Stevie Wonder’s Incredible History of Creating Change — On Stage & Off
"As an artist, my purpose is to communicate the message that can better improve the lives of all."
We all know Stevie Wonder’s a legendary musical artist.
But what you may not know is that for practically his entire 50-plus year career, Wonder has combined the power of pop music with a deep concern for policy issues, and he has always used his work in the music industry to try and improve the world around him.
He is, in some ways, an OG Global Citizen.
After he was signed to Motown at the age of 11 — Berry Gordy nicknamed him ‘Little Stevie Wonder’ — Wonder spent his teenage years playing music and touring. At a rally in Chicago that he attended when he was 15 years old, Wonder met the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., according to Rolling Stone. His life was changed.
Three years later, when King was killed, Wonder flew to Atlanta for the funeral and took up a decades-long fight to have the nation recognize King’s birthday as a national holiday. He paused his musical career to hold rallies trying to convince Congress to pass the bill, which eventually was signed by President Ronald Reagan.
“Why should I be involved in this great cause?” he said in 1981. “As an artist, my purpose is to communicate the message that can better improve the lives of all of us. I’d like to ask all of you just for one moment, if you will, to be silent and just to think and hear in your mind the voice of our Dr. Martin Luther King.”
In the 1980s, Wonder helped organize and sing on the charity singles “We Are the World” and “That’s What Friends For” for famine relief and AIDS awareness, respectively.
He won an Academy Award in 1984 for a song for the film, “The Woman in Red” and dedicated the award to Nelson Mandela, which led to his music being banned in South Africa.
He’s sung with every music luminary of our time — Michael Jackson, Jimmi Hendrix, Gladys Knight, Dionne Warwick, Bruce Springsteen, Julio Iglesias — and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of fame in 1989.
And in 1995, Wonder was awarded the Nelson Mandela Courage Award.
One of Wonder’s best-known hits, the 1970 single “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours,” saw a resurgence in popularity and Wonder’s political activism when the song became a favorite of the first African American president, Barack Obama, at his campaign events ahead of the 2008 election.
Wonder performed at the Democratic National Convention in 2008, where Obama was officially nominated as the party’s candidate for president, and a year later, President Obama awarded Wonder the Gershwin Award for Lifetime Achievement at the white House. Obama later awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor for a US civilian.
He’s made a career of philanthropy, too: working on AIDS awareness, anti-apartheid efforts, and fundraising for blind and disabled children. He served on the President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities, the Children’s Diabetes Foundation, Junior Blind of America and the creation of the Wonder Vision Awards Program. For over 10 years, he has provided toys for children and families in need with his annual House Full of Toys benefit concert.
When Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, Wonder donated all of the proceeds from his “Shelter in the Rain” single to relief efforts.
In 2009, the United Nations named Wonder a UN Messenger of Peace.
“I recognize that he has consistently used his voice and special relationship with the public to create a better and more inclusive world, to defend civil and human rights and to improve the lives of those less fortunate,” said then-Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
“Stevie Wonder is a true inspiration to young people all over the world about what can be achieved despite any physical limitations” Ban said.
Ban and Wonder reunited, along with Bono, on the Global Citizen Festival stage in 2013 in New York City’s Central Park, the three humanitarians forming a trio of representatives for the pop-and-policy model of Global Citizenship.
“My friends, there are rock stars, and there are rock stars,” Wonder said then. “And I can assure you that the secretary general is a genuine rock star. He’s a rock star in his quest to bring hope to the hopeless, consensus where there’s conflict, and peace and rights to those who suffer from hatred and despair.”
“Stevie Wonder is an amazing United Nations Messenger of Peace,” added the secretary general, who then acknowledged the crowd. “Tonight, so are you.”
When Wonder first played on a Global Citizen Festival stage, in 2013 in New York City’s Central Park, he changed the lyrics of “Superstition” to “We are global citizens, we’re going to change the world!”
That year, he left 60,000 Global Citizens who came to Central Park with a few words of inspiration. We can’t wait to hear what he has to say this year.
“We can end extreme poverty in our lifetime,” Wonder said, “because together we can work it out, and we will reach our higher ground.”