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Profiles of Ability: Stevie Wonder

For the month of February we celebrate the achievements of African Americans and their impact on our culture. The month of February also celebrates the biggest night in music with the GRAMMY Awards to recognize outstanding achievement in the music industry. This year the Recording Academy will also present An All-Star Grammy Salute to Stevie Wonder to celebrate the 25-time GRAMMY winner and Recording Academy Lifetime Achievement recipient. In the history of the GRAMMY Awards, Stevie Wonder is the only artist that has received Album of the Year three out of four consecutive years and has won the most GRAMMY awards as a solo artist. In light of this great honor, it was only appropriate to recognize Stevie Wonder: The Eighth Wonder of the World.

Stevie Wonder Plaque

Although, I am a music lover and fan of Stevie Wonder and his music, I did not know much about his life story. Therefore, I enjoyed this learning experience and wanted to share my top 5 lessons learned from Stevie Wonder. 1) Don’t Let Anything Stop You Born Stevland Hardaway Judkins in Saginaw, Michigan, the man we have come to know as Stevie Wonder faced many obstacles early on in his life. Born prematurely, he suffered from a condition known as Retinopathy of prematurity which caused his blindness. Raised by a single mother and the third of six children, the family moved to Detroit, Michigan to improve their poor economic condition. As early as the age of four, a talent for music revealed itself with a young Stevie using pots and pans to create rhythms and beats. Although his mother could not afford to buy him any instruments, young Stevie was given a harmonica and taught himself to play it along with the drums and piano. 2) Blow Everyone Away With Every Opportunity By the age of 11, young Stevie was introduced to Motown CEO Berry Gordy and auditioned to be signed to his music label. Without hesitation, Mr. Gordy signed the young talented Stevie who became known as “the Eighth Wonder of the World” and nicknamed ‘little boy wonder’ because of his ability to play numerous instruments and sing at the same time. Little Stevie Wonder starred in the Motown Revue and traveled the country with other famous acts such as The Supremes and Marvin Gaye. His tutor, who traveled with him, recalls a performance during which Stevie had the audience singing and dancing in the aisles. Diana Ross approached Gordy and asked, “How are we [The Supremes] supposed to follow that?” Stevie grew up at Motown and helped to create the famous Motown sound writing hits for himself and others. Wonders’ contributions helped to propel the crossover success of Motown Records, which in turn helped to break down social and racial barriers. 3) Be the Master of Your Own Destiny As his popularity grew, Wonder had gained the interest of other record labels. He knew his value and seized the opportunity to sign a new contract with Motown. In an effort to keep the talented artist, Gordy made an unprecedented concession by giving Stevie the ownership of his publishing rights: a feat that had not been accomplished by any other Motown artist at the time. This deal not only meant an increase in royalties, but also creative control that gave Wonder the right to produce and record his music any place, any time, and in any way. In the end, his savvy business negotiations paid off for him creatively, as it was after this deal that Wonder would go on to produce the best-selling and most critically acclaimed album of his career, Songs in the Key of Life. 4) Use Your Voice to Create a More Inclusive World In 2009, the United Nations named Stevie Wonder U.N. Messenger of Peace with the special mission of helping people with disabilities. Upon being given this honor Stevie said: “It is beyond my ability to fathom that 10 percent of people of this world don’t matter to the other 90 percent of the people in the world. I’m not able to believe that, and the only way that we can show our caring about that 10 percent is by doing something to make the world more accessible and for people to be accepted with disabilities by committing ourselves to opening all the doors and all the possibilities for those who are physically challenged in any way.” Wonder has been a long time humanitarian for children in need and for persons with disabilities. His work includes campaigning for disability rights on the U.S. President’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities and the Junior Blind of America. Additionally, Wonder helped to launch the Wonder Vision Awards that encouraged innovations to help the disabled and promote equality for all people. Wonders’ impact on social justice extends to his work campaigning against apartheid in South Africa, lobbying to make Martin Luther King’s birthday a National Holiday in the U.S., and using his musical talents to help produce the groundbreaking “We Are the World” fundraiser for hunger. 5) Love Yourself In a 2012 interview for The Guardian, Wonder is asked if he considers his ‘disadvantages’ (being born blind and black) to be what made him who he is. His response: “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 to make something out of it. I was just blessed to have ideas. The genius in me is God – it’s the God in me coming out.” One of the most creative musical figures of our time has not only given us great music as his legacy but important lessons in life. Remember his story and let it be a reminder to you that no matter what the circumstances may be:

  • Don’t Let Anything Stop You from reaching your goals.

  • Blow Everyone Away With Every Opportunity – especially those who cast doubt on your abilities.

  • Be the Master of Your Own Destiny – you have your best interest in mind to determine your future.

  • Use Your Voice to Create a More Inclusive World – we all can make a difference.

  • And lastly, with no explanation needed, Love Yourself.

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