“Last night at rehearsal we decided to do this song, so this is my first time singing it; but that’s all right,” Stevie Wonder said sitting on a stool on the dais in General Assembly Hall, the expansive chamber that is the heart of the United Nations, the place where all member states gather as equals. Then Stevie Wonder brought out a long rectangular stringed piece of wood and sat it on his lap.
“This instrument is called a harpejji,” he said, then deftly fingered a flawless arpeggio. “I’ve been playing for about 5 months,” he said preparing to break into Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready,” so if I mess up a little bit, you’ll just have to sue me––OK?”
The assembly laughed. They laughed a lot during the evening concert on October 24, 2012, the 67th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations, a day the assembly calls “United Nations Day.” The world’s diplomats, employees of the UN, their families and their guests saw a jovial Mr. Wonder, constantly cracking jokes about being blind. “You may not know this,” he said “I’ve managed to keep it secret for so many years…”he said.
His light-heartedness didn’t belie a man who has been an agent of change for so many important issues, from the Martin Luther King national holiday in the United States, to the abolition of Apartheid in South Africa. As dignitaries who spoke before the concert, including His Excellency General Secretary Ban Ki-moon pointed out, Stevie Wonder has been named the UN’s Messenger of Peace because he is a man who not only works toward World Peace but whose music consistently advocates and reflects that goal. In her address to the assembly before the concert CEO of BET Debra Lee said: “Stevie has consistently used his voice to create a better and more peaceful world.”
His Excellency Vuk Jeremić, president of the 67th Session of the United Nations General Assembly recalled growing up in what used to be Yugoslavia, a communist country, where certain goods, like musical recordings were scarce. He remembered rifling through store after store of very expensive vinyl in an effort to find–– ten years after it was first released––the holy grail that is Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life.
“This world was made for all men,” was the lyric that stood out above all others, from a song called ‘Black Man’. “It encapsulates the founding vision of the United Nations,” Jeremić said. As a teenager in Belgrade sitting on his bedroom floor and listening to the music of Stevie Wonder, he never dreamed he would be a part of a celebration such as this, Jeremić said.
And as if responding to Jeremić’s call Wonder, joined by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, began the concert with “Sir Duke,”––– “Music is a world within itself; it’s a language we all understand, with an equal opportunity for us to sing, dance and clap our hands”–––– the operative lyric of the evening.
Stevie performed over a dozen songs from his body of work. Elle Varner joined Stevie for “You are the Sunshine of my Life”, Estelle for “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” Janelle Monae and Jasmine Cruz for “From the Bottom of my Heart,” Freddie Jackson for “Love’s in Need of Love Today,” and Stephanie Mills, Valerie Simpson, Bebe Winans, for “Always,” to name a few. Sting performed his song “Fragile” featuring one of Wonder’s signature harmonica solos. And a version of “Master Blaster (Jammin)” featuring Wyclef Jean and Doug E. Fresh got everyone standing up.
Also notable was Doug E. Fresh’s performance of “Superstition.” They don’t call him the World’s Greatest Entertainer, and the Human Beat Box for nothing. He took it back to the old school during the break with: “When I say World, you say Peace. World! Peace! World! Peace! Somebody, Anybody, Everybody, Scream! Ahhhhhhhhhhh!”
The party went on till almost midnight. One person in the assembly claimed never before had Black folk taken over the stage in this way at the United Nations. Sure Kofi Annon used to be Secretary General but never before has Hip Hop R&B and Reggae been on the dais.
Near the end of the concert, Wonder reverently told the audience: “I’m so thankful that the Almighty gave me the honor of being blind. Many of you say: How can you say that? I can say it because being blind helps me really be able to see people. Not for the color of their skin, not by how they looked at me, or by the impression they had of me, but by the spirit of their heart……I’m not saying all of you should go and poke your eyes out. But every single person in every single country, it is time that you grow up and grow out of hatred.”
Stevie Wonder with Friends: Celebrating a Message of Peace airs this Saturday February 23rd on Centric at 9PM EST, and on BET Sunday March 3rd at 11AM EST
Makkada B. Selah is a journalist based in New York City. Follow her on Twitter.