wonder, some waved their hands; others closed their eyes and sang along with her. She completely owned the crowd. When the song finally came to an end, she rejoined her sisters, and together they took their bows to a standing ovation. I sat agitated that I was being forced to watch this crap. After all, there was no illustrious singing career in my future. All my promise had long been snatched away by reality and circumstance. So I picked up the remote off the table and firmly pressed the stop button.
"Why’d you stop the tape?" my big sister Nita asked, after prying her lips from Eric -- her newest fling. Why would I want to watch that little girl? Everyone claimed she had the voice of an angel. But, she, I, lived an all-but heavenly life. My father died of heart failure shortly after I was born, and my mother had abandoned me. Not to mention I was broke, living in the projects with my sister and her two nasty kids in a dingy apartment. There was no point in going back down memory lane. Happy times just didn't fit in with the rest of my life.
“Angie!” my sister yelled, breaking my train of thought.
“What you stop the tape for?” she asked again.
"I don’t know why you pulled that old tape out in the first place. It ain't like y'all were watching it,” I said sarcastically.
She laughed. "Girl, I was just showing off our singing skills."
"Looks like you were showing off some other skills if you ask me," I said under my breath.
“But, ain’t nobody ask you,” Nita snapped and shot me a disapproving look.
Just then my 10 and 11-year-old nephews came barging through the front door and darted up the stairs.
"Quit runnin’ in the damn house!" Nita shouted.
"Excuse them, Eric. Them just my kids.”
He shrugged his shoulders indifferently, while taking a hit of the grass I had just handed him. I was just about to get it back from Eric and take another hit myself when a sharp pain in my stomach stopped me. After setting the joint in the ashtray and I waited for the pain to subside. I took it as a sign that I needed to go to sleep, so I made my way upstairs into my sister's room and climbed into bed.
My stomach began to settle, and just as I started to nod off when loud sexual moaning emanated from downstairs. Unfortunately it wasn't a movie I was hearing. Nevertheless, I managed to fall asleep. When I awoke it was still dark outside; I felt a presence and saw a large silhouette looming over me.
Frantically I turned on the nightstand lamp. As the light hit, I saw a man standing over me.
“Who are you? What do you want?” I pleaded desperately.
“Don’t be afraid,” he said calmly.
Surprisingly a sense of calmness came over me as I sat up. The man took a seat on the edge of the bed and told me I was pregnant, and that I was going to have a daughter who would change the world. A complete stranger was popping up in my bedroom just to tell me I was having a baby? My period wasn’t even due for another three weeks. I quickly concluded this guy was a psycho preparing to rape me.
I began to plan my defense. My escape. I wasn’t scared. Still, my eyes filled with tears. I closed them to keep my tears from falling. When I reopened them, sunlight was shining through the bedroom window. I wasn't sure whether it had been a dream or if in fact someone had been in the room, but I wasn't left with much time to think about it. I felt a rumbling in the pit of my stomach, and before I could clear my head, I had locked myself in the bathroom and was praying to the porcelain gods.
"Angie is you all right?" Nita yelled and banged on the door.
I wanted to answer her, but I couldn't. I was too busy spilling everything I had eaten the night before. After about a minute of pounding on the door, I knew it was only a matter of time before she kicked it in. Reluctantly I made my way over and unlocked the door.
"You sound like you're dying in here. Why the hell did you lock the door?" she shouted, as I walked back to the sink hunched over. I put my hands together underneath the running water, and scooped some to my mouth.
"Are you okay?" she finally got around to asking.
"Yeah, I'm fine," I answered and then rinsed my mouth to get the nasty taste out. I grabbed my washcloth from the rack and wiped my face.
"I think I'm pregnant," I muttered. "What you took a tess or sumthin?" "No."
"So quit talking crazy girl. It was probably that nasty fish we had last night."
"Yeah, you're probably right," I humbly replied.
Nita was right; I hadn't taken any test. For the next three weeks I remained abstinent. On the 30th day, I needed to know for sure so I took a pregnancy test at one of the local clinics. Upon hearing the results, I sat in the room in tears.
I didn't know the first thing about being a parent. My mother had walked out on me when I was only six. I figured motherhood was too big of a burden for her to bear, so it would probably be the same for me. In fear I had aborted my last three pregnancies, but somehow I knew this pregnancy was unlike the others. I felt like I had to have this baby, as if I didn't have a choice. Suddenly the premonition came to mind. I wasn’t sure if my child was really going to change the world, but I wanted to be in a position to help. The only way I could do that would be to help myself. I only had nine months to get myself together.
