My first book tour turned me into a born-again Angelean. But, when people ask me why I so love our City of Fallen Angels, it isn’t the beaches, shopping, food, or diversity. I love Los Angeles because of the brilliant talent we attract from every corner of the globe.
This is the America that I know.
In my work, I have been given the great privilege of helping develop some of the most gifted people on the face of this earth. I’ve worked with teams who develop cures for cancer and when I look at their faces, I see brilliant people from dozens of countries. I have supported creative artists who go onto win Academy, Grammy, and Emmy awards. These bright stars bring nuance, beauty, truth, and interest from a quilt of different nations and points-of-view.
They help create the America that all of us have known and loved.
Last night, America’s Got Talent gave the win for this season to Kodi Lee. The first time that we heard Kodi, his mother Tina, always at his side, brought him out on the stage. Kodi is autistic and blind. Even I became uncomfortable, worried we were about to witness a sad moment. But then, an expression on Tina’s face captured her fierce determination and love. When Kodi Lee played that piano and began singing A Song for You, the world simply stopped. When he won the competition, Tina leaned over and said, “This is all for you baby.”
There is a much greater story about the show’s most breathtaking season ever. Any of the finalists could have taken the ward home. It is, however, their stories that elevate what happened this year. The backstories of the finalists are some of the most brilliant examples of why talent is so important to our country.
Who won? We did.
Unbeatable opened the AGT’s first show with the most dazzling acrobatic and dance performance. The spectacle they created demanded unearthly precision. One misstep could have maimed any member of the group. These young men are from Mumbai, India, where they grew up in abject poverty. The main cause of infant and teenage mortality in their city is starvation and disease. How many hours did they give work every single day? How many friends got injured during practice and performances? I know that one died. And yet, when their courage and persistence paid off, they pursued our country. They picked us.
Emanne Beasham turned 12 years old yesterday. She is a tiny and beautiful girl who seems to have taken on the spirit of Maria Callas. Whenever she has performed, I am reminded of LA’s ionic conductor Gustavo Dudamel, a product of musical education in Venezuela. Like the Unbeatables, he grew up in abject poverty. Surprisingly, by the time he was 24, the world’s greatest orchestras competed for the young man who brings real-life to old music. He selected Los Angeles because it offered the best platform to grow the charity that gave him the life that he leads today.
I doubt that many of the viewers are aware that Emanne is from Jordan. At an early performance, Jay Leno gave her the Golden Buzzer and moved her to the finals. During all of the awe this little girl has produced, not one person brought up where she was from. They honored her gift, her courage, and her musical brilliance.
The America that I know can welcome on to to the stage, two young men with heart-stopping disabilities. Last night Kodi Lee shared the stage with Ryan Miemiller who was born without hands. His arms are about a foot and a half long.
Ryan Niemiller was born without completed hands. His arms are about 1 1/2 feet long. His performances would have guaranteed a win in any other season based on talent alone.
In one routine, he talked about the time he went to the drive-thru at Taco Bell. The lady who handed him his food freaked out and asked: “do you need me to come around outside and hand it to you?” To which he responded something like, “[lady], I drove here. What does it look like? I’m the only person in this car!” And then she asked a question which Niemiller thought was the stupidest thing anyone has ever said to him. “will [your arms] grow back?”
For me, this season of America’s Got Talent celebrated beauty over origin, talent over competing for jobs, and all of us grew.
Just what is beautiful?
Kodi, brilliant, surrounded by love, profoundly disabled in one dimension, captured the hearts of millions.
Just before his last performance on the show, Kodi said,
I tell people that I love them through my songs.
My friends, this is our America.
We are generous.
We welcome the world with open arms.
This is the dynamic that makes America the greatest country on the face of the earth.