At a concert in Quebec on Sunday, following the verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman for the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, musician Stevie Wonder made a pledge to his audience: that he won’t perform in states or countries that have Stand Your Ground laws or their equivalents on the books.
“The truth is that, for those that are being lost in the battle for justice, wherever that fits in any part of the world, we can’t bring them back. What we can do is we can let our voices be heard, and we can vote in our various countries throughout the world for change and for equality for everybody,” he told the audience. “That’s what I know we can do. And I know I’m not everybody, I’m just one person, I’m a human being. But for the gift that God has given me, and for whatever I mean, I decided today that until the Stand Your Ground law is abolished in Florida, I will never perform there again. As a matter of fact, wherever I find that law exists, I will not perform in that state or in that part of the world.”
The whole video is available here:
Wonder’s decision not to play in states that have a law on the books that he finds objectionable has precedent. In 1991, he declined to play concerts in Arizona after the state refused to recognize Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, and the National Football League rescinded plans to play the Super Bowl in the state for the same reason, actions that ultimately lead to a reversal of Arizona policy. More recently, in response to Arizona’s passage of SB1070, an immigration law that would have required immigrants to carry papers documenting their status, required law enforcement officers to check on suspects’ documentation status even during minor infractions like routine traffic stops, and imposed penalties on people who provided aid or shelter to undocumented immigrants, a number of musicians decided not to play the state. The action, known as SoundStrike, was organized by Rage Against The Machine’s Zack de la Rocha, and artists including Kanye West, Los Tigres del Norte, and Nine Inch Nails all signed up. Much of SB 1070 was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2012, so it’s hard to tell how much SoundStrike mattered. But there’s no question that refusing to play a state can reinforce the idea that a place is backward or out of touch with the rest of the norms in the rest of the country.And Wonder’s decision not to play Stand Your Ground states could also help personalize the reaction to the law, and not just by denying music lovers a chance to see the artists that they love. Just as Los Tigres del Norte explained that playing in Arizona would expose them and their fans to racial profiling, Wonder would be justified in arguing that Stand Your Ground laws pose danger to himself, his crew, and his audience. After soul musician Lester Chambers was assaulted on stage for dedicating a song to Trayvon Martin, it’s not unreasonable for musicians, particularly those without Wonder’s profile and security, to consider whether or not they might face threats or violence at smaller venues. And even more specifically, it’s perfectly reasonable for musicians of all profiles to worry about a law that might make it harder to convict someone who attacked them, a member of their band or crew, or someone in their audience.
Knowing you have the protection of the law is an important part of the working conditions you’re willing to accept, and for someone like Wonder, whose work is highly mobile, being clear about where you’re willing to draw the line is a useful thing to do. Not everyone has that luxury, but it’s great that Wonder’s willing to take some financial hits to speak up for those who have less ability to exit the states where they live and work in response to laws that make them feel unsafe. Now let’s just hope that with Wonder providing the cultural capital, Michael Bloomberg providing money through Mayors Against Illegal Guns, the the immense hunger for productive action that gnaws at so many of us in the wake of the Zimmerman verdict, this can be a moment of positive mobilization for the people in Florida who don’t have Wonder’s options, rather than simply disgust and surrender.