This story is part of Billboard’s 2022 Grammy Preview issue, highlighting the artists, issues and trends that will define awards season. Read our cover story on Halsey, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross here.
Amid the historic social and political upheaval of the past year, as well as the pandemic, Stevie Wonder did what he has always done: He went back to the recording studio.
“The country, to say the least, was in a very polarizing divide between the truth and a lie; negative positivity,” recalls Wonder. “There was a song I’d written when I was 19 or 20 years old called ‘The Melody in Music,’ whose hopeful sentiment was very much similar to what I was feeling now. So I more recently wrote [new] words to that song because people needed to hear that message.”
Last October, after nearly 60 years at Motown Records, the 71-year-old announced that he would be partnering with Republic Records through his own imprint, So What the Fuss Music, and that he would also be releasing two new songs: “Where Is Our Love Song” and “Can’t Put It in the Hands of Fate.” Both are new takes on earlier work, but the former, featuring Gary Clark Jr., is both Wonder’s revamp of “The Melody in Music” and a rallying call to all humankind: “Where is, where is, our love song?/Guess the words we’re singing/We’ll have to sing them forevermore/’Cause by our ways and actions/It’s like you never heard them said before,” he sings. And — thanks in part to strong input from Wonder himself — the two songs are now among Republic’s Grammy submissions.
With 25 wins out of 74 nominations, Wonder has been a frequent visitor to the winner’s circle; in fact, he’s one of only four artists (along with Frank Sinatra, Paul Simon and Taylor Swift) to win album of the year three times and the only one to do so with three consecutive releases (Innervisions, Fulfillingness’ First Finale and Songs in the Key of Life). His lengthy list of nominations also spans an astounding variety of categories, including the Big Four and R&B honors, as well as best pop male vocal, best inspirational performance and best song specifically written for a motion picture or television.
Wonder has always pushed to change the industry status quo. In 1971, when he signed a new deal with Motown, he successfully fought for creative control as well as ownership of his master recordings and publishing rights. And now, some 50 years later, he’s refusing to settle for the expected Grammy submissions: At his behest, “Can’t Put It in the Hands of Fate,” featuring Rapsody, Chika, Cordae and Busta Rhymes, is under consideration for best melodic rap performance, as is “Where Is Our Love Song” for best American roots performance.
How involved were you in determining the categories in which your recent singles were submitted?
In talking [with Republic] about what categories to choose, people said to put “Where Is Our Love Song” in the R&B categories. I said, “No, I’m not going to put it there.” I want to put the song in a category that makes the best sense. “Where Is Our Love Song” is a song that speaks to everyone, a traditional song or folk song about America. I said I didn’t care what’s normally done; that I’m not trying to do the typical. So it was submitted in the best American roots performance category.
“Can’t Put It in the Hands of Fate” was submitted in the best melodic rap performance category. It was such an honor to work with Rapsody, Cordae, Chika and Busta Rhymes for what became an amazing marriage with conscious rap. I wanted to be a part of celebrating their greatness as well as our collaboration, so that’s why I decided to put it in that category.
Were you involved to such an extent with your prior Grammy nominations?
I think we may have done it with [selections from] Songs in the Key of Life a little bit. But more so this time, as people may not have heard these new songs, which got some airplay but not as much as I wish they could have. But if the Grammys is where music is being judged on the way it sounds, the production and writing, the [submissions] will do what they will do. But not based on how much airplay, how many copies were sold, how many people own the category or whatever. To me, all of that is just foolishness. Music is music. I just felt that if I was going to look at a category this time, I would look at something that’s a little different.
Have you been following the criticism — and ensuing changes — related to the Recording Academy’s lack of Black voters and exclusion of Black artists, especially rappers, in categories beyond R&B/hip-hop?
I’ve been following it, and I always vote — I’m a music lover of various categories, whether it be classical, comedy, R&B/hip-hop, country, pop. There’s so much music out there that we can’t limit it to just one kind of thing. As for attending various meetings, conferences or whatever, I haven’t. But I think it’s important that I begin to do more than just talk to various people that are involved in this because people are sometimes misconstruing what they’re voting for. I’m not saying that just because of where I am [as a Grammy winner].
When people limit rappers to the rap categories … I mean, these people are storytellers, who are called griots in Africa. And these storytellers have grown [in number] from back in the day with groups like The Last Poets to what we have right here right now. They created a whole other art form that has been going on for years: using turntables to tell their stories over music. Just because they didn’t do it as traditional poetry doesn’t mean it’s not as significant. I was listening to LL Cool J’s “Around the Way Girl” the other day. Everything that he talks about in the song is so descriptive that I can visualize it. It’s exciting because it brings a picture to mind — and that’s the greatness of storytelling.
I was happy for Adele winning album of the year [for 25 in 2017], but I was also very disappointed that Beyoncé didn’t win [for Lemonade, which won best urban contemporary album]. And Adele said, “Hey, thank you, but this person is more deserving of this than me.” And I think an artist should be able to say that if they feel that way. It doesn’t take anything away from them. I think it makes a person even greater when they’re able to take a position.
Is there a special memory that stands out about any of the Grammys you’ve won?
I know the feeling of hoping that you’ll win. I didn’t for “Uptight,” “For Once in My Life” or “Signed, Sealed, Delivered.” And at least three or four times, I had the same dream that I was at an awards show as a nominee and when the presenter said, “And the winner is…,” I would wake up — and end up losing. My God, it was craziness. Then at the awards [in 1973], I hear my name called as winner of album of the year for Innervisions. I was so excited. I gave that Grammy to my mother.
Since then, where do you keep your 25 Grammys?
