#57: Stevie Wonder, "Songs in the Key of Life" (1976)

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Faith

You will know
Troubled heart you’ll know
Problems have solutions
Trust and I will show
You will know
Troubled heart you’ll know
Every life has reason
For I made it so

—“You Will Know,” from Characters, 1987

One of the first songs that ever gave me the now-familiar understanding of being both sad and inspired at the same time was Stevie Wonder’s “You Will Know.” I remember sitting at the kitchen table doing homework and hearing my dad playing it in the background. It touched a part of me that I was just realizing existed—the part waking up to the troubles of the world, to the exquisite pain and beauty of being human. I was growing up. I didn’t know just how much music would teach me to understand myself.

It’s a revealing experiment to read reviews of sentimental music and discover how different they are from my own understanding. David Wild in Rolling Stone said of “You Will Know,” Stevie Wonder “belabours pretty but boring melodies.” In a 1976 review of Songs in the Key of Life in Rolling Stone, writer Vince Aletti called the album’s cover, featuring Stevie’s afro and signature shades, shrouded in layers of deep orange, “offhand and hideous, offensively cheap.” I’d always thought it symbolized the layers of the earth, or maybe the sun, with him at the center. Looking at it now I think it was about the many layers of himself that he brought to the project and the excavation of the album’s core that took two years. Aletti says of the album’s massive size: “it has no focus or conscience. The eclecticism is rich and welcome, but the overall effect is haphazard, turning what might have been a stunning, exotic feast into a hastily organized potluck supper.” For me, it was part of being proud of who I was. Stevie’s afro looked like my dad’s. The many, many songs on the album that I have loved and sung along to countless times throughout my life are a part of my framework of being black in America.

One of the most thought-provoking exchanges on race and identity that I’ve ever experienced happened on a first date. Let’s call him Khakis. He was very, very preppy. He was a partner at a startup and was interested in discussing that and stories featuring his frat brothers. I quickly realized that he was from a predominantly white area and his parents never really talked to him about race or culture. He had never dated a black woman. I was immediately on guard that our date was an experiment for him. I don’t remember how it came up, but at some point, we discussed how we identified racially. I said, “I’m black.” And he may have mentioned that I don’t look it, which wasn’t news to me. I get mistaken for Hispanic most often, but I’ve gotten it all. I’ve always identified as black.

He said, “I don’t use that term. I’m African-American. The Obamas are African-American. Jay-Z is black.”

I was livid. I couldn’t believe that those words came out of his mouth. He said that black was a culture, music, a style of dress. I was immediately taken aback that he had so clearly found a way to separate what he viewed as the good colored folks from the bad ones, to delineate the admirable traits from the ones to be admonished. Afterwards, I wondered if it was naive that I was so upset. Was I really surprised that he felt this way?

Khakis told me that he was upset that he couldn’t go running in his hoodie anymore, because white women would cross the street in fear. I told him that as long as black bodies are weaponized in this world, that won’t change. No one can save you. But you can save yourself from self-hatred, by owning who you are instead of running from it and disappearing into a shell of khaki that you think will protect you. People who are afraid of you will look at you the same way until they decide to think differently. I told him that whatever parts of you that you love, that you honor, that you embrace—that is just as much your blackness too, not just what society tells you it has to be. It’s your responsibility to own your own definition. This is what black people in America do every day in the face of a million microaggressions, rising each time to take the fear of a black planet and turn it into faith, hope, and love. To take each version of what the world says it is to be black and to turn that on its head.

One of the many magical ways we create this alchemy is through music. Stevie Wonder was 26 years old when Songs in the Key of Life came out. He’d recently signed a seven-year, $37 million dollar contract (which would be near $200,000,000 today) that gave him full control of his work, an unprecedented accomplishment. To build his magnum opus, Wonder bought two rare $60,000 synthesizers whose use had mostly been reserved for a select group of white musicians. He almost called it Let’s See Life the Way it Is. The final title came to him in a dream. From Rolling Stone’s inside look at the project: “For Wonder, the banner was a personal dare to expand his compositional range. ‘I challenged myself [to write] as many different things as I could, to cover as many topics as I could, in dealing with the title and representing what it was about,’ he says in Classic Albums. ‘The title would give me a challenge, but equally as important as a challenge it would give me an opportunity to express my feelings as a songwriter and as an artist.’”

Songs in the Key of Life acknowledges that the black experience in America encompasses vastness: everything from “Summer Soft” to the piercing reality of “Village Ghetto Land” and back again. The soaring strings of “Village Ghetto Land” are hauntingly set against the images of the very real violence and poverty that plague communities, both then and now:

Starvation roams the streets
Babies die before they’re born
Infected by the grief
Now some folks say that we should be
Glad for what we have
Tell me would you be happy in Village Ghetto Land?

