“America’s Got Talent” contestant Kechi Okwuchi offered everyone watching a bold lesson in fortitude when she stepped onto the stage and delivered a stunning rendition of Ed Sheeran’s Grammy-winning ballad “Thinking Out Loud” for her audition. As a burn survivor, the journey that led her to that unforgettable, standing-ovation moment was wrought with unimaginable physical and emotional pain and adversity. Her moving story and determination to fight, overcome, and follow her dreams is awe-inspiring.
Kechi started singing in a children’s choir when she was around seven or eight-years-old. She grew up in Nigeria with parents who loved music and listened to everything from Celine Dion, ABBA, and Dolly Parton to Dido, Whitney Houston and more. In those young, happy years, she didn’t have any idea how important music would become to her.
When she was 16, she became one of only two survivors in a plane crash that killed 107 people, including her closest friend. She was severely burned and has endured over 100 surgeries since the accident. While she was in a coma, her mother sang a well-known Nigerian Christian hymn to her every day. The song made a deep impression on her.
“I remember hearing her sing that in my subconscious while I was in the coma right after the accident,” Kechi told AXS via phone in a recent exclusive interview. “I would hear her singing that repeatedly. So, it has very special meaning for me. When I woke up, I knew the song, the words, the tune, the melody, everything.”
Bandaged from head to toe lying in bed, music was Kechi’s escape. She remembers listening to “Stand Up for Love” by Destiny’s Child and “You Found Me” by Kelly Clarkson on repeat when she was constantly lying in her hospital bed. She loved Clarkson’s second studio album, Breakaway, and particularly that track. She’ll forever remember both songs as pulling her through a time of great struggle.
Kechi moved to Houston in 2007 and continued medical treatment in Galveston. She went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from the University of St. Thomas in 2015. She’s currently working on her MBA and credits a strong support system for helping her persevere during her many trials and achieve many important milestones.
“One major reason I was able to do this was my support system, made up of my mom, my family, my wonderful friends and my faith in God. All four of these things kind of came together to allow me to be the person that I’m supposed to be, to continue to maintain this personality and this optimistic point of view, even though the accident happened and has taken away a lot of things from me,” Kechi explained. “My mom was my rock for a very long time. It took me a while to develop my faith and to understand I cannot rely on my mom completely. To be able to grow independently, I had to learn how to know God on my own as well.”
As one of only two plane crash survivors, Kechi feels a deep responsibility to honor the memories of those who died by living her life with purpose and with meaning.
She said, “A lot of my classmates were in the accident. I know the parents of these kids. They lost so much, but they look at me as a kind of hope to live out my life, almost kind of representing the kids they lost. I feel I owe them a responsibility to live my life in a very wholesome way and just make them proud as much as I can because I want them to know that this life was not spared for no reason.”
Now 27, Kechi is pursuing a singing dream after a friend secretly submitted an audition clip to “America’s Got Talent.”
“A friend of mine sent in an audition clip on my behalf. I was never going to be brave enough to do something like that,” she said. “I always sing for my family and my friends. I’m always singing. Anyone who knows me knows that. And my friend, she’s always been encouraging me to do something like this. I never thought I was good enough to be noticed by anyone. My friends and family would tell me I’m good and I would just be like, ‘Other people are good too, so why would I be so special?’”
All four AGT judges and the entire screaming audience who jumped to their feet after Kechi’s amazing audition can probably attest to just how “special” she is. She recalls being incredibly nervous when she walked out on stage. She said she “prayed incessantly for calmness” before going out.
“That is really intimidating – especially in front of those four judges and such a large audience,” Kechi said, “I have no prior experience with anything like that. So that was brand new for me, to come out there, in front of people and know they’re waiting to hear me sing.”
She’s a self-professed huge Ed Sheeran fan and “Thinking Out Loud” is one of her all-time favorite songs, which is why she chose to sing it for her audition. “I love the lyrics. I love the meaning behind it,” she said. “Everything about it is just so beautiful. I just love it. If I was going to get a chance to sing in front of an audience, that would be my first choice any day.”
Kechi was bowled over by the huge, positive reaction to her performance. “It was just amazing! It was just so wonderful to feel like something that I love doing so much was so appreciated in such a positive way,” she gushed. “I just felt so happy in that moment. After the audience being so receptive and clapping for me and the judges clapping for me, at that point, it didn’t even matter if I moved on or not. I feel like just that reaction alone was enough for me to be satisfied and so happy. Hearing what they had to say to me after that made it even better and I was just so grateful.”
Kechi made a big impression on the judges. Mel B was spot on when she said, “You standing there right now is going to inspire so many people. You have a beautiful voice, you’ve got the tools to really go for it and don’t hold back.”
Simon Cowell added, “I think what’s exciting about you is there's more to come from you.” Howie Mandel was visibly moved, both standing up while she was singing and after her performance. He said, “I have to tell you, you’re one of the most beautiful people I have ever met in my life because the way you speak, the choice you made with the song, blew me away.”
Beyond the praise and thunderous applause, Kechi is most grateful for the opportunity her AGT journey has afforded her to use her voice and her story to inspire others to reach for their dreams. She’s been moved by an outpouring of messages from people who watched her performance and drew strength from it to endure their own challenges and strive for their dreams.
"After this performance, going on this show, the amount of people that have seen me has increased and I feel like this has given me a platform to reach even more people that are maybe going through things that make them feel like they can’t achieve their dreams-- people with self-esteem and confidence issues," Kechi said. "I feel like it’s given me a platform to reach people all across different walks of life and I feel more particularly toward other burn survivors or anyone who is had a lot of scars physically and has their physical appearance distorted by any kind of accident."
The Children’s Hospital in Galveston where she received treatment held a viewing party for her audition, and she was particularly touched by photos and signs the kids had made. She’s also incredibly grateful for the opportunity to represent hope and achieving whatever you want, despite your physical circumstances, for the kids there.
“Who knows how many of these kids go around thinking, ‘I’ll never look the same. I’ll never be the same. My life will never be the same,’” Kechi said. “I’m so grateful to ‘America’s Got Talent’ for letting me be part of this season because no matter what other things come out of this, one major thing they’ve given me [is] a chance to let these kids know in a very real, obvious way that they can be whoever they want; even though right now it doesn’t look that way because of all their surgeries and their scars. They can see someone who’s been there, someone who’s trying to do what she can and who isn’t letting the world hold her back from what she wants to do. I feel like I was able to represent that for these kids and I want to do more things like that.”
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“America’s Got Talent” airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. ET/7 p.m. CT on NBC. Stay tuned to AXS for AGT updates.