A 22-year-old autistic blind singer won NBC’s America’s Got Talent contest Wednesday night, inspiring millions and sparking celebration among autistic families nationwide.
With his mother Tina standing by his side, Kodi Lee was announced as the winner in front of a national audience, edging the second-place act, the Detroit Youth Choir. He won $1 million and a chance to perform at a Las Vegas show.
The popular series is a talent show for singers, dancers, comedians and illusionists – anyone with a unique gift that can entertain an audience. Viewers vote to decide the winner.
Lee speaks primarily through his music, playing the piano and hitting notes few singers can. He is autistic but also has savant syndrome, which, according to the National Institutes of Health website, is a “rare, but extraordinary, condition in which persons with serious mental disabilities” including autism have an “island of genius.” Lee, though, is what is called “prodigious savant” – a term “reserved for those extraordinarily rare individuals for whom the special skill is so outstanding that it would be spectacular even if it were to occur in a non-impaired person.”
His website says there are only about 25 individuals in the world like him.
Lee jumped up and down excitedly when his name was announced as the winner. His mother began crying.
Asked how it felt to win, Lee said, “Amazing. Unbelievable.”
Fans congratulated him on social media.
You did it @Kodileerocks!!!!!!! From the first note you sang, I knew you were something special and that you were here to change the world. I am SO proud of you my #goldenbuzzer. This is just the beginning. #agt pic.twitter.com/rLpq62HOcv— Gabrielle Union (@itsgabrielleu) September 19, 2019
One viewer wrote, “Yessssssss!!!!! I am a mom to a daughter on the spectrum. Kodi you are beyond amazing and you more than deserve this.”
Yessssssss!!!!! I am a mom to a daughter on the spectrum. Kodi you are beyond amazing and you more than deserve this ❤️❤️❤️❤️— Kristen V (@weezyme) September 19, 2019
Still another person, who said he has autism, wrote, “Let this moment show the world that disabled people can achieve big things in life.”
Lee shocked the judges this summer during his first performance, playing the piano and singing A Song for You by Leon Russell. Union hit the so-called golden buzzer after he sang, which is reserved only for the best acts and advanced him in the competition. A Facebook and YouTube video showing him singing MercyMe’s ICan Only Imagine-- at a different venue – soon went viral.
“Kodi is blind and autistic,” his mother told the judges this summer. “We found out that he loved music really early on. He listened and his eyes just [got] huge. And he started singing. … I was in tears, because that’s when I realized, ‘Oh my gosh, he’s an entertainer.’ Through music and performing, he was able to withstand living in this world, because when you’re autistic it’s really hard to do what everybody else does. It actually has saved his life playing music.”
Lee has “audio photographic memory,” giving him the ability to “recall music he hears after just one listen,” his website says.
“He literally has a library of songs in his mind that would rival any jukebox,” the website says. “But he doesn’t stop there. He recently has picked up tap dancing and he continues to amaze with his musical expression through dance and vocalization.”
He was born with optic nerve hypoplasia and survived a life-threatening surgery five days after birth.
“Being diagnosed with autism at an early age has never stopped Kodi from reaching for his dreams,” the website says. “Kodi continues to pursue his musical career and his dream is to be a ‘rock star’ performing for thousands of fans. Any opportunity Kodi has to perform is a good day for him, and the bigger more energetic the audience, the more he loves to shine.”
His Twitter account reads: “Musician, performer. Singer. Tap Dancer. Musical Prodigious savant. I live, dream and breathe music all day long. I happen to be blind and autistic too.”
By winning, Lee will be allowed to perform Nov. 7-10 at the Paris Las Vegas Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.
Michael Foust is a freelance writer. Visit his blog, MichaelFoust.com.
Photo courtesy: Getty Images/Frazer Harrison/Staff
Video courtesy: America's Got Talent
Michael Foust has covered the intersection of faith and news for 20 years. His stories have appeared in Baptist Press, Christianity Today, The Christian Post, The Leaf-Chronicle, the Toronto Star and the Knoxville News-Sentinel.