A blind black man froze in front of thousands of spectators. It was a perfect late May evening on the Gulf Coast beach. A crescent moon glowed against a bluing sky. The temporary Ferris Wheel towered above the rest of the festival, its neon lights flashing. The breeze smelled like salt and sand, mixed with the fruity scent of mixed drinks and hops.
The crowd was mostly white Southerners, although there were racial and geographical exceptions. There were Phish-heads, bassheads, and Southern rockheads, each attracted by a different segment of the line-up. It was a mixed crowd who had one thing in common: they could not bear to miss Stevie Wonder’s closing performance of Hangout 2013.
The young crowd didn’t know Wonder as an extraordinary exception to the great American legacy of institutionalized poverty and racial discrimination. They knew him as a musical legend. They were here for the music festival, man. They’d crowd-surfed on inflatable dolphins, worn brotanks with ironic political statements, and engaged in short-lived beach romances that ended along with Wonder’s set.
Being Stevie Wonder’s crowd was a huge responsibility. Imagine the pressure of performing with Stevie Wonder. What if they were the worst crowd he’d ever heard? A few times, they missed the notes or couldn’t remember the lines, but Conductor Wonder gently reminded them. They sung their way through a slew of covers, including Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel”, Bob Marley’s “Is this Love”, “Day Tripper” by the Beatles, and John Lennon’s “Imagine”.
The Stevie Wonder froze, halting his band and standing in perfect stillness before his audience. He waited for the crowd to be silent.
Then he said, “My mother was born in this state.”
“People told her she would never be nothing, would never have nothing,” Wonder said, his voice breaking. “They gave up on her. But God didn’t.”
Tears streamed down his cheeks, their watery trails reflecting the stage lights. He fought to speak through the tears.
“I was blessed with a gift. And you blessed me because you loved what I was blessed with. Because of that, I was able to bless her before she left. I want to thank you for that.”
He stopped, choking with sobs. His male back-up singer gently wiped Wonder’s tears.
The crowd cried with him. It was a poignant moment, thousands of people mourning the shameful legacy of racism and institutionalized poverty on a beach in Alabama. Only a few hours ago they’d cheered as Karen O. stuffed a microphone down her mint-green shorts.
Then, ever the professional, Stevie Wonder gathered himself.
“Give me a D flat!”
With that, Wonder launched into his greatest hits: “My Cherie Amour”, “I Just Called to Say I Love You”, “Signed, Sealed, Delivered”, and “As”. The somber moment disappeared and turned into a celebration. A fully clothed Hangout Fest producer dived into the VIP pool. Two policemen danced a man out of the VIP section, holding the offender’s hands behind his back while the three wiggled their way to the exit. The corner of the stage front, aka the beach ball graveyard, was filled with fireman who checked out one oblivious woman’s ass as she bent over.
After a brief break, Wonder ended the set exactly the way he should have: a rendition of “Superstition” that sent the crowd into a frenzy, kicking up the sand and kissing strangers as they frolicked to the last song of the festival. After he played the last perfectly pitched note, the stage fell into darkness. A burst of fireworks lit up the Gulf Coast sky. Bangs and cracks replaced the funky notes of “Superstition”. Many of the crowd remained on the beach, their up-turned faces bathed in flickering golden light.
In the very beginning of his set, Stevie Wonder said that his goal was to bring people together. He succeeded in turning a crowd of 35,000 people with diverse music tastes, ages, and racial identities into a cohesive celebration–a feat that no other headliner yet had achieved at Hangout Fest. Even if not all of the attendees agreed with Wonder’s occasional political messages, they were touched by the experience of his closing set. The evidence was on their smiling faces.