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Christian R&B star is born: Fayetteville-born singer Lee Vasi’s music was inspired by her journey with her faith


When Lee Vasi stepped into the audition room of American Idol in 2018, she stood across from three music superstars: pop singer Katy Perry, country artist Luke Bryan, and R&B icon Lionel Richie.

Vasi — real name Halle Sullivan-Vargas — stated that she was “a huge fan of all” the judges and that “Zoom,” a 1977 tune from Richie’s group The Commodores, was her favorite song to sing with her father Dwight. Richie broke out in the opening words to “Zoom” and Vasi joined in.

Captured on camera for national television audiences, Vasi had a once-in-a-lifetime moment. It’s not often someone gets to sing alongside an artist they grew up loving.

She passed the audition and made it to Hollywood, but was cut before the final 24 round of that season of the show. Instead of being disappointed, though, Vasi, a Fayetteville native with Puerto Rican-Dominican and African American heritage, views that experience as part of her story.

“I really try to not have expectations and just go where I feel I’m being led by God,” Vasi says. “I feel like it ended the way it was supposed to end. I learned a lot from it. So I don’t have any kind of negative feelings around how it ended.”

Six years later, Vasi is making her own mark, independent of a television show or a famous artist, in the music industry. Her song “Teach Me” reached No. 2 on the Billboard Gospel Digital Song Sales chart and No. 21 on the Hot Gospel Songs list for the week of Jan. 27, 2024.
Going from performing on the Cape Fear Regional Theatre stage as a 7-year-old to national chart success is a story filled with faith, vulnerability, and parents who supported their children with sacrifice and prayer. It’s a story, at least through one perspective, of three significant moments, three occurrences that changed Vasi’s life and directed her to where she is today.

Cumberland to Broadway to Hollywood to Atlanta to Cumberland

Vasi’s parents Dwight Sullivan and Maureen Vargas-Sullivan say they sang with their children very early on. By the time Vasi’s older brother Zach Vargas-Sullivan was 2 years old, Maureen says, he would be singing the Lord’s Prayer before going to bed.

Vasi says she started performing on stage at age 7 at CFRT, simply following in Zach’s footsteps. She got her first big break at age 8 when attending a casting call alongside her brother for the Broadway production of “The Lion King.”

What Maureen thought, in Vasi’s words, was a trip to “come to Atlanta and do a little shopping” alongside the auditions, turned into a long day of sitting in the heat while 200-plus girls auditioned for the role of Young Nala. They never did go shopping — Vasi kept getting called back for more auditions. She landed the role and moved to New York City to star on the Broadway stage at 9 years old.

What was supposed to be a six-month deal turned into a year and a half of Vasi living in New York City with her mother, performing on one of the grandest stages in all of entertainment. It was during that time that she began tinkering with songwriting, penning her first tune at 10 years old. As she grew older, she made the decision to focus on music, traveling over the ensuing decade between Atlanta, New York City, and Fayetteville. She attended the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, where she says she got a well-rounded experience in music.

Through that time, Vasi began to develop the discipline needed to be in entertainment, with the support of her parents.

"My parents were very, very supportive," she says. "It was clear that ... nothing could be impacted by us pursuing it. It taught me a lot of discipline around a lot of different areas of my life."

Dwight says there was certainly some apprehension about Vasi pursuing a career in entertainment, but that didn’t prevent him and Maureen from throwing their support behind their daughter.

“I believe in people pursuing their dreams,” he says. “I don’t think that any dream is too big. If God put it in you to pursue it, go after it. Chase it. The only way you lose is by not chasing it. It happens to other people. Why not you? Why can’t you be that person?”

Maureen adds, “She’s been very diligent in chasing her dream and perfecting and working hard.”

After the American Idol experience, Vasi moved to Atlanta, where she says she didn’t know anyone. She tried to find opportunities in the mainstream/secular music space but was struggling, especially when the Covid-19 pandemic hit.

“The pandemic really took a hard, hard effect on me and my mental health,” Vasi says. “I was really struggling to be balanced through all this, and understanding the differences and nuances between being a child in entertainment and a young adult in entertainment. I definitely got lost for a second.”

So she came home, back to Fayetteville, in 2021.

A time to ‘recalibrate’

At that time, Vasi took a break from music.

“At that point, so many things in my life were feeling so forced, and I really started to doubt whether this was something God wanted me to be doing,” she says.

That break was a fairly clean one. Vasi says she didn’t even listen to music or sing in the shower. But it was during that time she did something that would contribute directly to her future in music.

“It was during that time when I got really strong in my faith journey and surrendered to the Lord,” she says.

She planned to move back to Atlanta, and the night before she departed last year, she says she heard God speak to her.

“I said to God, ‘What do you need from me?’,” Vasi says. “I heard him so loudly say to me, ‘Music.’ I can never say I’ve heard the voice of the Lord so clearly before that it really moved me.”

The first song she released out of this new approach was “My Bad” on Sept. 22, 2023. The song, utilizing the R&B style of Vasi’s early inspirations like Ne-Yo and Mariah Carey, focuses on Vasi exploring her own humanity and how she wants to be better and be what God needs her to be. The song is quickly approaching 350,000 streams on Spotify.

“The song is really about repentance and the conversational way that I talk to God,” Vasi says. “A large point of what I’m focused on is really being a reflection of how relational it is to be a Christian. Just be honest with Him, be vulnerable with Him. That’s what this music is coming from. My bad, I wanna start over.”

