Stevie Wonder’s Happy Birthday: How The Legendary Artist Helped Give MLK A National Holiday
“Why has there never been a holiday where peace is celebrated all throughout the world? The time is overdue.”
Stevie Wonder is, and forever will be one of the most revered artists of the century. His work transcends generations, social classes and is laced with important moments of history throughout.
He is respected as a songwriter, instrumentalist and activist to the greatest regard. There’s so many aspects one can take away from his work, and with such a strong catalog, it’s easy to overlook and take some of these inspiring moments for granted.
One such moment is Stevie Wonder’s Happy Birthday, originally released in 1981 as the fourth single to his album, Hotter Than July. The song is an outright, beautiful celebration of the yearly milestone we all are lucky enough to experience. However, laced throughout the work is also a powerful note of activism and acknowledgement of one of America’s greatest leaders and civil rights heroes.
Wonder wrote the song as a form of protest to fight for Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday to be recognized as a national holiday. He wanted the country to acknowledge the sacrifice MLK and his family made for the country, and for humanity in general. He asks a simple question throughout the song, “Why has there never been a holiday where peace is celebrated all throughout the world? The time is overdue.”
MLK and The Civil Rights Movement
Martin Luther King Jr. will forever be one of the greatest civil rights icons in American history. His work pushed human rights for so many across the country and he will always be remembered as someone who chose peace over violence.
His assassination was a massive shock to the country and all its citizens. During the 1960s, one of the most trying times in American history where JFK, Malcolm X, and RFK were all murdered in short succession, MLK’s death left a massive hole in the civil rights ecosystem. Many found it hard to pick up the pieces and continue the legacy of King and his contemporaries.
The torch was left to be carried on by the next generation of artists, thought-leaders and activists, of which Stevie Wonder rose to be a central figure. As an artist and musician, his work itself was boundary-breaking and transcendent. Wonder himself was a symbol of unity, that our differences did not make us and the very fact that there was hope for the country despite it being such a turbulent time.
Stevie Wonder and Music as Activism
Music has always been a powerful force of activism and organization. Blues music itself was created as a result of American slavery, and it would go on to form the foundations of rock music as well. Artists are often leaders of their societies and cultures, despite being pushed to the sidelines of mainstream society.
“Stevie Wonder makes these beautiful cakes: some people eat the frosting, others eat the middle and there’s so much meaning layered in there,” says Helado Negro, famed electronic musician and activist, “to write a song called Happy Birthday, which he must have known would be used as a celebration song for millions of people, and hide a message of unity in there was genius.”
“It’s no secret that this was a song about Martin Luther King, his death and people coming together to stop things like that from happening again. I think it’s a celebratory song with a protest edge.”
“There’s a lyric where he asked why can’t we have a day where we just celebrate peace? That’s the biggest protest song you can ever have. It’s an amazing way to make a song enlightening and fill you up with a positive feeling.”
“I think just because it’s a protest song it doesn’t have to have some sort of dogma attached, it can be more useful as a way to give people the energy to get out there and be heard. People get fed up with oppression and I think protest music can be fantastical and lead people to rethink, reposition and organize themselves.”
Helado Negro is undoubtedly on point with his analysis. The genius of Stevie Wonder is in the method in which he left a powerful note of activism layered beneath a song millions would use on their birthday for decades to come. His ability to conceive that many people did not want to talk about social rights issues or acknowledge the rift in the United States at the time was spot on. Creating a message of unity, and similarities between all of us was a key in turning this song into the powerhouse moment it ended up being.
The Legacy of Stevie Wonder’s ‘Happy Birthday’
Wonder started the campaign for Martin Luther King Jr. Day in early 1981, understanding that such a massive event would help facilitate progress towards MLK’s dream of integration.
Many found the idea for MLK Day preposterous, and with racism still running rampant throughout the country, it was no easy task to get the job done. However, Wonder stayed steadfast in his mission and belief that it was an important acknowledgement that must be made in order for the country to move forward as one.
Wonder used his song “Happy Birthday” to popularize the campaign, and continued his fight for the holiday, holding the Rally for Peace Press Conference in 1981. President Ronald Reagan approved the creation of the holiday, officially signing it into existence on November 2, 1983. Seen below is Reagan and MLK’s widow Coretta at the bill-signing ceremony.
The first official Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which was to be held the third Monday of every January, took place on January 20, 1986. The event was commemorated with a large-scale concert, where Stevie Wonder was the headlining performer.
Wonder would go on to perform the track all over the world, reaching a peak of #2 in the UK Charts. The song is still celebrated today and loved by fans around the globe. However, the legacy we celebrate on MLK day will forever be cemented in the history books and Stevie Wonder’s role in such a massive accomplishment will never be forgotten.