Eleven-year-old musician Tyler Butler-Figueroa tugged on the heartstrings of "America’s Got Talent" judges Tuesday night with his violin performance — and his emotional story.
The North Carolina native, who earned the golden buzzer with his energetic rendition of Kelly Clarkson's "Stronger (What Doesn't Kill You)," revealed he began playing the instrument at 7 1/2 as a way of forgetting about "the bad stuff" — which included a cancer diagnosis.
At the age of 4, Tyler was diagnosed with aggressive leukemia that nearly cost him his life. "The doctors treated me with chemotherapy," he said in a pretaped interview. "When I lost my hair, I was really sad and embarrassed at the same time to go to school."
At school he faced relentless bullying. "They used to make fun of me and laugh at me because I was different," Tyler shared. "They would spread rumors to say that my cancer was contagious."
Then, something incredible happened. Tyler began taking free after-school violin lessons and suddenly was happy again.
"I was like, 'Oh, my God, I’ve got my son back,'" Tyler's mom gushed in a pretaped clip. Added Tyler, "I just didn’t want to be the kid with cancer. So now, I’m the kid who plays the violin." (Tyler has been in remission for almost four years.)
Judges Simon Cowell, Howie Mandel, Gabrielle Union and Julianne Hough appeared mesmerized by Tyler’s performance. When asked how he felt afterward, Tyler replied through tears, "I'm feeling really proud of myself."
"You are an extraordinary young man," Cowell declared. "... I think you have such an amazing talent, such personality, and I would like to say something on your behalf to the bullies." With that, the 59-year-old Brit pushed the golden buzzer, catapulting Tyler into the live rounds.
Season 14 of the NBC hit is off to a powerful start. Last month, a singer named Kodi Lee, who is blind and has autism, delivered a flawless performance of Leon Russell's "A Song for You." Not only did he receive a standing ovation, he also advanced straight to the live rounds.