The Zombification of Whitney Houston

Photo: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images.
In Haitian mythology, the idea of what we now call zombies emerged from enslaved Africans’ deepest fear: not even death would bring freedom. Though suicide was common on the brutal French enslavers’ plantations, the enslaved feared suicide would leave them trapped in their bodies — and on the plantations — forever. 
Post-slavery and colonization in Haiti, the zombie myth became a part of the Haitian Vodou religion, evolving into corpses that bokors (Haitian vodou sorcerers) would exhume, reanimate, and exploit for the purpose of free labor. No rest for the weary, no peace for the dead — not when there is money to be made.
Last week, just in time for Halloween, the estate of legendary singer Whitney Houston exhumed her likeness for a six-month Las Vegas residency at Harrah’s called An Evening With Whitney: The Whitney Houston Hologram Tour. 
With no sense of irony, Base Hologram and the Houston estate describe the event as a “boundary-breaking hologram concert spectacle.” The 3D projection of Houston is accompanied by a live band, backup singers, dancers and “cinematic special effects.” 
“You’ll swear Houston is actually on the stage,” raved Las Vegas Magazine. Houston, who tragically died almost a decade ago, will obviously not be on stage. Hundreds of years after the end of slavery, Whitney is a corpse reanimated, to sing and dance for our entertainment.

It’s “musical necrophilia.” It’s undeniably “ghost slavery.” And yet, posthumous hologram concerts are likely here to stay.

Houston’s manager in life and president of her estate in death is her sister-in-law, Pat Houston, who says the hologram tour is the fruit of a conversation they had just before her untimely death.
“In 2011, Whitney and I discussed her idea of an intimate, unplugged concert tour. It was a project we called ‘Whitney Unplugged’ or ‘An Evening with Whitney’,” Pat Houston said
“While Whitney’s no longer with us, her voice and legacy will live on with us forever. An Evening With Whitney is another chance for us to relive and celebrate the talent that we were so lucky to receive for more than three decades and we’re excited to bring this cutting-edge musical experience to the fans who supported the pop culture phenomenon that was Whitney Houston, because they deserve nothing less.”
Needless to say, the 2011 conversation with Whitney that Pat Houston described has nothing to do with a hologram concert after her death. It’s also well documented that Whitney's public likeness was constructed for her during her life, first by music industry executives who wanted to strip her of any overt “Blackness” in her sound and image, and then by the media that painted her as the Black America’s Sweetheart, and then crucified her when she no longer played by America’s rules of respectability. In life, she did not consent to these constructions of her image, and she certainly has not consented to this construction of a 3D monstrosity after death.  
It’s straight out of the worst Black Mirror episode. It’s “musical necrophilia.” It’s undeniably “ghost slavery.” And yet, posthumous hologram concerts are likely here to stay. As a result, artists are taking note and making plans to prevent their possible after-death exploitation.
On the song “Sun Comes Down,” Chance The Rapper shares a list of demands for his legacy after death, most notably, “Please don’t make no holograms, don’t wanna do it twice.” 
In August, Anderson Paak tattooed his arm with this: “When I’m gone, please don’t release any posthumous albums or songs with my name attached. Those were just demos and never intended to be heard by the public.” 
But having your desires known by the public doesn’t guarantee freedom from exploitation. 
Prince decried the use of holograms and virtual reality performances of the dead in a 1998 interview with Guitar Magazine. “That will never happen to me,” he avowed. “That's the most demonic thing imaginable. Everything is as it is, and it should be. If I was meant to jam with Duke Ellington, we would have lived in the same age,” Prince said. “That whole virtual reality thing... it really is demonic. And I am not a demon. Also, what they did with that Beatles song [‘Free As a Bird’], manipulating John Lennon's voice to have him singing from across the grave... that'll never happen to me. To prevent that kind of thing from happening is another reason why I want artistic control.”
Prince died on April 21, 2016. And though he had insisted in the press for control over his body, his voice, his image, he did not do it in a binding legal document or will, leaving his estate the power and privilege to do with him what it will. When a hologram of Prince was rumored to appear during the infamous Justin Timberlake 2018 Super Bowl halftime show, the public outcry was massive. Though it wasn’t a hologram per se, his likeness still wound up projected onto what appeared to be a bedsheet during Timberlake’s “tribute” to the icon. 

What right do any of us have to demand that our deceased heroes, loved ones, or anyone else act as zombies for our entertainment?

Musical artists aren’t the only celebrities being subjected to zombification. George Floyd, whose likeness after death might be the most exploited in recent history, went on a tour of the South as a 3D hologram three months after his murder by police. Presented by and the George Floyd Foundation, Hologram Floyd temporarily replaced former Confederate statues along the route of the 1961 Freedom Rides “as a symbolic call for racial justice and solidarity.” Like Houston and Prince, Floyd’s loved ones were behind the project. “The hologram will allow my brother's face to be seen as a symbol for change in places where change is needed most,” said Robert Floyd. Unlike in the cases of Houston and Prince, it’s unclear if the Floyd family profited financially from the hologram tour.
Last week, embattled Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg changed his controversial company’s name to Meta to distract from the company’s toxic brand to better embody his plans for virtual and augmented reality technologies. This is a sign that our tech overlords want these virtual technologies to be accessible to all. When that happens, the VR/AR posthumous use of non-famous dead people (by grieving loved ones or nefarious ones) could become our reality as well. But should it?
Whitney Houston is one among billions whose life ended before she had a chance to say and do everything she wanted. Such is life, in all its cruelty and glory. So what right do any of us have to demand that our deceased heroes, loved ones, or anyone else have their bodies and voices reanimated — especially in defiance of their living wishes — to act as zombies for our entertainment? If this is the vision for our future, it proves that we've learned nothing from the past.

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