Willie Spence Honored During Heartbreaking ‘American Idol’ Audition: VIDEO

Kya Monee

ABC/YouTube Kya Moneé is embraced by "Idol" judge Lionel Richie after her heartbreaking audition in honor of former runner-up Willie Spence, who died in October 2022

The first group of “American Idol” season 21 contestants to earn tickets to Hollywood during the February 19, 2023, premiere included a familiar face to many fans of the show. Soulful singer Kya Moneé, who competed on “Idol” in 2021, returned to audition again because she’d promised season 19 runner-up Willie Spence that she would. The two met on the show that season, but Spence tragically died in a car accident weeks before Moneé’s audition, resulting in a heartwrenching performance, including some rewritten lyrics from Moneé, that had the judges in tears.

Moneé and Spence became fast friends when they both auditioned for season 19 of “Idol” and were paired up for a Hollywood Week duet. Their powerful performance of Rihanna’s “Stay” brought judge Katy Perry to tears at the time and the judges advanced them both to the next round.

“There on, we grew a very, very close friendship,” she said during Sunday’s season premiere.

Though Moneé was eliminated in Season 19 just before the judges narrowed the competition down to the Top 24, Spence went on to place second on the show, beloved for being a gentle giant with a silky-smooth and powerful voice. The two remained tight, she told the judges during the premiere, revealing that Spence was so adamant that she try out again for “Idol” that he promised to accompany her to the audition. Monee’, 21, pushed through her grief to show up despite his recent death and gave a tearful performance that touched the judges deeply.

Kya Moneé Changes Song Lyrics to Deliver Tribute to Willie Spence

“Losing Willie was just very, very hard for me,” Moneé said during the season 21 premiere, as a montage of photos of the two together was shown. “He passed in a tragic car accident and I’m still trying to cope with that. Willie, he always told me, ‘No matter what, you will always be a singer.'”

According to a police report obtained by Heavy, Spence died in a two-vehicle accident on October 11, 2022, when his 2019 Jeep left the road and crashed into a tractor-trailer in Tennessee. His death shook the “Idol” community just as in-person auditions for season 21 were getting underway in Nashville, Las Vegas and New Orleans.

Moneé recalled, “Three days before he passed, Willie was telling me ‘You have to go back (to audition). You have to chase your dreams. I’m gonna go with you to ‘American Idol.'”

He made me want to do it,” she continued. “And I’d really love to make it further but most of all, I want to make Willie proud.”

When she was standing in front of the judges — Perry, Lionel Richie, and Luke Bryan — before her audition, she reminded them who she was and her connection to Spence.

“I want to thank you all so much for pairing me with him,” she told them. “He was actually supposed to be here with me today for my audition. It’s just very hard to not have that support anymore. But I know that he would want me to be here. This song that I’m singing today is a song that we picked together.”

Moneé proceeded to sing “I’m Here” from the Broadway musical “The Color Purple,” but changed the words slightly to reflect how she’s moving through her grief. The song’s lyrics  typically go, according to Smule: “I got my sister / I can feel her now / She may not be here, but she still mine / I know she still love me.”

But when Moneé performed it, she started by singing her own lyrics, which instantly brought the judges to tears. She sang, “I got my angels / I can’t hold them now/ They may not be here, but they’re still mine / and I hope they know how much I love them.”

Judges Emotionally Advance Kya Moneé to Hollywood Week

Dabbing his eyes with a handkerchief and clearing his throat after her performance, Richie walked over to Moneé to hand her a separate one for her own tears, and embraced her.

He then said, “What you’ve given us was everything that we’ve been trying to tell these kids; that performance was so emotional, so heartfelt, so divinely guided. In the glorious name of our dear brother Willie, you did props. Thank you so much for that.”

Perry told Moneé her delivery “was on another level,” adding that “everybody’s feeling this loss but we also feel connected together because you were authentic, just like he was.”

“Thanks for honoring our friend, your friend, and keeping the candle burning,” Perry told her as she picked up her golden ticket. She then shouted into the air, “We love you Willie!”

After the premiere episode of “Idol” aired, Moneé posted a GIF of herself on Instagram, happily holding her golden ticket. She referenced both Spence and a best friend who died around the same time as her inspirations.

Moneé wrote, “i got my GOLDEN TICKET AGAIN AND don’t forget I GOT IT WHILE SINGING WHILE I WAS CRYING i did this for my bestfriend and @williespenceofficial without you 2 i wouldn’t have even went back … thank you to my supporters WE GOING TO HOLLYWOOD”