This week’s America’s Got Talent auditioners included the usual wacky assortment of dog acts, danger acts, magic acts, and comedians, along with a former “Isolation Wrestling” champion who basically just talked Hulk Hogan-style smack to the judges until he got the dreaded red X. But it was a more serious contender, pop singer Jayy, who truly embodied the AGT American dream — a dream crushed, deferred, and then finally realized in her late parents’ honor.
Jayy, aka Jessica Núñez, moved to the United States from the Dominican Republic at age 15 with her family, who opened a bodega in Philadelphia — and soon after her arrival, she began fantasizing about competing on her new favorite television show, AGT. “I’m going to be on there one day,” she used to tell her parents. “Are they happy you’re here?” judge Sofia Vergara asked Jayy on Tuesday night, after which the singer dramatically hesitated, then answered, “I want to say that they are. They’re in Heaven.”
A visibly choked-up Jayy then explained that when she was 19 years old, in 2011, her family’s West Philly store, Lorena's Grocery, was robbed at gunpoint, and her mother and father were murdered right in front of her. According to a report by the Philadelphia Inquirer, Jayy’s dad had rushed to the counter when one of the robbers had jammed a pistol into Jayy’s side, begging them not to harm Jayy or his other daughter, who was also working in the store that evening. The gunmen instead fatally shot Jayy’s parents, as well as her aunt, before fleeing the scene.
Jayy became determined to bring the at-large killers to justice, even cutting her hair to alter her appearance and taking jobs in other bodegas in the hopes that she would encounter them again. In February 2012, the men were arrested after surveillance video footage linked them to two other holdups, and in 2016, Jayy finally got her chance to testify against them in court. The killers were eventually both found guilty, after a month-long trial, and sentenced to three consecutive life sentences without possibility of parole. “They thought that the little girl they left alive was not going to be able to get on that stand. I was able to stand there and say everything that they did to my family," Jayy told the Inquirer. “I did it.”
“I had to become the big sister for my siblings, and I stopped my dreams,” the now-29-year-old Jayy, who competed on Univision’s Spanish-language singing show Reina de la Canción in 2019, explained to the AGT judges Tuesday. “I finally decided to focus on my music that I know [my parents] loved seeing me do all the time.”
Surely Jayy’s parents were proud of her stunning audition of Freya Ridings’s tear-jerking ballad “Lost Without You,” a tour de force that likely would have earned a Golden Buzzer if one had still been in play. (The last Golden Buzzer of the season, Heidi Klum’s, was frankly wasted earlier in the evening on impressive-but-gimmicky quick-change artist Lea Kyle.) After all four misty-eyed judges, who were devastated to hear Jayy’s tragic story, gave Jayy a standing ovation, Simon Cowell said he was amazed not just by her gorgeous voice but by the very fact that she managed to power through the performance at all. “To be able to sing a song like that, with that lyric, with all those memories in your head, I think is extraordinary,” he marveled. “People like you are the reason why we make this show, genuinely. I think you’re an incredible person.”
“I felt like I was listening to your parents. They are here. I hear them through your voice and through your heart. It was so beautiful,” said Howie Mandel. And Heidi told Jayy, “Now is your time. I’m ready to celebrate you.”
While Jayy didn’t get the Golden Buzzer, she won’t need it to make it to America’s Got Talent Season 16’s live shows — her spectacular vocals and resilient spirit will be enough to get her there. And when she gets there, her parents will undoubtedly be there too. “I am sure they’re happy and they’re proud,” said Sofia. “Just having the strength to survive something so horrific, it says a lot about you.”
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