This album reveals the parts of us that are tender and loving, yet hurt. The parts that are passionate and strong, playful and layered. This is why I was so angry about that conversation with Khakis. I don’t begrudge anyone’s right to identify as they choose. But it hurt to hear his callous division of black and African-American, as though it provided him some imagined safety net, especially knowing how many young black people have lost their lives just for wearing their hoodies, for walking to the store, for minding their business. For being black. For him, being black was the bogeyman he thought he could outrun.

Instead of just judging him, I had to examine why I felt so strongly. I realized that it had to do with the way I was taught to view blackness. When I think of understanding my identity, I can hear my father playing the music that he loved. I have his copy of the Songs in the Key of Life double LP on my shelf. My parents never wavered from honoring blackness. For my mom it meant owning where we came from and knowing that we had just as much right as anyone to be educated. For my dad, it was honoring tradition—knowing our history, celebrating Kwanzaa, and learning about our musical heritage. Dad was so pro-black he even changed his given middle name of “Earl” to “Babandele.” I never got to find out what it meant, but I’m sure it means something powerful. They lived their blackness in ways that I could see. I saw that to be black was to be proud, whether you were light or dark. That pride permeated our lives, colored our dreams, and made the pain that much more palpable when someone was threatened by it, or questioned whether or not we or someone we loved belonged. This lesson is something that every person of color learns in this country, whether their parents make them aware early on or they find out when white women cross the street while they are jogging. I asked my mother why she thought the term “black” was so important to cultural identity during the black power movement, especially, and she said it was assertive. We were no longer negroes, but neither would we be defined by a term that othered our right to be Americans.

Hope

As around the sun the earth knows she’s revolving
And the rosebuds know to bloom in early May
Just as hate knows love’s the cure
You can rest your mind assure
That I’ll be loving you always
As now can’t reveal the mystery of tomorrow
But in passing will grow older every day
Just as all is born is new
Do know what I say is true
That I’ll be loving you always

—“As,” from Songs in the Key of Life, 1976

Khakis’s comments made me so angry because he saw all of the things that I was taught to love, that seem so intrinsically part of us, as trappings, holding him back from being truly loved and seen as good in the eyes of the world. He saw the gifts I associated with being black as shackles.

Who was I to have these opinions and to make these judgments? Music and art gave me the foundation that our culture was rich, and full of life, energy, and spirit, and taught me that I could do anything and be anything. Songs in the key of life—songs that build a cinematic moment in your mind, where you can see yourself doing the things you’ve always wanted, saying the things you’ve been thinking—become canon because they allow us to know our best selves.

Love

We lay beneath the stars
Under a lovers tree that’s seen through the eyes of my mind
I reach out for the part
Of me that lives in you that only our two hearts can find
But I don’t want to bore you with my trouble
But there’s sumptin’ about your love
That makes me weak and
Knocks me off my feet

—“Knocks Me Off My Feet,” from Songs in the Key of Life, 1976

The intensity of the love and musicality in “Knocks Me Off My Feet” and “As” are so powerful that they have been immortalized in our memories of Saturday mornings at home, afternoons after school, weddings, block parties, and countless more. These songs remind us that we too, as much as anyone, deserve love and happy endings. They acknowledge that our experiences and those of our ancestors have not been in vain. As black Americans carve out space, and take up room, these songs score our collective joy and pain, and determination to shine in the face of obstacles.

Love, magic, pain, passion, violence, strength, beauty, light, and darkness—these are all entwined in the fabric of our DNA. But the greatest of these is love. Honoring my blackness has been my greatest act of self-love. Albums like Songs in the Key of Life helped to shape the framework that allowed that expression without fear, without guilt, without shame—with pride and joy.

My parents, and so many of my friends’ families and their peers, owned blackness in the face of so much risk. These are people that grew up during a time when taking a car down south for a summer road trip might mean you would never return. Family trees hold stories of lynchings and whispers of things unimaginable and unknowable to those of us who have not experienced them. To know that they have taken these risks, and not to be proud, feels like treason. Especially because there is still so much we are working out in ourselves, in our experiences, in our identity, in our ancestry—pain and memories we are working to transmute into growth. Maybe it would have been easier to pipe down, to play the music less loudly, to wave the flag of blackness less proudly, to try to assimilate into whiteness. But it wouldn’t have given us what we have, this legacy, and for that I’m thankful.

—Lee Erica Elder