By Erica Sabino
The world may know Stevie Wonder as a legendary musical artist, but not everyone is aware of the many ways in which he influences the community beyond sharing his love for music. While music does play a big part in his life, the 25-time GRAMMY Award winner’s impact reaches way beyond the music industry and the people who listen to his work.
He may be a celebrity, but Stevie Wonder is one famous figure who uses his popularity to influence positive change in the world for all people, for generations to come.
Stevland Hardaway Judkins was born on May 13, 1950, in Saginaw, Michigan. Born prematurely, he experienced complications with the growth of blood vessels in his retinas, causing his blindness. That, however, did not hinder the child prodigy from learning to play multiple instruments at a young age. From the harmonica to the drums to the piano, Stevie taught himself how to play them all before he reached the age of 10. He was also singing in his church choir by that time.
Stevie’s entrance to the music industry did not begin until he was discovered by singer and songwriter Ronnie White of The Miracles. He was then introduced to Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown Records, was given an audition, and later signed to the record label. It was Gordy who dubbed Stevie “Little Stevie Wonder,” which was changed to “Stevie Wonder” as he grew older.
And what a wonder he was. According to his biography in Rolling Stone, “[Stevie’s] third single, ‘Fingertips (Part 2)’ was a number 1 pop and R&B hit eight months later. Both on records and in live shows, he was featured playing harmonica, drums, piano, and organ, as well as singing—sometimes all in one number. During his first three years in show business, Wonder was often compared to Ray Charles—much was made of the fact that both were blind.”
But Stevie’s brilliance was his own. As he broke out into his career, Wonder became self-sufficient inthe studio—writing his own music, playing his own instruments and even producing his own work. Noted in his Rolling Stone biography, the Signed, Sealed, Delivered singer also distinguished himself with music and lyrics “with such socially conscious subjects as ghetto hardship and political disenfranchisement.” It was not surprising that he was a lifelong advocate of nonviolent political change patterned after Martin Luther King Jr.
Stevie met Martin Luther King Jr. at a rally when he was just 15 years old. Three years following MLK’s assassination, Stevie joined in the decade-long movement to pass a bill that would make King’s birthday a national holiday. He composed the song “Happy Birthday,” which became a rallying song for the initiative. According to journalist Marcus Baram in an article at Cuepoint on Medium.com, “Wonder put his career on hold, led rallies from coast to coast, and galvanized millions of Americans with his passion and integrity.”
“Why should I be involved in this great cause?” Wonder asked as he addressed the crowd at an MLK rally. “As an artist, my purpose is to communicate the message that can better improve the lives of all of us.”
Through his career, Stevie Wonder created a platform to not only share his talents but also make a difference and inspire others to do the same. His many accomplishments can be attributed to his drive, his perseverance, and his determination, both as a musician and an advocate for the causes he believes in.
A true philanthropist, Stevie Wonder promotes AIDS awareness, donates to humanitarian relief efforts, and holds an annual House Full of Toys benefit concert to provide toys for children in need. Wonder has also worked 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.
In 2009, Wonder was named a UN Messenger of Peace, with a focus on persons with disabilities by the United Nations in 2009. At the news conference to announce his new position, then UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon had this to say of Wonder: “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. Stevie Wonder is a true inspiration to young people all over the world about what can be achieved, despite any physical limitations.” In 2014, President Barack Obama awarded Wonder the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Wonder was asked by The Guardian if he had ever considered “that it’s his ‘disadvantages’—being born blind and black—that have made him what he is.” To this, the award-winning artist responded, “You know, it’s funny, but I never thought of being blind as a disadvantage, and I never thought of being black as a disadvantage. I am what I am. I love me! And I don’t mean that egotistically—I love that God has allowed me to take whatever it was that I had and make something out of it.”
Stevie has found success both on and off the stage. Whether he is going on Twitter to encourage people to share their dreams, performing at the dedication ceremony of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, attending a conference to learn about assistive technologies for the blind or visually impaired, or advocating for an international disabilities treaty, Wonder has continuously taken steps to make a positive impact with everything he does.
In 2013, Stevie met with young Viet Nam’s Got Talent singer Crystal (real name: Nguyen Phoung Anh) at the United Nations General Assembly to push jointly for greater inclusion for children with disabilities. Crystal, now 21, became a singing sensation when she auditioned for the popular show in 2012. She was born with osteogenesis imperfecta, or “glass-bone disease,” a genetic disorder causing fragile bones. “My bones have broken 30 times or more,” she says. “We stopped counting, because we thought it didn’t matter anymore.” The 16-year-old adds, “Crystal is my alter ego, because it is fragile and shiny.”
“No one should be excluded because they’re blind, or because of any disability or because of their status or their color,” Wonder said. “We cannot allow our differences to let our fear put dreams to sleep.”
In 2017, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) announced the presentation of the first Key of Life award to Stevie Wonder for his groundbreaking “contributions to the world through his music.” According to the association, future recipients of this honor will be given to “songwriters and composers who best exemplify [Stevie’s] legacy through their commitment to the art form he elevated through his talent, dedication and unparalleled heart.”
Stevie Wonder is a man who is driven by his beliefs. “You need to put your heart into making a difference,” Stevie told The Guardian. Upon receiving his key of Life Award, Wonder had this to say about an artist’s social power: “There’s always power in the work… So those of us who have been blessed with the gift of expression, don’t be afraid to express your truth. But do it with love. When you think about it, music is probably the most integrated thing that we have. We’re all influenced by each other.”
With Stevie, it’s not just his music that inspires others but also the man that he is. His actions and words go hand in hand in nurturing a movement to help make the world a kinder place. He has become a true inspiration for people all over the world.