Vasi adds that “My Bad” partially came out of her journey in the previous years.

“God knows that I’m a little bit dramatic, so God allows me to have my big wake-up calls in my relationship with Him,” she says. “I had a lot of big wake-up calls that were happening during the pandemic. I wanted to live a completely different life. My bad, let’s just start over.”

Maureen and Dwight both express pride in Vasi’s decision to sing faith-based music.

“I’m pleased that she’s going with the Christian R&B,” Dwight says. “ ... We need uplifting music, lyrics that build people rather than tear them down. It’s so beautiful to know that she’s got that foundation and get back to it.”

Then, Lee Vasi’s career hit another high point. One, Vasi says, that she was not anticipating at all.

Being teachable

On Jan. 6 this year, Vasi dropped her second teaser for a new song, “Teach Me,” on her social media platforms. It’s a video of her singing the song in front of a city skyline backdrop. It’s not extravagant or over-produced. Just a simple video.

As of mid-February, that video has more than 1 million views and over 147,000 likes on TikTok and more than 320,000 likes on Instagram. It has now hit Billboard music charts and has more than 375,000 streams on Spotify. It has also been featured on the Apple Music-curated playlists “Sunday Soul” and “Risers,” the Christian music playlist, alongside songs from notable Christian and gospel artists like Tauren Wells, Lecrae, Kirk Franklin, CeCe Winans, and Chris Tomlin.

When the song first started getting big, the whole family was excited.

“It was nuts,” Dwight says, with Maureen adding, “Our family group text was blowing up.”

“Teach Me” isn’t necessarily your typical Christian song, gospel song, or song about romantic relationships. Vasi says she wrote it out of a personal place she’s currently in with her boyfriend. The song — written in the form of a prayer to God like “My Bad” and her other single, “Presence” — shows Vasi asking God to teach her how to love her partner.

“It came from a really real place,” Vasi says. “I was in a moment of just really not understanding the way that he thinks. I think a lot of times in our relationships we can be really selfish. I just literally sat down and wrote, ‘Lord, I know I’m not perfect and neither is this man you sent me.’”

While she certainly was surprised by the song’s performance on the charts, it wasn’t just happenstance. Vasi, who says she wasn’t big on social media until recently, has been building her online presence to promote her music. She’s been “very intentional,” she says, in what she posts on platforms like Instagram and TikTok. Those platforms have translated to thousands hearing her songs and sharing their reactions.

“That’s the coolest part of all of this; I’m seeing God working through this song that was just about me and my relationship,” Vasi says. “I could not have even imagined the way this was going to impact people.”

Dwight says the song is “very mature and very real,” and a message he says anyone in a relationship could benefit from hearing and taking to heart.

“It was like a letter written so that no matter what age you are, if you’re in a relationship and you’re going through (hard times) with your spouse or significant other, that before you get to that discussion, that you talk to God, so that you can project what you need to project to keep that relationship,” he says. “I think it’s something that everyone who has someone that they love can benefit from.”

Maureen adds, “If you want a healthy relationship, it’s a really good place to start. It was her prayer.”

What’s next

Now that she’s had a viral hit, Lee Vasi will continue to make music, with her next single “Your Will” released on Feb. 9. “Your Will” quotes several Bible verses and sees Vasi saying that, if something is not God’s will, she doesn’t want it.

That’s what Dwight wants for his daughter too.

“‘Your will be done’ for what’s going on with Lee,” he says. “I want her to have what [God] has in store for her. That’s my expectation for her.”

Dwight and Maureen have now seen success come to both Vasi and Zach. Zach is a film executive with A24 Studios, helping put out movies like 2020’s “Minari,” which earned an Oscar and five additional nominations and won the Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film. With both their children, Maureen says, they want them to be “healthy, thriving and living life the way that they want to be living it and happy with their choices.”

Vasi says she wants to continue to create positivity in her music. Her social media posts reflect that. A clip of “Teach Me” posted on Jan. 29 is accompanied by a caption that says, “2024 will be the end of the toxic era in Jesus’ name!” Other posts are accompanied by the text “Christian music will end the toxic era.” She believes the reaction to “Teach Me,” helped verify that inkling.

“I think it’s really a testament to how people really want positive messages in music,” she says. “If I can inspire people through my music to think about God’s love, then that’s it.”

North Carolina has produced numerous music stars, ranging from folk band The Avett Brothers to K-Ci of the R&B duo K-Ci & JoJo to American Idol season 3 winner and now Golden Globe nominee Fantasia Barrino. Grammy-winning rapper J. Cole grew up in Fayetteville, and Cumberland County native J. Harrison Ghee won a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical last year for their work in “Some Like It Hot” on Broadway. Ghee and Cumberland County native NaTasha Yvette Williams, lead vocalist and Ghee’s co-star in “Some Like It Hot,” also won a Grammy award for Best Musical Theater Album this year.

The city may soon be able to add Vasi to that list of dignitaries, although, if you talk to her, you’d quickly gather that that’s not her goal. All she wants to do is be honest, inspire people, and encourage them to think about God.

It all started in Fayetteville. Vasi was born at Cape Fear Valley Medical Center, and she considers her childhood performances at Cape Fear Regional Theatre “a great kind of school for me.”

“It’s my hometown,” Vasi says. “... It’s where I go home for Christmas. It’s where my roots are. It’s home base. Though every major city I’ve lived in and gone to, Fayetteville is always that root. When I went back to recalibrate, it was back home to Fayetteville.”