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About Stevie Wonder’s boycott

By Jack Hamilton
Slate

The British critic Charles Shaar Murray once described the central drive of American popular music as “the need to separate black music (which, by and large, white Americans love) from black people (who, by and large, they don’t).” It’s a glibly polemical assessment that too often feels sickeningly right.

Last Saturday the top three slots on the Billboard album charts were occupied by black American musicians; that evening Trayvon Martin’s shooting death was deemed a blameless occurrence by a Florida jury, a ruling that left many wondering just how little one young black American life was worth in that state’s judicial system.

On Sunday night, black American musician Stevie Wonder declared that he would not perform in Florida until the state’s “Stand Your Ground” law is abolished. His announcement was drenched in emotion, deeply moving, and – if you are so inclined – easy to dismiss.

Wonder is 63 and has enough money to never play another gig anywhere if he doesn’t want to. And lawyers for George Zimmerman didn’t even invoke Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law in their defense of the shooter. Stevie Wonder, some people might scoff, should stick to making music.

But Stevie Wonder’s boycott is politically savvy, morally righteous and it could be enormously important. Wonder is one of the two or three most important American musicians walking the earth (Bob Dylan, maybe Aretha Franklin; end of list), with an unsurpassed track record for melding music and activism. His politics were forged in the U.S. civil rights movement, and from a precocious age he knew the power of a musical boycott. In 1961, a year before “Little” Stevie Wonder released his first album for Motown Records, two of the biggest stars in American music, Sam Cooke and Ray Charles, made headlines by refusing to perform before segregated audiences in the Jim Crow South. (A few years later the Beatles made the same refusal: They knew that they were playing black music, too.)

In the 1970s, when Stevie Wonder grew up to become the most successful musician in the world, winning Grammys for Album of the Year in 1974, 1975, and 1977, his music pulsed with moral conscience. Wonder’s hit singles “Higher Ground,” “Living for the City” and “You Haven’t Done Nothing” railed against racism, poverty and injustice, all from the top of the charts. His 1976 magnum opus, “Songs in the Key of Life,” was a concept album on the subject of human improvement and human empathy.

In the 1980s, Wonder was the musical spearhead of the campaign to make The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a federal holiday, and lent his talents to USA for Africa and the American Foundation for AIDS Research. Even as his creative output and chart presence diminished in recent years, Wonder has remained active in in an array of causes.

While Stevie Wonder’s boycott of an entire state might have exerted real pressure in, say, 1976, in 2013 it’s almost entirely symbolic. But symbolic acts are often the first step toward kicking off concrete ones, and we should imagine what would happen if like-minded artists followed suit. Beyonce in 2013 might not be Stevie Wonder in ‘76, but she’s not far behind, and her husband is a figure of some renown. Rihanna’s 8.4 million Instagram followers felt her outrage on Sunday, and some of them must live in Florida; Miley Cyrus, who tweeted a memorial late Saturday night, might want to put her money where her mouth is. Questlove, who wrote about the Zimmerman verdict with characteristic eloquence, is one of the most ubiquitous and respected figures in contemporary music, and would surely make some phone calls. If these artists were to join in Wonder’s boycott, the bottom lines of club promoters and festival organizers and concert arenas would start to look different in a hurry.

A hip-hop boycott of Florida would be hugely powerful, too, particularly given Miami’s emergence as one of the music’s epicenters. Rick Ross shooting videos in Venice Beach (Calif.) instead of South Beach (Fla.), or sitting courtside at Nets games instead of Heat games: These images alone would be jarring. Rappers boycotting might also offer a firm rebuke to one of the more despicable insinuations of discourse during the Martin case, that hip-hop “culture” justifies the murder of black youth at the hands and guns of men who fear them. Hip-hop should not and must not be fashioned into probable cause for fearful adults to shoot unarmed kids. Hip-hop musicians can make this statement more effectively than anyone.

The brilliance of Wonder’s boycott is that it bypasses conversations of whether the Zimmerman verdict is “about” race and becomes about laws themselves. Zimmerman might not have gone free because of “Stand Your Ground,” but he did go free because he lives in a state where the definition of self-defense can favor the aggressor to almost psychotic extremes. If some people refuse to believe that those things are connected, and that they don’t protect fearful men with guns far more than they protect young black men without them, then that’s their right. It’s Stevie Wonder’s right to believe the opposite.

Hamilton has written for TheAtlantic.com, NPR, Transition and other publications.
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