There are a few moments in Stevie Wonder’s career when droves of fans have thrown in the towel on him. To many it was “I Just Called to Say I Love You” (seriously, a lot of people hate that song). To those of us who are aware that Stevie used to actually represent something much bigger in music, it was his meeting with George W. Bush. Now that he’s playing a large concert in support of one of the world’s most vicious occupying armies, one wonders whether he has any soul left at all.
On Sunday, it was announced that Stevie will play the Friends of the Israeli Defense Forces (FIDF) gala on 6 December in Los Angeles. This is one of the largest annual events connected to the Israeli military to be held in America, with over 1,000 supporters of the state of Israel in attendance, and normally raking in tens of millions of dollars to support the Israeli army.
Guests at previous galas around the country have included both high-ranking members of the Israeli military and government officials from Israel. The New York gala, held this past march, featured video addresses by army Chief of Staff Benny Gantz and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself. FIDF’s national director is none other than Yitzhak “Jerry” Gershon, retired Brigadier General in the Israeli army and commander of the occupied West Bank division. It was Gershon and his subordinates who oversaw the leveling of entire neighborhoods during in Nablus during the second Intifada.
In other words, Stevie Wonder is performing for war criminals. He is also helping raise funds for the very forces whose job it is to forcibly evict Palestinians from their homes, harass them at checkpoints, and indiscriminately kill them if necessary. Obviously, this performance carries an particular weightiness in the aftermath of “Operation Pillar of Cloud,” Israel’s eight-day long bombardment of Gaza that killed 170 Palestinians, including 34 children.
Just as obvious is the fact that Stevie is agreeing to this performance in blatant disregard for the call for the Palestinian call for the cultural boycott of Israel. This call covers not just performances in Israel “proper” but anything having anything to do with support for Israel’s apartheid regime and its occupation. Maybe it goes without saying, but fundraisers for the Israeli army probably fall under this rubric.
Making matters even worse is that Stevie is crossing not just one but two picket lines. This year’s Los Angeles FIDF gala is slated to take place at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza. Hyatt, it just so happens, is also on the receiving end of a boycott call from the UNITE HERE union and LGBT rights groups for the hotel chain’s low wages, anti-labor practices and discrimination. You have to hand it to Stevie: he really knows how to pick his gigs!
A history of social conscience
There was a time when Stevie Wonder might not have been so willing to play for the warmongers of the Israeli state. True, Stevie has rightfully been thought of throughout his career as primarily a writer of love songs, but he also came out of a cultural moment in American history that was very much shaped by upheavals against racism and colonialism. It was the time of liberation movements in Vietnam, Angola, South Africa and the Black Panthers and urban rebellions at home. All around the globe, ordinary people seemed ready to buck off the twin bondages of racism and empire. All music was affected by this upheaval, but perhaps none more than soul.
Stevie’s “classic period,” roughly ranging from 1972 to ‘76, came right at the height of these struggles. Yes, there were his heartfelt tributes of love. Everyone knows “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” “Superstition,” “I Wish,” and his beautiful song to his newborn daughter “Isn’t She Lovely?” It’s easy to forget just how many of his best songs from this era also had a profoundly conscious, almost radical bent: “Village Ghetto Land,” “Big Brother,” “Living For the City,” and one of his absolute classics, “Higher Ground.”
As the ‘70s progressed and gave way to the ‘80s and these movements declined, so things got a bit tougher for any artist of conscience, but Stevie kept it going. He was a key public figure in the campaign to have Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday declared a national holiday in the United States. His 1980 single “Happy Birthday” was dedicated to pushing the issue.
Even more often forgotten is the closing song off 1985’s In Square Circle: “It’s Wrong (Apartheid).” The title and the lyrics just about say it all:
"You know apartheid’s wrong, wrong
Like slavery was wrong, wrong
Like the holocaust was wrong, wrong
Apartheid is wrong, wrong, wrong"
Stevie also publicly turned down a lucrative offer to perform in apartheid South Africa during these years. In fact, in response to “It’s Wrong,” his music was banned by the South African government!
Now, this same artist is playing a benefit designed to raise millions of dollars for the military wing of an apartheid state. There’s plenty of room for speculation on how he went from A to B here, but none of the conclusions are particularly savory.
Israeli racism and fans’ resistance
If we were to give Stevie the benefit of the doubt, then we’d would have to guess he’s not completely aware of the rank colonial racism that lies at the core of the Israeli state. Is he aware of the long history of discrimination against Ethiopians and other African Jews? Has he heard of the recent mass deportations and relentless racist attacks on Sudanese and other African refugees and migrants? Or really, has he heard that the man in charge of social media for the Israeli army has recently been caught in blackface, calling it “Obama style”?
None of these should be excused on their own merits, but in recent years Israel’s repression of Palestinians both in the Occupied Territories and in the 1948 borders has been pretty difficult to ignore. And despite a concerted effort on the part of groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee to recruit among young people of color, a growing number of racial justice activists are vocally siding with the Palestinians. Many have also made solidarity trips to occupied Palestine.
Fortunately, there are those out there trying to remind Stevie that he still has it in him to show a bit of soul. The US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation has released a petition (which every reader should sign) urging him to cancel the FIDF performance. The wording of the petition is smart in invoking the artist’s past commitment to opposing South African apartheid:
"Today, the Israeli army is enforcing a system that South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu has deemed even worse than Apartheid in South Africa. Fifteen years ago this week, Nelson Mandela said himself: 'we know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians'…
Three years ago, you were designated a Messenger of Peace by the UN. November 29th, one week before your scheduled performance, is the United Nations International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People. Please be that messenger of peace by refusing to entertain or fundraise for a military that continues to systematically oppress an entire population.
Please continue your legacy of speaking out for the oppressed. Please be a 'full-time lover' of justice by standing on the right side of history and canceling your performance for the Israeli army."
Well said indeed. Stevie Wonder performing for the IDF only allows the state of Israel and its supporters another chance to wrap themselves in the flag of justice and equality. In reality, the country’s legacy is in polar opposite to everything that’s given this brilliant artist’s work its meaning.
First published at the Electronic Intifada