On Tuesday, Kodi Lee, an autistic and blind musician, took the stage on “American’s Got Talent” (“AGT”) for the second time, where he again blew the audience away with a soulful rendition of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”
Lee first appeared during an audition episode of the popular reality competition in May. He received the show’s golden buzzer from judge Gabrielle Union thanks to his performance of Donny Hathaway’s “A Song for You.” The buzzer allows “AGT” contestants to advance directly to the show’s live semi-finals. The video of his performance has since garnered more than 42 million views.
Tuesday’s live quarterfinal brought Lee to the stage a second time, this time to perform the 1970 hit, “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Lee sang the complicated tune while accompanying himself on the piano, eliciting wild cheers and a standing ovation from the crowd. He also earned high praise from the judges.
“Kodi, you changed the world and you keep changing the world,” Union said. “Who you are and what you stand for and what you continue to do makes the world so a better, beautiful place. We have to stop putting limits on our children. We have to keep believing in each other.”
“You are genuinely one of most extraordinary people and talents we’ve had the great fortune to have on any show we’ve ever made,” judge Simon Cowell added.
Cowell also revealed it’s unusual for original “Bridge Over Troubled Water” songwriter Paul Simon to give others permission to sing the classic track. After seeing Lee’s first performance, Simon didn’t hesitate to let Lee sing the tune.
“I want to thank Paul Simon, who never really gives permission for anyone to sing this song because it’s very precious to him,” Cowell said. “He gave [Lee] clearance within 30 minutes.”
After his performance, Lee’s mom, Tina Lee, shared she is glad a wider audience gets to see and appreciate Lee’s talent.
“I feel relieved I’m not the only one who’s seen this extraordinary ability. He’s got a real talent, and I’ve always known he’s this real talent,” Tina Lee told People. “It’s so nice to see [audiences] enjoy his talent and not look at his disabilities. They see the real, real extraordinary talent in him.”
Some autistic viewers, however, criticized the portrayal of Lee, such as using his story as “inspiration porn” or implying Lee “defeated” his disabilities to go on and give a great performance. As Mighty contributor Katelyn Decker pointed out in her article, “How I Feel About the Response to Kodi Lee as an Autistic Viewer,” it shouldn’t be surprising a disabled musician has talent — and it’s not “despite” their disability.
“Disabled people are talented. Autistic people are talented. Why is this still coming as a surprise to the general public?” Decker wrote, adding:
Is Kodi Lee an incredible artist? Yes! But instead of his autism and blindness being the forefront of the news stories about him, why aren’t they talking more about the amazing talents he has?
Instead of trying to take apart the term “disabled,” why don’t they focus on including more disabled people in music so it doesn’t come as a surprise when an autistic person or a blind person has an amazing gift?
So many of us have incredible talents that can be shared with the world, but inspiration porn picks apart these stories and creates us into commodities to “feel good,” not humans with gifts that can change the world. We can change the world. But you have to listen to us first.
Watch Lee’s full performance below:
“America’s Got Talent” airs Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.