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 — and he’s joining the Global Citizen stage again to headline the Global Citizen Live concert in Los Angeles at the Greek Theatre on Saturday, Sept. 25. Ahead of October’s G20 Summit and the major climate conference COP26 in November, the 24-hour worldwide broadcast event kicks off on Saturday, with events and performances across seven continents to defend the planet and defeat poverty as part of our Recovery Plan for the World campaign.
Wonder’s dedication to equality for all started at a young age. 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 while he was imprisoned, which led to Wonder’s music being banned in South Africa.
He’s sung with every music luminary of our time — Michael Jackson, Jimi 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 at the TransAfrica Forum.
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 children and children with disabilities. 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 to help integrate blind and low-vision people into the workforce. 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 Ban Ki-moon, the eighth secretary-general of the United Nations, at the time.
“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. “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 Ban, who then acknowledged the crowd. “Tonight, so are you.”
When Wonder played on the Global Citizen Festival stage, 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 end extreme poverty in our lifetime,” Wonder said, “because together we can work it out, and we will reach our higher ground.”
Wonder recently joined several efforts to support health care workers on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. He performed at Global Citizen’s One World Together At Home global broadcast in April 2020.
“During hardships like this, we have to lean on each other for help,” Wonder said during the event.
“My friend, the late Bill Withers, has the perfect song about that. And I want us to remember him tonight,” he added, before a powerful performance of “Lean on Me.”
He also participated in a concert organized by Gloria Estefan to raise funds for nurses in November.
A staunch supporter of the #TakeAKnee movement in solidarity with activist and football player Colin Kapernick, in 2020 Wonder released the funk song “Can't Put It in the Hands of Fate,” addressing systemic racism, police brutality, and the Black Lives Matter movement, and "Where Is Our Love Song." The musician donated proceeds from both singles to the food insecurity organization Feeding America.
“Not just Black people or people of color but young people everywhere are going, 'This is not acceptable,” Wonder said of racial justice in the US, “Change is right now."
You can join Stevie Wonder in taking action to defend the planet, defeat poverty, and demand equity as part of Global Citizen Live here.
This story was originally published on Sept. 21, 2017, and has been updated.
You can join the Global Citizen Live campaign to defend the planet and defeat poverty by taking action here, and become part of a movement powered by citizens around the world who are taking action together with governments, corporations, and philanthropists to make change.