Blind, Autistic, and Amazing: Kodi Lee Wins the Golden Buzzer and Millions of Hearts Around the World

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Millions were wowed by America’s Got Talent contestant Kodi Lee and his rendition of Donny Hathaway’s “A Song For You,” earning Season 14’s first Golden Buzzer by judge Gabrielle Union. Kodi was born with optic nerve hypoplasia, and survived life-saving surgery when he was just five days old. Despite his condition leaving him legally blind and being diagnosed with autism at age four, Kodi’s musical passion and talent triumph.

Kodi’s mother, Tina, recalled he showed extraordinary musical talent at a very young age. She recounted when Kodi was just two years old, his father began playing “Mary Had A Little Lamb” on the piano. “Kodi just reached over and started playing it himself. And we thought, ‘Oh, my gosh! He has perfect pitch, perfect memory and perfect timing.’”

Now 22, Kodi has learned six instruments, including being mostly self-taught on the piano, starting lessons just four years ago. As his family has always enjoyed soul music, Kodi’s brother helped choose his audition song. Kodi loves all genres of music, and he has also studied tap dance at Temecula Dance Company, for which he has a natural talent as well.

A Southern California native, Kodi performs at any gig that will have him. At just six years old, while visiting Disneyland, Kodi began drumming along to an a capella group’s performance. The singers immediately applauded him and invited Kodi to sing alongside them. His performance was so popular that the group asked him to join them for the rest of the day. Kodi has since been invited to perform at Carnegie Hall, and his most recent shows include local schools, restaurants, and music events. Kodi’s official website chronicles his performances, even worldwide.

Dr. Darold Treffert, a psychiatrist and the medical consultant for Dustin Hoffman’s Oscar-winning role in Rain Man, has studied Savant Syndrome over fifty years, and told The Press Enterprise,

“[Kodi] does fit the definition of a prodigious musical savant. I’ve been following his career a bit. He is blind and has been given a diagnosis of autism. Yet, he has this spectacular musical ability.”

Kodi is one of just 25 people in the entire world who possess such a keen ability for musical expression: perfect pitch, and an audio photographic memory, which means he can recall music after hearing a song just one time. Kodi has mastered classical works by Chopin, Bach, and Mozart, and he can also perform rock, pop, and R&B.

Although Kodi did not have a large social media following, that has likely changed since his inspiring performance on AGT which has been viewed over 300 million times. Fans have expressed their congratulations and encouragement on Twitter and Instagram, some adding they look forward to Kodi being an inspiration to those with autism and disabilities.

"What just happened there was really extraordinary,” AGT judge Simon Cowell responded to Kodi and his mother after his audition. “I don't know what it's like to live in Kodi’s world. I can tell, obviously, you have an amazing relationship, the two of you. I'm going to remember this moment for the rest of my life."

Fellow judge Howie Mandel called Kodi “a great inspiration.” Judge Julianne Hough was moved as well, stating, “Everybody needs a voice and an expression, and I really feel your heart, your passion. I heard you and I felt you, and that was beautiful.”

Gabrielle Union said, “I'm a new judge this season, and I'm also a new mom this year, and it's the toughest job I've ever had and the most rewarding job I've ever had. You just want to give your kids the moon, the stars, and the rainbows.” In a video Union posted to social media immediately after her Golden Buzzer decision, she explained,

“I wanted a performer that was going to change the world, and I believe Kodi is that act. I'm so happy Kodi came into all of our lives.”

Kodi is one of countless inspirational stories of remarkable lives defying the odds. While lives like Kodi’s are celebrated for extraordinary talents and accomplishments, they are sadly often viewed as discardable in the womb. Parents whose preborn babies are diagnosed with disabilities are often pressured to abort. A heartbreaking 87 percent of babies with Down syndrome are aborted in the United States, and even higher rates abroad, despite 99 percent of people with Down syndrome report living happy, fulfilling lives.

As technology advances, concern for the ethics of protecting vulnerable lives, equality, and human rights increases as well. Fetal testing is now being developed to detect genetic abnormalities linked to autism. Despite fetal surgeries to treat spina bifida, fallible misdiagnoses, and babies’ astounding ability to correct abnormalities in the womb, the bigoted assumption remains that lives with disabilities are less valuable.

Live Action’s Lila Rose described her first ultrasound appointment,

“I was offered 3 tests whose sole purpose was to detect disability in my baby. I asked the Dr, so what if we find something? She said we consider ‘our options.’ Our medical system is on a search & destroy hunt for babies with disability. [And] I’m finding a new doc.”

Pressured to abort her baby, Andrea Bocelli’s courageous mother thankfully refused and blessed the world with his renowned talent. She said it was actually his blindness which led him to music. In turn, Bocelli says it was his mother’s loving decision to bring her son into the world that inspired his own pro-life beliefs, adding he is not merely anti-abortion but truly pro-life in the fullest sense: “I am not only fighting against something, I am fighting for something — and I am for life.”

Such extraordinary talents prove all lives have value and purpose, which no diagnosis can undermine. Similar to therapy and services provided by animals, music also often provides a helpful outlet for those with challenges. Kodi’s mother also credits music for helping him live with autism, saying, “He has all these talents, but he has trouble communicating. He used to tantrum like 30 times a day. After he started performing, he got it. It really helped us to get his autism under control. He wants to be an entertainer.”

Performing music has also helped Kodi adjust socially, including meeting new people and being in crowds, which were previous struggles. Tina added, “That was the deal. We said if you want to perform, you have to shake people’s hands and you got to let people come up and say hello to you. And it worked.”

Both Kodi and his mother say they have been touched by the messages they receive from autistic kids and their parents about what Kodi’s performance meant to them. Tina explained she became emotional on stage after Kodi’s performance because she kept thinking of all of the rehearsal time and effort he put in to get to that moment. “It was just a proud moment to see that. He’s worked so hard. It’s hard to explain, but as a mom it was like, ‘You got him where he wanted to go.’”

Supported by his whole family, Kodi shares his gratitude for his special relationship with his mother as well, even performing a touching song in honor of her for Mother's Day, the same month he won the Golden Buzzer — which he called a “magical” experience. Kodi is busy preparing for the live shows soon, but regardless of the competition’s outcome, Kodi is committed to building his music career and says,

“I’m going to keep performing for everybody. I like to make people happy.”

Headline photo credit: 2019 NBCUniversal Media, LLC

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Human Defense Initiative.

Blind, Autistic, and Amazing: Kodi Lee Wins the Golden Buzzer and Millions of Hearts Around the World
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