Wonder Week

Stevie Wonder and the Obamas

A love story.

US President Barack Obama laughs alongside musician Stevie Wonder in Washington, DC on February 25, 2009.
President Barack Obama laughs alongside musician Stevie Wonder in Washington on Feb. 25, 2009.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images.

If not for Stevie, there might have been no Barack and Michelle. “I think it’s fair to say that had I not been a Stevie Wonder fan, Michelle might not have dated me,” Barack Obama said in 2009 while presenting Wonder with the Library of Congress’ Gershwin Prize. “We might not have married. The fact that we agreed on Stevie was part of the essence of our courtship.” In the movie Southside With You, a semifictional account of their first date, Barack and Michelle engage in a playful but unyielding debate about Wonder’s best album. “At least we can agree that Stevie is the best,” Michelle says. “At least we can start from there.” When they married in 1992, Wonder’s “You and I” was their wedding song.

Barack Obama was born in 1961, the year an 11-year-old Stevie Wonder auditioned for Berry Gordy at Motown Records; 11 years later, he recalled during the Gershwin ceremony, Wonder’s Talking Book was the first LP Barack Obama bought with his own money, and he played it until he wore out the vinyl. That 1972 album was also the first Michelle Obama ever owned, she told Harper’s Bazaar in 2010, a gift from her grandfather, Purnell “Southside” Shields, a jazz aficionado who would blast music from speakers in every room of his house. “That’s where he and I would sit and listen to Stevie’s music together,” she said at the Gershwin ceremony. “Songs about life, love, romance, heartache, despair. He would let me listen to these songs over and over and over and over again.”

Wonder’s songs, Michelle said during a keynote address at South by Southwest in March, “talked about unity and love and peace. His songs are impacting and push you to think about how you could affect the world. Stevie all the way.” But Barack’s relationship with Wonder, or at least willingness to share the love of his music, was more fraught. Wonder, he told Rolling Stone a few months before he was elected president, was his “musical hero.” “When I was at that point where you start getting involved in music, Stevie had that run with Music of My Mind, Talking Book, Fulfillingness’ First Finale, and Innervisions, and then Songs in the Key of Life. Those are as brilliant a set of five albums as we’ve ever seen.”

Wonder began as an innocuous child star, a virtuosic tween playing standards and what the title of his first album called “jazz soul”—music designed to be palatable to a white audience. But by the time of that storied five-album run, Wonder’s work had become more political, less eager to please: “My Cherie Amour” and “I Was Made to Love Her” gave way to “Living for the City” and “Village Ghetto Land.” There were still joyous, uplifting songs like “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” and “Don’t You Worry ’bout a Thing,” and perhaps it was Wonder’s ability to explore the world’s injustices without letting them overwhelm him that appealed to the young Barack as he wrestled with his own identity. “I was trying to raise myself to be a black man in America,” he wrote in his memoir, Dreams From My Father:

No one around me seemed to know exactly what that meant. Where did I fit in? The feeling that something wasn’t quite right stayed with me, a warning that sounded whenever a white girl mentioned in the middle of a conversation how much she liked Stevie Wonder, or when a woman in the supermarket asked me if I played basketball; or when the school principal told me I was cool. … There was a trick there somewhere, although what the trick was, who was doing the tricking, and who was being tricked eluded my conscious grasp.

As the Obamas entered public life, Wonder came along with them. He appeared at rallies during the 2008 campaign, even setting Barack’s name to music, and went one better in 2012, writing a brand-new song called “Keep Moving Forward” for Obama’s re-election run. (Sample lyric: “Here we are, it’s a brand new day/ Four years ago the skies were a darker gray.”) He was at the Democratic National Convention in 2008, playing a still-unrecorded song called “Fear Can’t Put Dreams to Sleep” the night Barack Obama became the first person of color to be a major U.S. party’s presidential nominee, and he played at the inaugural ball after he became the nation’s first black president. On the night Obama was elected, Wonder stood up in the middle of the famed Beverly Hills restaurant Mr. Chow—in the presence of Taylor Swift, no less—and delivered an impromptu speech.

All along, there was “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours.” From Obama’s early rallies to his speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Michelle’s Carpool Karaoke to what could be the last major speech of her tenure as first lady, Wonder’s irrepressible anthem has served as their collective theme song and a rallying cry for their supporters. “We can’t wait till it’s signed, sealed and delivered,” 57-year-old Judy Shumaker told a reporter at an Obama rally in 2008. “We like Stevie Wonder because he’s an inspiration, just like this man. Nothing kept them down.” Her husband, 61-year-old Bob Shumaker, agreed. “That music was one of the first things that brought the races together. Parents just went nuts when we listened to [black] music in the 1950s,” he said. “In the ’60s, everything changed.”

Of course, as the simmering anger of Wonder’s 1970s albums attests, the 1960s did not “change everything,” and while Wonder hasn’t stopped playing his feel-good hits, they’re not all he plays: You can buy a ticket to see him play Songs in the Key of Life live, but you’ll get a ringing endorsement of Black Lives Matter with your oldies act. Barack Obama has walked a similar line: You can have the endlessly ingratiating cool dad, but the man who gives searing speeches on systemic racism comes along with him.

Stevie Wonder has performed for the Obamas, in public and in private, many times. According to Politico, he has performed for them more often than any other artist. He was a guest at Barack’s 55th birthday party and Michelle’s 50th; John Legend performed Wonder’s version of “Happy Birthday” at the latter. In 2014, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. It was the least they could give him in return.