But I spent as much – if not more – time with the other Stevie LP my mother owned, Hotter Than July. I was drawn in (again) by the cover art, as well as by the more contemporary sound of the album. And while I had only vaguest sense of the politics embedded in “Master Blaster (Jammin’)” – “Peace has come to
In 1984 I was a little bi-racial black boy trying to untangle the complicated and confusing webs of race and identity while being raised by my white mother in a multi-ethnic, but still predominantly white, environment. My West African father was little more than an apparition who lived an ocean away and who passed through my life once a year or so. My mother did her best to help me find my way – taking me to concerts and poetry readings and restaurants that would expose me to black culture and to my Nigerian heritage. I often resisted her efforts, as little boys (and brooding teenagers) are wont to do. There was much that I had to figure out on my own and my mother, to her credit, supported me and allowed me the space to do so.
Among the long list of things I had to figure out was why Martin Luther King, Jr. – the quintessential figure of peace, goodwill, and harmony I had been learning about since I started school – had been murdered and, moreover, why most of my peers were so nonchalant about the holiday that honored him. Stevie’s tribute, “Happy Birthday,” lifted me up and comforted me. I would sometimes sit by my mother’s record player and play it over and over and over again. There was a certain somberness, or at least seriousness, in Stevie’s monologue in the middle of the song that spoke to my own racial questioning and longing and occasional sadness as I tried to figure out exactly what kind of world I was growing up in. But this was always mitigated by the pure joy of the chorus and it was this unbridled celebration and hopefulness that I latched on to and which transfixed me.
Sometimes I remember those moments listening to “Happy Birthday,” reflecting on King and his vision and its relationship to me as solitary ones. Just me. By myself. Alone. But when I really think back, I realize that I was not alone. My mother was there. Sometimes literally, like when she would take me to a King Day service at a local college or a downtown church, or when she would just come into my room to check on me. Just as often, however, she was with me figuratively, supporting me as I traveled on my journey. For that, and for introducing me to the magical world of Stevie Wonder, I am forever grateful.