After searching nonstop, I landed a job as a secretary at a marketing firm, enrolled at the local community college, and even started going back to church. After a few months of hard work, I got my own house and felt like I had everything in place. I was ready for my baby to arrive. But I wasn’t prepared to go into labor while taking the final exam for my business management class. I was only 7 ½ months pregnant.
My classmate Charles was nice enough to drive me to the hospital. Almost immediately upon admittance, my daughter came into the world. I’ll never forget when she looked at me for the first time with her big bright eyes and infectious smile. I knew she would be a star someday. So I named her Starla.
Over the next six years I worked hard to keep things together. I earned my associates and then a bachelors degree. In addition, I had gotten several promotions and was making decent money – enough to support Starla and myself comfortably. Against all odds, I had done well for myself.
Despite all of my obligations, I made sure I was there to raise my daughter. It was tiresome, and there were many sleepless nights, but I prided myself on being a good mother. My proudest moment in life, came when I attended Starla’s kindergarten graduation. I had been told Starla and two of her classmates would be singing a song, but nothing could have prepared me for what happened next. When the girls stepped onto the stage, Starla was the shortest of the three. The pianist began playing the chorus to “Tomorrow,” and Starla stepped up to the mic.
“You know tomorrow will bring a better you, a better me,” she sang with a voice far too powerful to belong to a six year old.
I was instantly taken back to when I was six years old singing at the Fox Theater with my two sisters. We had everyone in the building on their feet except for my mother. She sat in her seat with a look of disgust on her face, as if we had just humiliated her in front of the entire audience. After the show, everyone complimented me on how well I had done, and how beautifully I had sang. But my mother wasn’t happy.
Even at six, I could tell by the look in her eyes that she was high. Still, when she told me I thought I was better than her and walked away from me, she broke my heart. Apparently I wasn’t as much like my mother as I thought because I stood proudly listening to my baby sing. At that very moment I realized it was through music that my daughter was going to make a difference.
At the end of her performance, Starla hit a high note that brought everyone to their feet and raised goose bumps from my skin. Tears of joy filled my eyes, and I became more determined than ever to make sure she was better than me.
Seeing Starla on stage motivated me to join the church choir. I figured the best way for me to help Starla with her music was to be a part of the music world myself. The more contacts I made, the easier things would be for my little girl. After years of singing in the choir, my voice really developed, and I became the lead vocalist. Thankfully all those years of teenage smoking hadn't rotted away my vocal chords.
Charles was still in my life. He was nice enough to build me a studio in the basement of my home. He was always so helpful. Even though he had really grown on me, I still didn’t have time for a relationship. My daily routine was too hectic. Every day I dropped Starla off at school, went to work, picked her up from latchkey, helped her with homework, and then worked with her on her singing. By the end of the day I was exhausted.
Starla was a joy to work with; she was great student, academically and musically. She had natural God-given talent, and her skill level was rapidly catching up to mine. I thought it would be a good idea to get her vocal lessons.
For some strange reason Starla wasn't responsive to her vocal coaches. It wasn't long before they both became frustrated. Her teachers knew she was talented, but they just didn't know how to bring the best out of her. It was as if no one else was able to understand what she needed. I wasn’t surprised, though. Seeing Starla was like staring into a mirror; she was stubborn like her mamma. I realized only I would be able to reach her, so I began taking voice lessons. My vocal coach came over three nights a week at about 10 pm, after I'd put Starla to bed. It cost a little more since my coach was coming out so late, but it was worth it. The more I learned, the more I was able to teach my daughter.
Over the next four years, the practice, lessons, performances, and recordings I did so I could get the best out of Starla, landed me a record deal. Charles negotiated the whole thing. By this time he was not only my manager, but my husband as well. He’d really come a long way. Although he was Starla’s stepfather, he had always been the father figure and positive male role model in her life, which was good considering her biological father chose not to be around. I'm truly thankful that he was able to be there with Starla when it mattered most.
In 2001, Starla turned 12. In no time at all, she would be a teenager and entering high school. Before my very eyes, she was becoming a woman. I had just released my fourth platinum album entitled "Starlight," and this was by far the most personal album I had ever recorded. Critics labeled it a musical masterpiece. For me, it was a love letter to my little girl. I wanted to speak to her about growing up, making wise decisions, developing her own identity, and educate her on matters of the heart. I realized that tomorrow wasn't promised to me, and I wanted to speak to my little girl in a way that would last forever.
