The British critic Charles Shaar Murray once described the central drive of American popular music as “the need to separate black music (which, by and large, white Americans love) from black people (who, by and large, they don’t).” It’s a glibly polemical assessment that too often feels sickeningly right: You don’t need to look far for evidence that this country values black American culture substantially more than it values the lives of black American people. Last Saturday the top three slots on the Billboard album charts were occupied by black American musicians; that evening 17-year-old Trayvon Martin’s shooting death was deemed a blameless occurrence by a Florida jury, a ruling that left many wondering just how little one young black American life was worth in that state’s judicial system.
On Sunday night, Stevie Wonder — a black American musician who sold some records in his day — declared that he would not perform in Florida until the state’s “Stand Your Ground” law is abolished. Wonder’s boycott announcement was drenched in emotion, deeply moving, and — if you are so inclined — easy to dismiss. Wonder is 63 and hasn’t released an album in eight years; who cares what he thinks. He has enough money to never play another gig anywhere if he doesn’t want to. And Zimmerman’s lawyers didn’t even invoke Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law in his defense; Stevie Wonder, some people might scoff, should stick to making music.
Luckily Stevie Wonder is 10 zillion light years smarter than those people. His boycott is politically savvy, morally righteous and it could be enormously important. Wonder is one of the two or three most important American musicians walking the earth (Bob Dylan, maybe Aretha Franklin; end of list), with an unsurpassed track record for melding music and activism. His politics were forged in the American civil rights movement, and from a precocious age he knew the power of a musical boycott. In 1961, a year before “Little” Stevie Wonder released his first album for Motown Records, two of the biggest stars in American music, Sam Cooke and Ray Charles, made headlines by refusing to perform before segregated audiences in the Jim Crow South; Charles opted to pay a breach-of-contract fine rather than sing in Augusta, one of the largest cities in his home state. In other words, these artists refused to allow black music to be separated from black people, and Wonder, even at 12, was well aware of their influence. (A few years later the Beatles made the same refusal: They knew that they were playing black music, too.)
In the 1970s, when Stevie Wonder grew up to become the most successful musician in the world, winning Grammys for Album of the Year in 1974, 1975, and 1977, his music pulsed with moral conscience. Wonder’s hit singles “Higher Ground,” “Living for the City” and “You Haven’t Done Nothing” railed against racism, poverty and injustice, all from the top of the charts. His 1976 magnum opus, “Songs in the Key of Life,” was a concept album on the subject of human improvement and human empathy. Songs like “Village Ghetto Land” and “Pastime Paradise” portrayed a world in need of urgent correction; “Love’s in Need of Love Today,” “Black Man” and the incredible “Sir Duke” offered compelling ways to start correcting it. In the 1980s, Wonder was the musical spearhead of the campaign to make The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a federal holiday, and lent his talents to USA for Africa and the American Foundation for AIDS Research. Even as his creative output and chart presence diminished in recent years, Wonder has remained active in causes ranging from global poverty to disability research to the campaign of almost any Democratic candidate that asks him.