Kya Monée’s 2023 American Idol audition, a heartfelt tribute to late contestant Willie Spence, made everyone in the room emotional on the show’s premiere Sunday night (Feb. 19).
Spence, the Georgia singer who placed second on the 2021 season of American Idol, died in October 2022. He was only 23 years old.
“We grew a very, very close friendship … Losing Willie was just very, very hard for me,” Monée, a singer from Texas who performed a duet of Rihanna and Mikky Ekko’s “Stay” with Spence during Hollywood Week in 2021, said on Sunday’s Idol episode. “He passed in a tragic car accident and I’m still trying to cope with that.”
Through tears, she said, “Willie, he always told me, ‘No matter what, you’ll always be a singer.’ Three days before he passed, Willie was telling me, ‘You have to go back. You have to chase your dream. I’m gonna go with you to American Idol.’ He made me want to do it and I’d really love to make it further. But most of all, I wanna make Willie proud.”
“He was actually supposed to be here with me today for my audition,” Monée told judges Katy Perry, Lionel Richie and Luke Bryan. “It’s just very hard to not have that support anymore. But I know he would want me to be here … The song that I’m singing today is a song that we picked together. I’m singing ‘I’m Here’ from The Color Purple.”
Perry, Richie and Bryan were visibly moved by Monée’s performance of “I’m Here,” and agreed that the singer would be advancing on to the next round in the competition.
“That’s how you sing through crying,” Perry commented, leading the trio of judges in a standing ovation for Monée.
Richie wiped away his own tears, handed Monée a handkerchief and embraced her in a hug. “What you’ve given us was everything we’ve been trying to tell all of these kids,” he said. “That performance was so emotional, so heartfelt, so divinely guided in the glorious name of our dear brother Willie.”
“I’ve lost some people in my life. When you go to sing, you just sing like Willie’s still here,” Bryan noted.
“It was on another level. It was so connected to the pain, and everybody’s feeling this loss but we also feel connected together because you are authentic, just like he was,” Perry added.
Watch the moving performance from Monée below.