Being a mother was still the most important thing for me. All the glitz and glamour of stardom never really appealed to me. But it provided a wonderful lifestyle, education, and exposure to different things for my daughter. Despite my busy schedule, I still managed to help her with homework, vocals, and song writing every night. Those were the priorities in my life. I usually didn’t even go on tours unless she was out of school for a break and could go with me.
On one occasion I left town a week before she got out of school for the summer. The reason I agreed to it was because it was the only time slot available in my hometown of Detroit. I hadn't been back there for years. My plan was to do this one show, and then fly home afterwards. I felt guilty leaving Starla at home since she had a slight cold. However, Charles agreed to stay home with her, which made me feel a little better.
I had just hung up the phone with them when the stage manager knocked on my dressing room door to inform me it was time to perform. I said a short prayer and took a deep breath as I walked towards the stage. The house lights went down, leaving it so dark that the audience was unable to see me walk onto the stage. I positioned myself in front of the microphone and recited a poem by Kaniesha Harris, which I once heard in a Detroit coffeehouse. It reminded me of my relationship with my daughter: If you could know the part you play in all I try to be, You would begin to understand how much you mean to me. And you would know that everything I ever undertake Is not for my convenience but for your beloved sake I am happy only when what I do Will ultimately bring about some happiness in you. I never see the sun begin or end another day Without saying a silent prayer to help you on your way. You mean so much to me that I honestly confess That everything I ever do is for your happiness.
The audience applauded as the house lights slowly rose. The band started to play, and the show began. It was by far the best show I had ever done. There was so much energy in the building. Fans drew their emotion from the lyrics as they sang along with me, but my passion came from reflecting. Remembering all the times I had with Starla -- all the laughs we shared, all the times we cried -- but most of all, how much she'd turned my life around.
Suddenly, I dropped the microphone and screamed as I fell to the ground tightly gripping my chest. The pain was so intense; it was as if a dagger was driven inside my heart. The music stopped, and everyone immediately rushed the stage. As I rested in someone’s arms, my breath became short and I could feel my life slipping away from me. There was nothing I could do to stop it. I closed my eyes during my darkest hour, and said a final prayer for my little girl.
Moments later I re-opened my eyes; I was lying on the couch in my dressing room. My entire staff, several close friends and family members stood over me in tears. When the paramedics finally arrived, I argued with them. Eventually they realized I was serious about not going to the hospital and took off. After looking around the room I realized everyone was still crying. Nita was crying the hardest. I grabbed my big sister by the hand and smiled.
“You don’t have to cry. Everything’s okay.” She shook her head and gripped my hand tightly.
“No,” she whispered.
“Sure it is. I’m fine,” I said, flashing a smile for reassurance.
“No, you’re not,” she said with a whimper. “Starla’s dead.”
Her words numbed my body and I listened as she told me how my daughter’s heart had failed, and she had been pronounced dead shortly after the paramedics had arrived at our home. Apparently Starla had inherited the heart condition that I was too foolish to fear in my youth.
Tears fell from my eyes with the intensity of rain in the midst of a hurricane. Still, it didn’t come close to showing my pain as I watched in agony as Starla’s casket was being lowered into the ground.
“My baby was so young, gifted and innocent…it should’ve been me,” my elderly voice cracks while standing in front of thousands of people with millions of TV viewers watching worldwide. Charles takes a step towards me from behind the stage. Holding my hand up, I signal for him to stop, and then wipe the tears falling from my eyes. After a deep breath, I collect myself, and the audience claps.
“Fans tell me all the time how much my music has meant to them. Each year I attend Star Light Academy graduation ceremonies throughout the country as young men and women take steps towards college or starting their singing careers. In those times and many others I think about my little girl Starla and can’t help but smile. How many here are graduates of a Star Light Academy?” Nearly 300 of the music industry's top performers rise to their feet. The audience applauds once more.
“I’m being honored tonight with the lifetime achievement award for my records, and for funding, developing, and overseeing the 30 Star Light Academies. But, it is my little girl who has touched so many lives. Those of you who stood, she changed your family lineage. Thousands of students have and continue to pass through the performing art institutions named in her honor. She has impacted millions of fans as well. You love the music she has inspired. I don’t deserve this award. During Starla’s brief 12 years, she brought out the best in me and saved my life. Therefore, I graciously accept this lifetime achievement award on behalf of Starla Lenee Hill. It’s taken me years to understand, but now I realize my baby really did it. She really did change the world. This is for you Starla!”