The Greatest Love Song Ever / Stevie Wonder’s Key of Life

Let me summarize in 1960s sci-fi terms: Stevie Wonder (Steveland Morris) set out on a “mission” like a “mad scientist” to “invent” the “greatest love song” ever. After the rise of the gangsta rap aesthetic, it should sound strange to a twenty-something in the year 2007 to imagine a time in pop music when self-described Black recording artists (with a capital B) would compete against each other with love songs. Just imagine gangs of Black dudes trying to out love one another! What is sad is that today’s youth would more accept the possibility of a singer or a rapper competing with knowledge of ballistics, vehicles, jewelry or food rather than this thing called “love.”

So, back in the day, Stevie Wonder lived and thrived in what is now the ‘alien’ world of the “love” song. And when Songs in the Key of Life was released September 1976, the opinion here is that our “mad scientist” achieved his goal in the form of a song called “As” (on CD disk 2, track 6). You see, one too many self-described Black pop artists in the 1970s put on African costumes and inconvenient disco boots—but few barely could see the nature of African consciousness. The poetic irony is that a blind man in America could catch a glimpse of the ancient African Old Kingdom. When you need the white executive summary of what ancient Africa was all about, the short answer is this: Africa was about the complex, technical challenge of populating the Earth in a responsible manner. So ‘we’ properly-trained Americans know about the “great” Space Race—‘we’ even accept the slang “rocket scientist” without a thought. Well, the great-society mission of our Africans of the Old Kingdom was being fruitful and multiplying.

You have to read his lyrics to understand that Stevie Wonder is not singing about sexual intercourse. His powerful ancient message is that “loving” you is correct—quintessentially righteous.

Since it seems so easy for say, roaches or other vermin to breed and multiply ‘we’ as imperial minions may erroneously assume that developing humans from scratch is easy, simple—something “dumb” animals do. This is an imperial assumption because it is relatively easy to invade a preexisting “enemy” territory with indigenous, developed civilization, murder all the guys and steal all the girls. But what happens when there is no one ‘else’ to steal from? What do you do when you come from a cultural memory that is so ancient that there was no revolutionary concept of the ‘other’? What happens is sort of like the “love” that Stevie Wonder sang about in his song “As.” You have to read his lyrics to understand that Stevie Wonder is not singing about sexual intercourse. His powerful ancient message is that “loving” you is correct—quintessentially righteous. To not “love” you means nature, itself, is no longer existing as that which was previously set in place. No so-called “love” means the universe no longer ‘knows’ itself. Stevie Wonder begins:

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 assured
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.

Until the rainbow burns the stars out in the sky—always
until the ocean covers every mountain high—always
until the dolphin flies and parrots live at sea—always
until we dream of life and life becomes a dream.

Since the language you are reading now intends to inherit from Greek “genius,” we should remember that the Greek language has about five words for different kinds of “love.” Your local, Baptist pastor might have let you know about agape “love.” Certainly, Stevie Wonder knew he had to clarify himself on this “love” thing. So he goes on to say:

Did you know that true love asks for nothing?
Her acceptance is the way we pay.
Did you know that life has given love a guarantee
to last through forever and another day?

When my eye sees “life has given love a guarantee,” a reference to Biological Altruism pops out. This casual intersection between so-called “art” and science makes this “art” work more powerful to me—and more educational for young people. This is a far cry from hollow-point/mercury-tipped bullets and Cristal!

Now, Stevie Wonder, in the tradition of the Blues goes on to repeat himself as his song continues. But, as in the wise tradition of the Blues, each successive repetition is different (this is the unity of changing changelessness—the Unmoved Mover). No digital sampling loops here! So, in addition to expressing the correctness of his “love,” in his next succession he reveals his awareness of himself and his mortality:

Just as time knew to move on
since the beginning
and the seasons know exactly
when to change.

Just as kindness knows no shame,
know through all your joy and pain
that I’ll be loving you always.

As today I know I’m living
but tomorrow
could make me the past
—but that I mustn’t fear.
For I’ll know deep in my mind,
the love of me I’ve left behind,
’cause I’ll be loving you always…

It would not surprise me to find that Stevie Wonder was directly inspired by Martin Luther King, his speech, when he says at the Mason Temple in Memphis, “I might not get there with you, but I want you to know, tonight, that we as a people will get to the Promised Land!” Remember that Stevie Wonder lived in a time when a man like Martin Luther King was a part of pop culture. In this time of Rupert Murdoch, this historical fact must be seen as impossibility. So it’s only natural that Wonder would ‘answer’ this King impossibility by saying, “I mustn’t fear… The love of me I’ve left behind…” Once Stevie Wonder begins to ‘speak beyond the grave’—that is, have an open, honest (and relatively courageous) relationship with his mortality, a traditional African conversation begins.

