Kodi Lee locked arms with his mom as he stood on the “America’s Got Talent” stage, facing the show’s judges. His mom, Tina Lee, stood to his left, holding up a microphone so her son could tell the judges a little bit about himself.
Amid some long pauses, Kodi Lee said “hello,” stated that he was 22 years old and shared that he would be performing a song. His mom then took a minute to tell the judges more about her son, explaining that he is blind and autistic. As he rocked back and forth next to her, Tina Lee shared how their family discovered his love for music early on, and how it has helped him navigate day-to-day obstacles.
“It actually has saved his life,” she said.
She then walked him to the black Roland piano and gave him a short pep talk, asking if he was ready to go.
“Yeah!” he whispered enthusiastically.
And then she left the stage, leaving her son alone with a piano and an auditorium full of spectators.
He hit the keys and began to sing.
Just minutes earlier, he had struggled to string words together while talking to the judges. But his rich voice soared as the lyrics to Leon Russell’s “A Song For You” came effortlessly:
I’ve been so many places in my life and time
I’ve sung a lot of songs
I’ve made some bad rhymes
I’ve acted out my life in stages
With 10,000 people watching
But we’re alone now
And I’m singing this song to you.
Lee’s 2019 audition for “AGT” has been viewed more than 430 million times and marks the show’s most-viewed viral moment, according to “AGT.” In the years since, Tina Lee has read thousands of comments from viewers thanking her son for being such an inspiration. She’s also come across some skeptical comments, with some viewers accusing him of “faking it.”
Those comments make her laugh.
“I can understand why they thought that,” she told the Deseret News. “Because Kodi’s like two different people. When you talk to him and meet him, he can’t really form a complete sentence. He has a hard time. But you see him on stage, he’s a completely different person. And even for me as his mother, I’m like, ‘How is that possible?’”
Tina Lee has spent the past 26 years advocating for her son, who returned to “AGT” Feb. 6 to compete on “AGT: All-Stars,” where he earned the most votes and secured his spot as one of 11 acts in the show’s finale (the show will reveal the winner on Feb. 27).
Even after two-plus decades, she still has a hard time comprehending her son’s unique musical gift.
But this much she knows: Music brings him indescribable joy.
Kodi Lee, ‘a born entertainer’
For a long time, Kodi Lee scooted around on his back to get from one place to another. When he was around 2 ½ or 3 years old, he would scoot around and sing, “Love is what I got, remember that” over and over. It took a while for his mother to figure out what he was singing, but eventually, she was able to track down the band: Sublime.
“I had never even heard of Sublime until he was singing it,” Tina Lee said with a laugh.
He picked up song after song, and frequently sang around the house. Once, for a family get-together, Lee had a karaoke machine so her son could show off his musical skills to relatives. But when he took the mic, he just made funny noises. Lee figured he just wanted to keep the music to himself, so she let him do his own thing and supplied him with music as needed.
“He was pretty much downloading everything he heard in his head,” Lee said, noting that he is a “musical prodigious savant” and has an audio photographic memory that allows him to recall a song after just one listen. “He’s really good at ‘name that tune’ — you don’t want to go up against him.”
But while she knew her son loved music, she said the family felt “discouraged,” unsure of the best way to help him.
“We just kept giving him as much music as we could, as many instruments as we could, because he wanted to play them. But you lose a little hope because you don’t know what to do,” she said.
Lee ultimately found her answer at “the happiest place on Earth.”
When Kodi Lee turned 6, the family took a trip to Disneyland. He was in a wheelchair at the time due to his tactile defensiveness. At one point, they stopped to eat lunch by a stage, where four singers came out and performed a cappella. The singers noticed Lee, who was drumming his hands and feet as they sang, and complimented his rhythm. When Tina Lee mentioned that her son could also sing — at the time, he was particularly fond of the song “Shout” — the performers invited him on stage.
He didn’t even hesitate.
“No rehearsals, never met the guys, nothing,” Tina Lee recalled. “He just … starts singing a capella ‘Shout.’ And then the other singers join in and Kodi’s eyes just grow huge. And his face has a big smile. He’s loving this sound coming out of these other guys.”
They started to draw an audience, and Lee got nervous when she saw that the singers were throwing necklaces out to the crowd. She was too far away to tell the performers not to put any necklaces on her son — it could set off his tactile defensiveness and lead to a tantrum, she said. Before she could do anything, a singer put a few necklaces over her son’s head, and Lee watched as he grabbed the necklaces, anticipating a meltdown.
He dropped them back down on his chest and kept on singing.
