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Stevie Wonders’ music in Civil Rights Movement

<t / 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's gone too far.

In a presentation entitled, “Stevie Wonders Songs in the Key of Life as a Cultural Artifact of the Long Civil Rights Movement,” Professor Kevin Gaines reflected on the meanings and messages Wonder’s songs and their relation to the tensions during the second half of the twentieth century.

Gaines is the Robert Hayden Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan, the past president of the American Studies Association and author of two books, American Africans in Ghana: Black Expatriates in the Civil Rights Era and Uplifting the Race: Black leaders, Politics and Culture During the 20th Century. Gaines’ insight on Stevie Wonder and his connection with the Civil Rights Movement was received Wednesday afternoon by more than 50 professors and students.

Gaines began his presentation through the words of Dr. Martin Luther King: We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society and discussed the messages that Dr. King preached on racism and the moral obligation for non-violent direct activism of the late 1960s and 1970s.

Meanwhile in Detroit, Motown Record Corporation was putting out records world-wide that sung of Kings messages. Even in songs that were not explicitly political, underlying political sometimes unintentionally rose to the surface. “It may not have been a political song, but the movement was political,” said Gaines. During this period of heightened tensions it seemed that every form of media was related to Civil Rights, but according to Gaines, in particular there was a close connection between music and the Civil Rights Moment.

The movement, therefore, provided the backdrop for Stevie Wonder to become an influential artist. Wonder was firstly a talented musician, songwriter, and producer who played every single instrument in the recordings of his songs. In addition, he shared the same anti-war beliefs as King and was committed to building black culture and community, as well as strengthening interpersonal relations and emphasizing the importance of love. These beliefs were contained within metaphors, illusions, etc. in the lyrics of Wonder’s #1 album Songs in the Key of Life (1976).

Gaines then walked the audience through various songs like Loves in Need of Love Today, Dorth Ashby, Sir Duke, No Pain and more from Songs in the Key of Life. Through these, Gaines demonstrated the various messages that the songs contained similarities to the messages of Dr. King, such as spirituality, action against present effects and the questioning of social order. Such ideas then could find their way to the public through Wonder lyrics in an effort, according to Gaines, to change words to truth and truth to love.

Although Gaines speech focused primarily on Stevie Wonder’s musical contributions to the Civil Rights Movement, he also discussed how Wonder knew he stood on the shoulders of the Jazz Greats. In the end, the other voices that also sang their beliefs alongside Wonder demonstrated the strength and magnitude of the Civil Rights Movement, of which Wonder was a crucial part.

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