But Stevie Wonder knows that he is talking to a traditionally oppressed people with these lyrics. Yes, his music is meant for “everyone”—but when he poly-rhythmically interjects, “Did you know that you’re loved by somebody?” in the middle of talk about the gravitational pull on “trees and seas” and elementary mathematical expressions, he is addressing the suffering of an oppressed people using Baptist-church-style choir leading (ministering) that is very Black and very much from the African experience in America:

Until the day is night and night becomes the day—always
until the trees and seas just up and fly away—always
until the day that 8×8×8 is 4—always
until the day that is the day that are no more—

Did you know that you’re loved by somebody?

Until the day the earth starts turning right to left—always
until the earth just for the sun denies itself—

I’ll be loving you forever.

Until dear Mother Nature says her work is through—always
Until the day that you are me and I am you—always

Eventually, the repetition of the word “always” inspires Stevie Wonder to make the sound of the word take on the meaning of the word. This, again, is very African (and may sound weird to a modern European ear trained in the “classical” sense of the ordered, sedate music commissioned by the imperial elites without Mozart, Beethoven or Mahler). The strong opinion here is that it does not respect Stevie Wonder, his work, enough to simply try to write out how he sings the word “always”—it is best for you to be there in the song to listen to what he means. Stevie Wonder is singing for an organized purpose beyond demonstrating that he is capable of singing. The previous sentence may seem obvious but too many pop singers forget this option.

And when we listen we notice that the chorus ‘behind’ Stevie Wonder is dominated by Black female voices. My ignorant guess is that Stevie Wonder used this design because of “dear Mother Nature” mentioned earlier. When we discover that my ignorance is actually accurate then we have yet another example of a Black man ‘accidentally’ drawing from his ancient African roots. Because the wisdom of the Old Kingdom tells us that all matter is of female. And, when we dig for a deep and profound effect, we may uncover that the form sitting next to the throne is female—and this throne represents phenomenal consciousness itself. Now dig this: the symbol of the woman next to the throne is an Old Kingdom word with a sound that almost sounds like “As,” the title of Stevie Wonder’s song! But let me stop my indulgent digression as Stevie Wonder’s “As” lyrics continues. He gets very low down to urban earth, addressing my traditionally oppressed people directly:

We all know
sometimes life’s hates and troubles
can make you wish you were born
in another time and space.

But you can bet your life
times that and twice its double
that God knew exactly where
he wanted you to be placed.

So make sure when you say
you’re in it but not of it
you’re not helping to make this Earth
a place sometimes called “Hell.”

It’s seems to be a fad over the last few post-modern years to find prototypical examples of hip hop and rapping. Many credit James Brown, Teena Marie and many others from before the 1990s. And here comes Stevie Wonder in 1976 with his unique outburst of rapping that is punctuated with the incredible rapid-fire staccato in, “You’re not helping to make this Earth a place sometimes called Hell.” Again, of course, you have to hear it to respect it justly.

And because Stevie Wonder is so, well, wonderful, we may forget that there can be a great deal of psychological trauma associated with being blind. This should put more weight upon the words, “God knew exactly where he wanted you to be placed.” Would not many a blind man question his God for “making” him blind? So there has to be more going on here. And what follows next is definitely, profoundly more:

Change your words into truths
and then change that truth into love.
And maybe our children’s grandchildren
and their great-great grandchildren will tell.

These words represent the heart of the message in “As.” The hard work of the song ends here. The rest of the music is a celebration of itself. The exquisite orderly arrangement simply functions according to the established rules from here. This is the divine by-product of what ‘we’ call creativity. Why should the hard work end here? What just happened? For me, what just happened is with the question, ‘How can our distant descendants (our great-great grandchildren) tell that we “love” them?’ Another, similar question would be, ‘How can our distant descendants tell that we understood and incarnated universal/natural law?’

In a Western imperial context, this question is a mere rhetorical luxury item to throw away at the end of some eulogy, novel or play. It is a quaint candy of fleeting nobility. But when you are faced with the real problem of developing humans from scratch this question needs a real answer. In the Old Kingdom of Africa, the answer is literally on a monumental scale—and this is all I’m going to write about this right now so that we don’t get too far away from Stevie Wonder’s reality. His song is a modern monument to his sincere concern for our descendants of the human family general—and definitely the African family in particular (which sounds redundant from a particular musical point of view). Would you dare to answer the question that Stevie Wonder implicitly proposed over 20 years ago: ‘How can our distant descendants tell that we “love” them?’

