Stevie Wonder: Happy Birthday (1981)


I just never understood
How a man who died for good
Could not have a day that would
Be set aside for his recognition
Because it should never be
Just because some cannot see
The dream as clear as he
That they should make it become an illusion
And we all know everything
That he stood for time will bring
For in peace our hearts will sing
Thanks to Martin Luther King

At the beginning of the 1980s Stevie Wonder played an important role in the campaign to declare Martin Luther King’s birthday an annual memorial and national holiday in America. His song ‘Happy Birthday’ expressed his disillusionment that anyone would oppose the idea of a day in honor of Martin Luther King. At the same time, he remained hopeful and in the end it became a party song to wish people happy birthday. Stevie Wonder sent out a powerful signal with ‘Happy Birthday’ and the song soon became the main symbol of the campaign. And with success. In 1983 President Ronald Reagan approved the holiday and three years later the first official Martin Luther King Day took place. On that day a concert was held in Washington D.C., where Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan, Whitney Houston and many other artists performed.

More than 25 years later, ‘Happy Birthday’ has become a real classic in the United States. It is frequently played to open Martin Luther King events, and Stevie Wonder also performs it regularly, often at historic moments like the closing ceremony of the Olympic Games in Atlanta or the inauguration of the Martin Luther King monument on the National Mall in Washington. And even more often, Stevie Wonder performs the song to wish someone a happy birthday in his own way, as he did on the occasion of Beyoncé’s thirtieth birthday and the birthday of his son Kailand.