I remember, like it was yesterday, taking that road trip with my friends, Gerry & Marsha, to my hometown, Detroit, to hear Stevie Wonder perform at Cobo Hall. Cobo was a big hockey arena built for the Red Wings on the edge of the Detroit Riverfront – the same river that had marked the end of the Underground Railroad and the passage to freedom during the days of slavery in America.
The concert, like the many Stevie Wonder shows I have seen throughout my life, was incredible. But it wasn’t just his musical hits that stayed with me, nor the fact that he took the time to play almost every instrument on stage that night. It was Stevie’s ability to move millions of people through his music, his voice, and his amazing spirit. He had just written a Happy Birthday song to Martin Luther King as part of a movement to make King’s birthday a national holiday. For his encore, Stevie had the audience – all 20,000 of us – sing along at the tops of our voices and march together, hand in hand, out onto the streets of Detroit. The passionate fervor in that crowd was awe-inspiring. Stevie was determined our call to honor Martin Luther King would be heard loud and clear, and we were all proud to be part of it.
“The time is overdue for people like me and you
who know the way to truth is love and unity to all God’s children.
It should be a great event, and the whole day should be spent,
in full remembrance of those who live and died
for the oneness of all people.
So let us all begin. We know that love can win.
Let it out and don’t hold in. Sing it loud as you can.”
- Stevie Wonder, excert from “Happy Birthday”
The Happy Birthday song became a global hit and an anthem for the fight to make the holiday a reality. In 1986, three years after the signing of the approval by Ronald Reagan and almost 20 years after King’s assassination, Stevie headlined the commencement concert celebrating the first official Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. A whole nation sang long.
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.”
- Martin Luther King, for A Testament of Hope
When I reflect on the life’s work of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil rights movement, music is always in the forefront of my mind. Curtis Mayfield was always one of my personal favorites and someone I still listen to for inspiration today. Music has the power to make the unbearable somehow bearable, to unite us as human beings, and to give us the strength to create movement and change in the face of great obstacles.
“Love’s in need of love today. Don’t delay, send yours in right away.
Hate’s goin’ round breaking many hearts. Stop it please, before it goes too far.”
-Stevie Wonder, excerpt from “Loves in Need of Love Today”
Like the great artists before him that helped usher in the civil rights movement, Stevie Wonder continues to carry that torch. Despite losing his eyesight just after birth, he holds a vision that embraces all people. In his recent Christmas Concert for Toys, he wowed me again with his amazing energy and compassionate heart – bringing together over 50 amazing musicians on the Nokia stage and inspiring the audience of all ages and races to sing along to the songs from his all-time classic album, Songs in the Key of Life. Stevie naturally used the opportunity to give a dedication to another great human rights activist, the recently deceased Nelson Mandela. Even without be asked, many of us walked out onto the streets of downtown Los Angeles with those words resonating in our hearts and singing Stevie’s songs.
“It is music and dancing that make me at peace with the world.”
- Nelson Mandela
My hope on this day is that we can all take Stevie Wonder’s lead and continue to raise our voices together in song to celebrate these great leaders, the contributions they have made to our world, and the principles they stand for.
View this article on Huffington Post.