There’s always one big emotional moment that closes out each audition episode of “America’s Got Talent,” and this week’s moment belonged to Raleigh’s 11-year-old violinist, Tyler Butler-Figueroa.
Tyler’s audition in week three of Season 14 of NBC’s talent competition series went as well as it possibly could have, earning him a Golden Buzzer pass straight to the live shows, which start Aug. 13. Tyler busked on the streets of downtown Raleigh to earn money to go audition for the show.
Just before Tyler took the stage, his mother, Kisua Butler-Figueroa, told him to go out and be strong. He was wearing a black suit and sneakers that lit up, and those flashy sneaks drew compliments from judge Julianne Hough.
The judges asked Tyler why he started playing the violin, and he told them it was because he had been bullied. When Hough asked him if he knew why he was bullied, Tyler told her, “It’s because I had cancer, and I almost died.”
Cue gasps from the audience, and then a pre-recorded clip of Tyler and his mom, telling more about his story.
A cancer diagnosis, then bullying
Tyler, now a student at Walnut Creek Elementary School in Raleigh, was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia when he was four-and-a-half-years-old. He underwent three years of chemotherapy, during which he lost his hair.
In the NBC video, Tyler said the kids at school laughed at him and spread rumors that his cancer was contagious.
Then he saw a flier for an after-school music program offering free violin lessons. Tyler started the lessons and practiced in his bedroom. His mother said once he started the classses, he was “full of sunshine and happy energy. It’s like, oh my God, I got my son back.”
Tyler said on the video: “When I play the violin, it helps me forget about all the bad stuff. I just didn’t want to be the kid with cancer. So now I’m the kid who plays the violin.”
Before Tyler played a single note, the crowd loved him. When he started playing, the crowd went wild.
He played Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You),” accompanied by some background music. He danced around the stage while playing — he’s a natural performer — and the audience clapped along.
When he finished playing, everyone — audience and judges — jumped to their feet for a standing ovation. Julianne Hough made eye contact with Tyler and made the “heart” symbol at him with her hands.
“I just wanted to commend you for taking something that is probably one of the hardest things that you’ll ever have to go through and turning it around and finding something that brings you joy,” Hough told him.
Judge Simon Cowell then chimed in.
“Wow wow wow,” Cowell said. “How are you feeling now?”
“I’m feeling really proud of myself,” Tyler told him.
Everyone’s crying by now, including Tyler’s mom from backstage.
“If you don’t mind me asking, how is your health now?” Cowell asked.
“I’ve been in remission for almost four years,” Tyler said, to more cheers.
“You are an extraordinary young man,” Cowell told him. “We hear too many stories about people being bullied, but most people are bullied because they’re better than the people who bully them. You are such an amazing talent and amazing personality and I would like to say something on your behalf to the bullies.”
At that point, Cowell reached over and pushed the Golden Buzzer, which sends Tyler straight to the live shows (those start on Aug. 13).
Tyler was in tears now, as gold confetti rained down around him. His mom was on stage hugging him and crying. Judge Gabrielle Union was crying. We are all crying.
Cowell went onto the stage and spoke to Tyler as celebratory music played. “You’re an amazing talent,” Cowell said. “Are you up for it? You’re a winner, right?” Tyler said “Yes” and Cowell shook his hand. The crowd was now chanting his name.
Tyler told the audience that he was “very proud and happy” and Tyler’s mom said it’s “a dream come true.”
It looks like Tyler’s dream is just starting, though.
Watch Tyler: The Live shows start Aug. 13 on NBC, but we’re not sure yet exactly when Tyler will appear. For these shows, Tyler will need votes to advance.