The British critic Charles Shaar Murray once described the central drive of American popular music as “the need to separate black music (which, by and large, white Americans love) from black people (who, by and large, they don’t).” It’s a glibly polemical assessment that too often feels sickeningly right: You don’t need to look far for evidence that this country values black American culture substantially more than it values the lives of black American people. Last Saturday the top three slots on the Billboard album charts were occupied by black American musicians; that evening 17-year-old Trayvon Martin’s shooting death was deemed a blameless occurrence by a Florida jury, a ruling that left many wondering just how little one young black American life was worth in that state’s judicial system.
On Sunday night, Stevie Wonder—a black American musician who sold some records in his day—declared that he would not perform in Florida until the state’s “Stand Your Ground” law is abolished. Wonder’s boycott announcement was drenched in emotion, deeply moving, and—if you are so inclined—easy to dismiss. Wonder is 63 and hasn’t released an album in eight years; who cares what he thinks. He has enough money to never play another gig anywhere if he doesn’t want to. And Zimmerman’s lawyers didn’t even invoke Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law in his defense; Stevie Wonder, some people might scoff, should stick to making music.
Luckily Stevie Wonder is 10 zillion light years smarter than those people. His boycott is politically savvy, morally righteous, and it could be enormously important. Wonder is one of the two or three most important American musicians walking the earth (Bob Dylan, maybe Aretha Franklin; end of list), with an unsurpassed track record for melding music and activism. His politics were forged in the American civil rights movement, and from a precocious age he knew the power of a musical boycott. In 1961, a year before “Little” Stevie Wonder released his first album for Motown Records, two of the biggest stars in American music, Sam Cooke and Ray Charles, made headlines by refusing to perform before segregated audiences in the Jim Crow South; Charles opted to pay a breach-of-contract fine rather than sing in Augusta, one of the largest cities in his home state.* In other words, these artists refused to allow black music to be separated from black people, and Wonder, even at 12, was well aware of their influence. (A few years later the Beatles made the same refusal: They knew that they were playing black music, too.)
In the 1970s, when Stevie Wonder grew up to become the most successful musician in the world, winning Grammys for Album of the Year in 1974, 1975, and 1977, his music pulsed with moral conscience. Wonder’s hit singles “Higher Ground,” “Living for the City,” and “You Haven’t Done Nothing” railed against racism, poverty, and injustice, all from the top of the charts. His 1976 magnum opus, Songs In The Key of Life, was a concept album on the subject of human improvement and human empathy. Songs like “Village Ghetto Land” and “Pastime Paradise” portrayed a world in need of urgent correction; “Love’s In Need of Love Today,” “Black Man,” and the incredible “Sir Duke” offered compelling ways to start correcting it. In the 1980s, Wonder was the musical spearhead of the campaign to make Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday a federal holiday, and lent his talents to USA for Africa and the American Foundation for AIDS Research. Even as his creative output and chart presence diminished in recent years, Wonder has remained active in causes ranging from global poverty to disability research to the campaign of almost any Democratic candidate that asks him.
While Stevie Wonder’s boycott of an entire state might have exerted real pressure in, say, 1976, in 2013 it’s almost entirely a symbolic act. But symbolic acts are often the first step toward kicking off concrete ones, and we should imagine what would happen if likeminded artists followed suit. Beyoncé in 2013 might not be Stevie Wonder in ’76 but she’s not far behind, and her husband is said to be a figure of some renown. Rihanna’s 8.4 million Instagram followers felt her outrage on Sunday, and some of them must live in Florida; Miley Cyrus, who tweeted a memorial late Saturday night, has been recently embroiled in her own racial controversy and might want to put her money where her mouth is, so to speak. Questlove, who wrote about the Zimmerman verdict with characteristic eloquence, is one of the most ubiquitous and respected figures in contemporary music, and would surely make some phone calls. If these artists were to join in Wonder’s boycott, the bottom lines of club promoters and festival organizers and concert arenas would start to look different in a hurry.
And good luck finding a decent hip-hop show in Florida. Young Jeezy, Rick Ross, Ghostface Killah, Big Boi, Q-Tip, Ace Hood, Mac Miller, Nicki Minaj, Flo Rida, and Chuck D are just a few names who’ve expressed sorrow and consternation at the Zimmerman verdict. A widespread hip-hop boycott of Florida would be hugely powerful, particularly given Miami’s emergence in the past decade as one of the music’s epicenters. Rick Ross shooting videos in Venice Beach instead of South Beach, or sitting courtside at Nets games instead of Heat games: These images alone would jar the minds of a generation. Furthermore, rappers boycotting Florida might also offer a firm rebuke to one of the more despicable insinuations of right-wing discourse throughout the Martin case, that hip-hop “culture” justifies the murder of black children at the hands and guns of men who fear them. This September, 46-year-old Michael Dunn will stand trial for shooting 17-year-old Jordan Davis to death at a Jacksonville gas station. Dunn has pleaded not guilty, claiming he feared for his life during an argument with Davis and his friends and that he saw a gun that was never found; some have reported he’ll invoke “Stand Your Ground” in his defense. The cause of the argument? The volume of the rap music on the teenagers’ car stereo. Hip-hop should not and must not be fashioned into probable cause for fearful adults to shoot unarmed kids. Hip-hop musicians can make this statement more effectively than anyone.
The brilliance of Wonder’s boycott is that it bypasses conversations of whether the Zimmerman verdict is “about” race (conversations Zimmerman’s defenders are all too eager to have, with voices raised) and becomes about laws themselves. George Zimmerman might not have gone free because of “Stand Your Ground,” but he did go free because he lives in a state where the definition of self-defense can favor the aggressor to almost psychotic extremes, and he went free because at least one juror explicitly believed in his right to “stand his ground.” If some people refuse to believe that all those things are connected, and that all those things don’t protect fearful men with guns far more than they protect young black men without them, then that’s their right. It’s Stevie Wonder’s right to believe the opposite.
I’d like to see who takes which side, and who blinks first. I’d wager that pretty soon all those celebrating Zimmerman’s acquittal will be stuck listening to aging Neanderthal rockers and shucks-what-a-big-misunderstanding country stars and not a whole lot else, and even if some of them don’t mind, their kids will. And those kids might decide Standing Their Ground isn’t worth the fear and dull noise that surrounds them, that it’s time to just stop sleeping and move forward and make something different. And when they do a blind man shall lead them.
Correction, July 17, 2013: This article originally misstated that Augusta is the capital of Georgia. (Return to the corrected sentence.)