Kodi Lee disability challenges stereotypes on America’s Got Talent

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In this article on America's Got Talent Kodi Lee, the author Stan Link uses person-first language (“a person with autism”) rather than identity-first language (“autistic person”). Kodi Lee uses a mixture of person- and identity-first language on their website. We respect the right of people to use person-first or identity-first language in how they describe themselves.

Kodi Lee disability challenges disability stereotypes. A screen shot

Kodi Lee, who has autism, challenges disability stereotypes by being able to communicate that disability is a part of humanity – not separate from it. | Photo Credit - ©America’s Got Talent / YouTube

Kodi Lee disability challenges stereotypes on America’s Got Talent

If you haven’t seen Kodi Lee’s May 28, 2019 performance on “America’s Got Talent,” it’s worth a watch.

The 22-year-old Kodi Lee is blind and has autism. His rendition of Leon Russell’s “A Song for You” brought the crowd to its feet – and thrilled viewers at home.

“Loved this moment so much! Stood up and cheered in my living room!” Oprah tweeted.

Much of the media coverage portrayed Kodi Lee as someone who overcame all odds in developing his musical ability to such a high level – a common though sometimes troublesome trope used to describe people with disabilities who achieve any measure of success. Disabled people are not your inspiration!

Kodi Lee is certainly an exciting talent. But as someone who teaches a course on the intersection of disability and music, I was moved by other aspects of Kodi Lee’s performance as well

What is Kodi Lee’s disability

What is Kodi Lee’s disability?

Many viewers of the performance were wondering to themselves: what is Kodi Lee’s disability?

Kodi Lee, who is legally blind, was born with optic nerve hypoplasia, which is the under-development or absence of the optic nerve combined with possible brain and endocrine abnormalities. At an early age, Kodi Lee was also diagnosed with autism at an early age and has Addison’s disease

This disease is a rare but serious adrenal gland disorder in which the body can’t produce enough of two critical hormones, cortisol and aldosterone. Patients, like Kodi, with Addison’s disease, will need hormone replacement therapy for life.

One challenge for people with disabilities like Kodi Lee can be that others tend to conflate their disability with their personality and identity. 

Their disability becomes the defining aspect of who they are, which can prevent people from realizing that those with disabilities can have rich interior lives.

So listening to Kodi Lee sing about love – mature, adult love – I heard a 22-year-old man whose voice and delivery brimmed with emotion and rang with authenticity.

“I’ve been so many places in my life and time,” he begins. “We’re alone now and I’m singing this song to you,” he croons, evoking deep intimacy and connection.

The infantilization of adults with disabilities and de-sexualizing them is still commonplace – as though physical or intellectual disability should necessarily exclude the ability to feel desire and the longing to be desired.

Kodi Lee shatters these notions. To sing these lines believably means to have lived them or to have imagined their truth.

Perhaps the most joyful aspect of Kodi Lee’s America’s Got Talent performance, however, is rooted in the dimension of time.

Philosopher and disability theorist Licia Carlson wrote that “the experience of disability may be defined in negative terms when people fail to live according to what is considered normal time.”

In other words, because many tasks can take longer for someone with a disability, keeping pace can feel like a constant struggle.

This is where music can be such a beautifully transporting experience. It has its own time that’s not tied to that of the real world. With its tempo, rhythm, and dramatic pacing, music creates its own temporal universe.

When listening to Kodi Lee's performance, everyone in the audience was listening along at his speed, which, as the performer, he controlled.

It was a rare opportunity for disabled and non-disabled to be fully present together under the same umbrella of time and space.

Finally, I think it’s important to return to the title of the show: “America’s Got Talent.”

After the Industrial Revolution, the ability to contribute labor and earn a paycheck became a defining feature of being American.

If being a “true” American traditionally implied independence and autonomy, this one element of national identity alone could be enough to stigmatize people with disabilities.

Kodi Lee belted out an overwhelming assurance – as if it should have ever been needed – that a blind man with autism is also included in the definition of America.

What happened to Kodi Lee?

Update! What happened to Kodi Lee after he won America's Got Talent's 14th season?

As mentioned above Kodi Lee auditioned for the 14th season of America's Got Talent in 2019, performing "A Song For You." The judges gave Kodi a standing ovation at the end of his performance, and within two weeks, the video of Kodi Lee's performance had more than 50 million views on YouTube.

After becoming the Season 14 winner, landing a $1 million prize, and a headlining show at the Paris Theater in Las Vegas, Kodi Lee continued to perform virtually. Fans of Kodi Lee can watch his fantastic voice on his Instagram. Kodi Lee has an Instagram account with 377K followers and counting.

Where Is AGT Winner Kodi Lee Now?

Kodi Lee has been generating buzz among his fans on social media with hints of upcoming music. On June 15, 2023, Lee delighted his followers by sharing a photo of himself inside a recording studio, suggesting that he is working on new tracks to please his dedicated fan base. This isn't the first time Lee has teased his supporters with fresh music. Back in January 2023, he unveiled a teaser for his song "Hello World," featuring the talented lead singer of Men at Work, Colin Hay. The track was released in February 2022 and soared to the top spot on the iTunes charts, cementing its commercial success.

Aside from his flourishing music career, Lee has also made a name for himself in the world of acting. His notable performance in the 2020 film "BSA Live" and appearances on popular television shows like "Access Hollywood" and "Extra" with Billy Bush in 2019 have solidified his presence in the entertainment industry.

With Lee's recent success in collaborating with Colin Hay on "Hello World," fans are eagerly awaiting news of another exciting partnership. They can't wait to see who Lee will team up with next, as his previous collaboration resonated deeply with listeners and achieved remarkable acclaim.

Furthermore, fans are hoping for a new song that carries the same inspirational essence as "Hello World." The profound lyrics and powerful message of the track struck a chord with audiences, leaving them eager to experience Lee's heartfelt storytelling once again. His music has become a beacon of upliftment and inspiration for fans, who eagerly anticipate another impactful anthem that will touch their hearts."

“Autism or disability is not something that needs to be 'cured' or 'overcome' ... It doesn’t require a 'fix.'”

Renee Fabian

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The Conversation

Stan Link, the author of "Kodi Lee disability challenges stereotypes on America’s Got Talenti," s the Associate Professor of the Composition, Philosophy and Analysis of Music at Vanderbilt’s Blair School of Music.