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A boy sang with unbridled joy at a school show. Mariah Carey noticed.

When the Baltimore fourth-grader’s mom posted videos of him singing, she wrote that his ‘Black Boy Autistic Joy was infectious.’ She was right.

Kevin Johnson III, 10, sings during a performance at his Baltimore school. (Jennifer White-Johnson)
6 min

Ten-year-old Kevin Johnson III didn’t hold back at his school’s winter concert.

The fourth-grader, who is known as Knox, had practiced singing “All I Want for Christmas Is You” for weeks, and Tuesday, as he and his classmates gathered in the gym of their Baltimore school to perform for family members, he stood at the front and let his excitement show.

He bounced from one foot to the other and belted out the lyrics with so much energy and enthusiasm that he didn’t need a microphone to be heard.

“To see him be so unbridled and to have this unlimited amount of joy was incredible,” his mother, Jennifer White-Johnson, said. “I kept telling him to think of something happy when he’s singing, and that’s exactly what he did. He just thought of something joyful, and whatever that was, it just took him to heights.”

She captured his performance on video and, like many proud parents, posted it on social media. She didn’t know how people might react, but she hoped it might offer them a break from the normal online bleakness.

“Knox’s Elementary School Winter concert tonight was everything!” she wrote on Instagram. “He had two back to back concerts today and his Black Boy Autistic Joy was infectious and on full display!”

On Twitter she wrote: “Timeline cleanse if you need one! Knox tonight at his 4th grade school winter concert singing @MariahCarey ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’ #AutisticJoy on full display! My kid is everything! I hope Mariah sees this!!”

You can guess what happened next. Clicks and shares sent joy rippling online — and the video eventually reached Carey.

But something else less obvious but important also happened. The video left people talking about disabilities, inclusiveness and what it means for autistic children to be given the freedom to fully express themselves.

“That’s who he is,” Johnson-White said of Knox. She and her husband both have people on their sides of the family who sing and Knox has sung since he could talk. “He sings around the house. He sings out in public. With him being autistic, he wasn’t always articulating typical conversations, but he was singing.”

She praised the staff at his school, Bedford Elementary, for getting to know her son and for creating a welcoming environment.

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“We’re just so thankful that the school allows him to be completely and authentically autistic, because he wouldn’t be successful otherwise,” she said.

Knox was given a solo in the winter concert. The video shows him performing it with vigor. But it also shows him start to sing during another student’s solo. In that moment, music teacher Ryan Stewart can be seen gently patting the fourth-grader’s shoulder and offering him a quiet reminder. In response, Knox stops singing and gestures to his classmate, directing the focus to her. Many people who saw the video were struck by the gentleness of that redirection.

“Shoutout to the choir leader for accommodating the joy and not expecting all students to stand in a nicely knitted row with minimal joy,” reads one comment on the video post.

“My daughter’s choir teacher told me if she couldn’t keep still she wouldn’t be allowed to perform,” reads another.

“That was my experience in choir and that forced compliance is just not ok,” reads yet another.

The first time I spoke to White-Johnson was after the death of Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman. In a column about ableism in Hollywood, I shared a photo she had posted on Instagram of Knox and the words she had written alongside it. The photo showed Knox with a scene from Black Panther superimposed across his body and the words explained how Black disabled people are similar to superheroes.

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“Just existing everyday as our true disabled selves is an act of resistance and super power,” she had written.

The video doesn’t show it, but when Knox finished singing, he ran toward his mom who had positioned herself on the floor in front of the crowd to capture his singing.

“He was in full tears,” she said. “It was such a beautiful moment because I felt like he was releasing all that joy he had built up and he was so proud of himself. I didn’t say, ‘Stop crying.’ All I could say was, ‘I’m so proud of you. I love you. You did such an amazing job.’ And he just kept saying to me, ‘I know.’”

The video that appeared on Twitter has drawn more than 264,000 views. People who’ve seen it have described it as making them smile or cry, or in the case of at least one person smile and cry: “I love your child. I love his joy. I love this teacher and students for knowing what inclusive means (unlike so many grownups). I’m not crying and smiling at the same time! Oh yes I am! I want him to have this joy forever.”

In recent days, the video has been shared many times, including by one person who knows exactly how hard it is to hit some of the notes in the song.

“Your kid IS everything!!!!!!” Carey tweeted. “Knox, you made my day. Your JOY gives me and everyone watching JOY. THANK YOU for reminding me why I wake up in the morning and do what I do. I love you.”

White-Johnson said the singer also sent her a direct message. In it, she said, Carey invited the family to sit in the front row of her holiday concert in New York but also expressed an understanding that it might be too loud or too late for Knox.

White-Johnson said she thanked Carey and told her they couldn’t make it this time.

Even though the family won’t get to see Carey sing in person, White-Johnson describes the star as giving them the “best Christmas present ever.” She said the interaction has left her family feeling “uplifted” and “seen.”

“She knows Knox’s name,” she said with awe.

Knox also knows the singer’s name — even if he didn’t understand at first why it was a big deal that she shared his video. It took him seeing the number of views on the video rise, and the video appear on several media outlets, to realize that meant people across the world were hearing him sing.

What took no time for him to understand, though, was that Carey enjoyed his performance. One line in her tweet immediately drew his attention.

“She loves me?” he asked his mom. “Mariah Carey loves me?”