‘American Idol’: Kya Monée auditions with tearful tribute to Willie Spence [WATCH]

American Idol” kicked off its 21st season on Sunday night, with superstars Luke Bryan, Katy Perry and Lionel Richie returning to the judging panel. The reality TV singing competition has always had the ability to captivate viewers with emotional backstories about the contestants, but one particular audition on Sunday was especially heart-wrenching.

Kya Monée, a 21-year old from Austin, Texas returned after originally trying out for the show on Season 19. She made it to Hollywood week, but was cut before the live shows. Her duet partner in one of those rounds was the late Willie Spence, that cycle’s runner-up who died tragically in a car accident last October. The pair sang a powerful rendition of “Stay” by Rihanna, earning a standing ovation from the judges.

SEE ‘American Idol’ finalist Willie Spence dead at 23

Kya and Willie remained close friends following their time together in Hollywood, and he urged her to try out again and continue to follow her dreams. He had even planned to attend this audition with her and helped her pick out the perfect song, “I’m Here” from the musical “The Color Purple.” While fighting back tears, Kya pushed through the power ballad as the judges wept. Watch Kya’s audition of “I’m Here” below.

SEE Everything to know about ‘American Idol’ Season 21: Premiere date, judges and host

“What you have given us was everything we’ve been trying to tell all of these kids,” Lionel told her. “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.”

Luke added, “Way to tribute him and way to tribute what you guys were planning to do together. I’ve lost some people in my life and when you go to sing you just sing like Willie’s still here.”

“It was so connected to the pain,” Katy remarked. “Everybody’s feeling this loss. But we also feel connected together because you were authentic, just like he was.” Next, the judges handed Kya her second golden ticket to Hollywood.

Auditions continue with Episode 2 on Sunday, February 26 at 8:00 p.m. ET/PT on ABC.

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