I daresay that most of ‘us’ are more likely to ask a relatively selfish question no healthy child should ever ask, “Do you love me?” But within Stevie Wonder’s weird, alien, “love” song, such a question means about two things: the person asking the question is disconnected from nature (the universe) and in this naked insecurity must ask such a question—or the person is asking the question of a person who is similarly naked. Such a situation of nakedness leads me to Genesis 3:11 with a Divine Voice asking, “Who told thee that thou wast naked?” Most of ‘us’ cannot answer that divine question because what we listen to is not always noticed or remembered—for the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field (the Africans of the Old Kingdom established a symbolic relationship between a kind of serpent and the act of listening—weird eh? And another kind of serpent is associated with what ‘we’ now know as a manifestation of “evil.” Nature teaches us that there is more than one kind of serpent…).

Definitely, being “in it but not of it” does not help as this achieves disconnected individualism that blocks out any authentic concern for any distant descendants (or any ancient ancestors for that matter). Clearly, ‘us’ having no concern at all for even the basic laws of the natural world makes Stevie Wonder’s song ineffective and useless—and when I try to count the number of “nature lovers of color,” I keep coming up short. Right about now, most Black folks are caught up in an urban game in a jungle of concrete that is often confused with ancient stone. And what Black people in particular do, most people in general will do. This is why there are rock-n-roll bands in China, Jazz clubs in Amsterdam and hip-hop concerts in Istanbul.

Now imagine someone in an intimate moment around 1976 compelled to ask Stevie Wonder, “Do you love me?” What? Didn’t this person get a little from his message distributed by a record company all over the U.S.? Either, this famous musician is a terrible hypocrite or the person that got close enough to ask Stevie the question is a complete idiot! In such an imagined situation, we may begin to understand why Stevie Wonder might say to you that being world famous and called a “musical genius” gets tiring and sometimes quite lonely and painful when few or no one will engage you on the level of your creative expression. Surely, for a Black man like Stevie Wonder, artistic expression is meant to be communication—a conversation—not an ivory-tower lecture. (However, I reserve the right to be wrong about this…)

Would you dare to answer the question that Stevie Wonder implicitly proposed over 20 years ago: ‘How can our distant descendants tell that we “love” them?’

This incredible distance from Stevie Wonder’s highest esoteric achievements breeds a lack of serious, intimate study of Stevie Wonder the artist. As of this writing, the only contemporary book that looks remotely promising is Stevie Wonder: Rhythm of Wonder by Sharon Davis. Surely there must have been more than a few archived magazine articles from back in the days when Stevie Wonder was a “new sensation” saved somewhere… I refuse to believe that there are not more serious studies out there…

By the way, our study of the African Old Kingdom informs us that there was no word for what ‘we’ now call “love.” Sounds harsh, cold, inscrutable—non-Shakespearean? Certainly you may somehow read something translated from the Old Kingdom that uses the word “love” but transliteration is different from translation. Stevie Wonder can explain so directly with his song “As” why there would be no need to have a word, “love.” In “As,” Stevie Wonder tells us that to not “love” means the universe is no longer functioning correctly. So what’s the point of having a word for it? Are we planning for a day that is the day of no more? Don’t we have better things to do than to get ready for the end of doing? What can you do when all existence ends?

To see the use of “love” as a rhetorical loophole for justifying and indoctrinating “hate” definitely should seem very strange to a native English speaker. It also makes no sense to a “normal” person (who assumes the dialectical is natural) to imagine that a world without the word “love” might possibly be all “love” (this gives new meaning to the hip-hop-era quip, “It’s all good.”). And a world of all “love” is kind of like an Eden… What! Just imagine gangs of Black dudes trying to out love one another… So it’s best to stop these words now before it gets so “weird” that even Stevie Wonder won’t want to follow me…

But it must be said that “As” is truly the “greatest love song” I have ever claimed to understand. It transcends the boundaries of romantic, traditional “love,” making a “love” beyond “love.” I would dare to call this work authentic Christian music, a family stone without the ligaments for concrete religion.

{ exclusive feature}
by Bryan Wilhite (The Liberator Magazine #21)

Originally Posted 9/25/2007

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