I’ve got them hidden away because there was a time when some were stolen. You know how that goes, but we’re good now.
Your last studio album was 2005’s A Time To Love. Why such a long break between albums?
A lot of life happened. I lost my mother [in 2006], a sister and a brother. I also had four more wonderful children, including two young daughters, between my previous marriage and my wife Tomeeka [Robyn Bracy]. I know I’ve been talking about my new album, Through the Eyes of Wonder, for a while. But more than likely, it will be coming out very soon, hopefully by November.
What subjects are you gravitating toward now in your songwriting?
I have a song coming on my next album called “The Living Killing Life” that I performed at the recent Global Citizen festival. It’s about global warming. I keep thinking about how we can make the world better. I’m in this place where the more I’m seeing things like people dying in this pandemic, killings amid Black Lives Matter, social media negativity, anger … the more I’m a believer that respect is an action word and so is love. I also have a song with PJ Morton, “Where Did All Your Happy Go,” for his next album. It’s about not letting anybody steal your happiness or take your joy away. The driving force for me has to always be the goodness in our hearts.
As with “Where Is Our Love Song” and “Can’t Put It in the Hands of Fate,” you’ve reached back into your vault before: You wrote “All I Do” as a teenager, which was first recorded by Tammi Terrell and Brenda Holloway in the ’60s. Then it was revamped into your ’80s hit. How many songs have you written that we haven’t heard yet?
I don’t know exactly how many, but I’d say more than a thousand. I do know I’m so blessed that God has given me all of these songs and ideas. There’s always something to write about; there’s always something going on. Whether it’s me watching television or a movie, hearing something on the news. Not to mention all the things that happen in my personal life. I love writing songs.
There was some excitement on Twitter a few weeks ago when fans learned you may have recorded two unreleased instrumental albums with The Meters in Detroit in 1979. Do those exist?
I remember being onstage with The Meters at the New Orleans Jazz Fest in 1973; that I may have been playing drums or something and just having fun. But I don’t immediately remember us doing something in Detroit. It’s not impossible. I’ve done a lot of things, so I won’t discredit what was said. I just have to hear a song to know what they’re talking about. Then I’m sure I would remember.
In a business dominated by streaming and singles, where do albums stand as a viable entity?
When I was growing up, I’d hear a new single from Sly & The Family Stone, The Beatles or Aretha Franklin with “Respect” that made me look forward to the next single and then ahead to what the album was going to be about. I love hearing singles because of that. As life is a circle on a certain level, it’s still exciting that a single drives people’s curiosity as to how good a new project will be; kind of a motivating sneak peek.
Given your pioneering stance on ownership and creative control back in 1971, have younger artists come to you for advice on such business matters?
Yes, some have as we’ve developed that kind of relationship to talk about different things. But I think that in owning masters, a person has to ultimately make sure that things are going to go well moving forward. A song is hopefully one of those things that’s everlasting. That the songs you’ve written will be heard and seen 200 years from now? Wow, that’s deep. There’s nothing wrong with people having the security of whatever they own. But they have to make sure that by owning it, they’ll be able to work it to the level they may have had when they were with a company — or even do better.
October marks the one-year anniversary of your partnership with Republic. What were you seeking in a label relationship at this stage in your career?
I am hopefully a lot wiser. (Laughs.) Obviously, nothing can compare to the love and what I was able to do working with and being a part of the Motown family as a little 11-year-old boy taken in by the greatness of Berry Gordy Jr. There’s nothing that really compares to that. This is a new relationship, and I only look forward to greatness coming out of this relationship.
Over the course of your career, did you ever feel that executives might be a little intimidated working with you because you are Stevie Wonder?
As long as they’re not so intimidated that they don’t handle the business.
Is there a biopic about your life and career in the works?
I plan to do the whole thing: a book, documentary, biopic or whatever they call it. We’ve been talking to some people about a few things. (Laughs.)
You purchased Los Angeles radio station KJLH in 1979. Why is it so important to be an independent voice in an industry ruled by bigger conglomerates?
Here’s what it means for the community and for the world: Anytime there’s an independent voice that has freedom in playing music and of talking about things that [people] don’t want to discuss, we know that we have an outlet that will allow us to speak truth and not just say things that are fashionable to say. What I saw in KJLH [in 1979] was what I remember about two of the first Black-owned radio stations, WCHB and WCHD, in Inkster, Mich., owned by [Bell Broadcasting’s] Dr. Wendell Cox and Dr. Haley Bell. I was able to learn so many things about culture, history and playing music — just because it’s great music — from listening to those stations. I’m happy that at one point in my life, I was able to purchase KJLH from the late John Lamar Hill II, who believed in me enough to feel that I would be a good person to own his station.
Your performance at Global Citizen Live was riveting. How are you able to still conjure the raw energy and emotion reminiscent of your 13-year-old “Fingertips” self?
It’s like I get the holy dance spirit: “God, you’ve given me this, I can do this and I’m so excited about it. There’s so much I want to say; so much I want to do. And now you’re giving me a chance to do it again? Wow.” Then my soul opens up to be poured out to the people, and that’s what you see.
With first-round voting ending Nov. 5, one last Grammy question: Is the gold gramophone still something that artists value?
Yes, as long as the Recording Academy doesn’t allow people to lessen the value of [the award]. As long as people can say why this song is great, why this arrangement is great, why this vocal is great or why these musicians are great — and not just based on what some record company or group of people think. If the [Grammy] is based on nothing but the greatness of a project, then the value will last a long time. And I hope that it does for many, many, many years to come. At the end of the day, people will always want music and all that it represents to have integrity.
This story originally appeared in the Oct. 23, 2021, issue of Billboard.