“Every single honor that I receive is only saying to me ‘Do more. Do more. Do more.’” That declaration is a tender and harmonic refrain that music legend and humanitarian Stevie Wonder vocalizes prior to receiving a Doctor of Humane Letters from Spelman College this year. At the lavish President’s brunch held prior to the institution’s commencement exercises, the celebrated musician and prolific songwriter, along with other honorary degree recipient Attorney General Loretta Lynch, delivered a compelling address that refused to leave a dry eye throughout the entire ballroom.
Awarded a record 25 Grammys, the most ever by a male solo artist, Wonder opened his remarks by giving praise for all of his success and achievements resulting from his five-plus decade career. The groundbreaking Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and Songwriters Hall of Famer spent six minutes at the podium fully expressing his gratitude for all of the people instrumental in solidifying his longevity before seguing into how heavy his heart is.
Wonder’s poetic, thought-provoking lyricism throughout his career has explored and celebrated poverty, race, war, politics, spirituality, love, family, mysticism and African (American) history. The second overall recipient of the coveted Gershwin Prize takes periodic deep pauses, sharing how ambitious he still is about his own creative impulse, spirituality and love for humanity.
“I still want for God to give me that song that will say to everyone let’s truly stop hating and love,” says the Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient. “I still ask God to give me that melody that I can sing that will say to everyone’s ears ‘People, let’s come together.’”
The Academy Award-winning composer and multi-instrumentalist continues, “I still ask God for that note that I can play that rings into everyone’s ears that says ‘Ok. We must do it right now.’ And I still ask God for that song that I can write lyrically that will say ‘God, we’ve done it. We are one.’”
Wonder emphasizes the importance of people working together to create harmony. The entertainer responsible for finely crafting a canon of classic, genre-fusing concept albums like Where I’m Coming From, Music of My Mind, Talking Book, Innervisions, Fulfillingness First Finale, Songs in the Key of Life and Hotter Than July believes seeking higher consciousness is a divine mission.
“No matter what color we are, what ethnicity, what religion we are or where we’re from that we will all understand that #BlackLivesMatter, all lives matter but most importantly, God matters,” proclaims Wonder, who was named the U.N.’s Messenger of Peace in 2009. The music icon spent some additional minutes indirectly paying homage to some of his deceased musical peers like Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Maurice White, David Bowie and most recently, Prince.
It devastates Wonder, who turned 66 on May 13, how he’s outlived so many of his recording industry colleagues. The youngest ever recognized by the Kennedy Center Honors, a diplomatic Wonder challenges members of the press, opinion leaders and religious fundamentalists to reevaluate how they comment on various sectors of society, especially performers who use their talents and influence to improve the human condition.
“We’re left with too many people of the media, press and gossipers on the internet that are comfortable tearing their careers apart when all they gave you was love,” stresses Wonder. “It’s such a heartbreak.”
“We as human beings are far, far better than anyone who writes or gossips,” adds an optimistic Wonder, “or whatever kind of doctor they might be to try to spread energy or negativity. Love really is king. God really is king. It’s not about the religion. It’s about the relationship.”
Still hailed as one of the most innovative and commercially successful artists in music history, Wonder continues to use his voice as an instrument for driving social change. Forty five years ago, he championed performers of color actively utilizing their performance rights. Wonder signed an unprecedented deal with his label, Motown Records, allowing him to have full creative autonomy, higher royalties and non-negotiable ownership of his music.
The musical architect spoke out extensively about having Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday declared a national holiday. Appearing on charitable chart-toppers like “We Are the World” and “That’s What Friends Are For,” Wonder plays numerous benefit concerts and supports causes such as ending apartheid in South Africa, rights for disabled and visually impaired, literacy, famine, poverty, education, Hurricane Katrina relief, Flint water crisis and juvenile diabetes.
Wonder knows it’s his social responsibility to raise awareness on various issues and social problems. “I must be out there to stand for those things that maybe no one wants to talk about or sing about,” utters Wonder. “I must be out there ready to protect you from that bullet of injustice and bring us together as a united people of this country and throughout the world.”
As Wonder brings his comments to a close, the musical genius wisecracks about not being bubble wrapped. The concerned visionary recapitulates his appreciation for being awarded an honorary degree from Spelman College, referring to the all-female institution as “the joy inside my tears.”
Wonder says Spelman women are his muse. Those women of color are a reflection of the women he typically writes about in his compositions. Continuing to express his optimism, Wonder concludes, “This world that we live in right now unfortunately is dying, but it’s making its way for the new world where we truly will enjoy life as it is in Heaven on Earth.”
This post was written by Christopher A. Daniel, pop cultural critic and music editor for The Burton Wire. He is also a contributing writer for Urban Lux Magazine and Blues & Soul Magazine. Follow Christopher @Journalistorian on Twitter.