They stayed on his chest for the rest of the day.
He went on to perform a few more shows with the singers that day, and jumped up and down as people chanted his name.
“And that was the moment that I cried,” Lee said. “I can’t even explain that feeling as a parent. That was when I realized, ‘This is how I’m going to help him. This is what he wants.’ He didn’t want to perform for his family — we weren’t a good enough fanbase. He wanted to perform for all these people. He’s a born entertainer.”
Kodi Lee finds musical growth in Utah
Lee began seeking out performances around town to help her son. Years before his “AGT” audition, she actually tried to get him in contact with Simon Cowell through “The X Factor.”
“Kodi’s got all this musical ability, and I felt like I was the worst pick because I have no musical ability,” she said. “And I thought, he needs to have someone around him who can help him build that music genius that he has, and this guy knows what he’s doing. This guy knows what to do with talented people.”
So she went to a taping of “The X Factor” and said she was able to get a CD of his music to Cowell, although nothing ever came of it. She now believes the timing of meeting Cowell on “AGT” was perfect — it allowed her son a few more years of mental and musical growth.
A significant part of his growth happened when his father, Eric Lee, accepted a job in Utah. Kodi Lee was 11 when he and his family moved from California to Utah, living in the areas of Tooele and Stansbury Park for seven years.
Soon after the move, Tina Lee went to a local high school band teacher and asked if there were students who would be interested in forming a band with her son and performing gigs around town. A drummer, bass player and guitarist enthusiastically heeded the call.
But the opportunity came with a catch: During rehearsals, they could only practice a song once and then they’d have to leave.
“At the time, his autism was very heightened and he wouldn’t tolerate more than once,” Lee said.
That was a challenge for the musicians, who were trying to learn a song when he had already figured it out on the first go. But as time went on, Lee watched her son develop friendships with these teenagers. They all had different personalities that challenged and supported him in different ways. Gradually, he went from kicking his bandmates out right away to easing up and letting them go over a song again. As he played their parts on the piano and taught them the notes, they taught him about embracing flexibility.
Together, they played gigs throughout Utah — including the Utah State Fair — and even traveled out of state on occasion.
“These boys started it all,” said Lee. “I never, ever would have imagined that it would have turned out as great as it did. It helped Kodi grow to who he is today.”
Kodi Lee appears on ‘AGT’
By the time he graduated with a high school certificate, Kodi Lee and his family had moved back to California. Self-taught up to this point — primarily because he didn’t like other people touching his instrument — he began taking private lessons. As he honed his skills further, including pursuing tap dancing, he began to focus on “AGT,” a show he followed “faithfully,” Tina Lee said.
During his audition for “AGT” — which Kodi likes to tell people “broke the internet” — judge Gabrielle Union, visibly moved, hit her golden buzzer for the singer, immediately advancing him to the live portion of the competition.
It’s the first time Lee ever saw her son cry happy tears.
“If you really look at the photos, you see him crying when he got the golden buzzer,” she said, adding that she has a framed photo of them hugging during that special moment. “And you can see in his face, too, the shock from when he won the show. Those are such real facial expressions. I mean, you can’t fake those looks.”
At the end of the season, following performances that included Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and Freya Riding’s “Lost Without You,” “AGT” declared Kodi Lee the Season 14 winner.
“I was shocked. So happy, so excited,” he told the Deseret News, adding that he celebrated the victory by going out for hot chocolate with his family.
“When Kodi won … I felt like the whole world won because it opened up so many doors,” Tina Lee added. “Everything that we fought for and everything that we’ve done for him, it made me just so happy to know that he’s opening doors for all the other parents’ kids.
“He’s shown the world that anything is possible — no matter what,” she continued. “He is the hardest worker that I’ve ever met — ever. When he has a goal, he keeps going, and I have to keep up with him.”
Since his “AGT” victory, Kodi Lee has been performing regularly in Las Vegas — most recently at the Luxor as part of “America’s Got Talent Presents Superstars Live” — and has released two singles, “Miracle” and “Hello World.” Now, Lee is back on the “AGT” stage, and has a really good shot at winning “AGT: All-Stars.”
“I want to thank all my fans for your love and support,” he said. “Heck yeah!”
For Tina Lee, how far her son has come is a testament to the power of advocating for your children and doing what you believe is best for them — even when those around you may disagree. She hopes her son’s story will especially resonate with other parents who have children with disabilities.
“See what they love to do, and give them the tools,” she said. “Stay strong and keep fighting for the tools they need, for what you know your child is good at and loves to do. You give them what they need, then they’re going to flourish with it.”