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Stevland Hardaway Morris, soon to be known worldwide as Motown music icon Stevie Wonder, was born to Calvin Judkins and Lula Mae Hardaway on May 13th, 1950, in Saginaw, Michigan. Due to being six weeks premature, Wonder was placed in an incubator where he eventually developed retinopathy of prematurity from the extortionate levels of oxygen, resulting in the loss of his eyesight entirely. Despite his inability to see, Wonder taught himself to play a plethora of instruments, and his talents were quickly discovered by Ronnie White and Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. at the age 11. Throughout his 57 years as a musician, Stevie Wonder used his international platform to bring attention to improving services for the disabled, advocating anti-apartheid efforts in South Africa, and spearheading the campaign for Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday to be a U.S. holiday.
It is indisputable that Stevie Wonder is a well-recognized musician for he has amassed dozens of top hits and number one singles over his career, not to mention 25 Grammy Awards. It should also be known that Wonder is a well-recognized philanthropist and humanitarian, too. In 2009, the United Nations named him a UN Messenger of Peace with an emphasis on advocating for the disabled. In this role, along with using his own self-created platform, Wonder has brought attention to improving services for people with disabilities all over the world. One example of this includes his role in the passage of the Marrakesh Treaty. Convened by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), The Diplomatic Conference to Conclude a Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works by Visually Impaired Persons and Persons with Print Disabilities occurred in June of 2013 in Marrakesh, Morocco. The Department of Communication for the Kingdom of Morocco stated that, “Music legend Stevie Wonder appealed to more than 600 negotiators from WIPO’s 186 member states to finalize their discussions in the coming days and conclude a new international treaty…” In a video statement to negotiators, Wonder said, “We stand at the cusp of a momentous time in history. All of you – great minds representing governments around the world – have the opportunity to right a wrong,” continuing with, “The time has come… The world’s blind and visually impaired are counting on you. I am counting on you. Don’t let me down. But most of all, please don’t let them down”.
The Marrakesh Treaty was adopted by the international copyright community on June 27th, 2013. In September, a few months after appealing to negotiators, Stevie Wonder met with United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and delivered a statement on goals for people with disabilities. He asserted, “For society and development to be inclusive of persons with disabilities, we need to have equal access to education and to knowledge and information,” including that there is a lack of technology and books in accessible formats for the visually impaired in both developed and developing countries. “I know that working together we can create a world where persons with disabilities face no limits – and can freely live, work, enjoy life and contribute their talents to society… We need to make sure that real participation and voices of persons with disabilities are included in everything we do for peace and development around the world”.
At the 57th Annual Academy Awards in March of 1985, Stevie Wonder was awarded the Oscar for Best Original Song for “I Just Called To Say I Love You” in the film The Woman in Red, which he accepted in Nelson Mandela’s name. Nelson Mandela, who at the time was imprisoned, is famous for being a pioneer in the fight to end apartheid, which is “the policy of segregation and political and economic discrimination against non-European groups in the Republic of South Africa”. Not long after Wonder accepted his Oscar, the Broadcasting Corporation in South Africa, which controlled all the television and radio programs there, banned his music. In response, he hired exiled South African musicians to play in the song “It’s Wrong (Apartheid)” on his album In Square Circle, to which he sings, “You know apartheid’s wrong, wrong/ Like slavery was wrong, wrong/ Like the Holocaust was wrong, wrong/ Apartheid is wrong, wrong, wrong.” The song is recognized for being an essential anti-apartheid song for speaking to both the oppressed and the oppressors. The same year, on his 35th birthday, Stevie Wonder was honored by the United Nations Special Committee Against Apartheid. During the celebration, he gave a speech criticizing South Africa’s policy of resettlement under The Natives Resettlement Act, which permitted the transfer of blacks “from any area in the magisterial district of Johannesburg or any adjoining magisterial district and their settlement elsewhere”. Wonder, addressing the crowd, asked, “The resettlement camps are wrong and if they’re so great, why don’t the whites want to live there?”. To Wonder’s gratification, after years of supporting anti-apartheid efforts, including the time he was arrested at the South African Embassy for protesting, the government-enforced racial segregation came to an end in 1994. Three years later, in 1997, Wonder sang “Happy Birthday” to then-president of South Africa Nelson Mandela at his 80th birthday celebration. Stevie Wonder was heavily inspired by the influential Martin Luther King, Jr. and his messages of unity and peace.
After King, Jr.’s tragic passing, Wonder made it a priority to attend his funeral. Many years later, though a few states enacted a holiday on King, Jr.’s birthday, Congress, despite President Jimmy Carter’s support, failed to pass a national day into law. After the defeat of the bill, Stevie Wonder wrote the song “Happy Birthday” for Martin Luther King, Jr. and incorporated it onto his Hotter Than July album which was released in September of 1980. Wonder sings: “I just never understood/ How a man who died for good/ Could not have a day that would/ Be set aside for his recognition,” continuing with, “For in peace our hearts will sing/ Thanks to Martin Luther King.” A year after the song debuted, Stevie Wonder held the Rally for Peace press conference in Washington D.C. to declare King, Jr.’s birthday a national holiday. Wonder declared, “If Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday as a national holiday doesn’t happen this year, we must do it next year and again and again and again until it happens”. Then-president Ronald Reagan made headlines when he approved the holiday to occur on the third Monday in January every year beginning in 1986. Elated, Stevie Wonder headlined the massive, televised concert titled “An All-Star Celebration Honoring Martin Luther King Jr.,” in which he sang “Happy Birthday” alongside multifarious icons including Diana Ross, Elizabeth Taylor, Eddie Murphy, and others.
It is no dissension that Stevie Wonder is a passionate and hard-working man. As evidenced by his unwavering dedication to improving services for the disabled, ending apartheid in South Africa, and promoting Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday to a national holiday, along with his incredible success in the music industry, he has turned his ambitions into accomplishments. Wonder, not including his countless music awards, has also been recognized by many organizations for his selfless work as a humanitarian. The National Association of Broadcasters Education Foundation awarded him the Service to America Leadership Award for his work as an activist in 2013, and former president Barack Obama awarded Wonder the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor, in 2014. Amongst these outstanding procurements include acknowledgment from many other significant organizations and individuals. Stevie Wonder is a sublime example of someone who uses their platform to do more than promote their career; he promoted welfare for all.
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