Spike Lee most likely achieved a career long, and possibly life long dream when Stevie Wonder scored his 1991 film “Jungle Fever”, introducing us to his classic “These Three Words.” Stevie’s classic “Living for the City” was also featured very prominently in the film, during a hellish scene inside of a crack house. I remember the eager anticipation I had for 2000s film, “Bamboozled”, which was a satirical look at the hip hop driven black image at the edge of the 21st century, juxtaposing it with the minstrel image of 100 years earlier. Aside from my excitement for the film, there was also the promise of new music from Stevie Wonder. Todays Anatomy of THE Groove feature, “Misrepresented People” was a powerful and funky song on that soundtrack that told the history of black people in the United States of America and made the connection between the type of “misrepresentation” Spike was dealing with in his film as a very dangerous thing because its dehumanizing influence makes brutality possible.
The song starts off in classic cinematic Stevie fashion. One of the Wonder mans incredible abilities in his music and production is to create aural movies in his songs. He did it on tunes like “”Pasttime Paradise” and especially “Living for the City” with its jarring “Get in that cell, Nigger” interlude (skyscrapers and every THANG). He does it here through his choice of instruments and music to play his opening melody. Stevie uses a harpsichord sound with the sound of sail masts in the background, as he says “In 1492 you came across the shores/700 years educated by the Moors.” From the harpsichord music, the sounds of sails and Stevies slightly proper, slightly British inflections, you can vividly see the picture of the slave ships. For me, the contrast between the attempted holy sterility of the music and the European attitude with the indignity of the slave ships is especially powerful. Stevie goes on to speak of the Indian genocide and the African being marketed. Then he delivers the line that hits me the hardest, “In the so called land of God/my kind was treated hard.” Stevie goes on to deliver the chorus with a classical style melodic run that would become popular in R&B in the early ’00s.
About 1:15 in, a seriously funky groove kicks in. An analog synth type bass sound revs up, with a keyboard string sound embellishing the songs melody. The song is fully in the style of Stevie’s ’70s funk pieces, with a classical element reminiscent of “Village Ghetto Land” layered melodically on top of the mournful funk. Stevie goes on to tell the story of black people from the introduction of slavery in the U.S, to the Civil War and Antebellum Jim Crow period. Then around 2:34 into it, he makes a key change in his classic style. We feel the intensity increase, as Stevie brings us to “1969/Black powers at the door” replete with samples of a militant speech from that time. He goes on to carry the black story through the ’80s and ’90s until he gets to 1999, of which he says, “our colors fill the jails.”
This particular song had a great impact on me. It was true hardcore Stevie Wonder funk with a social message, along the lines of classics such as 1976’s “Black Man.” The song is one that gets to me quite deeply, because of the earnest passion Stevie displays in detailing the history of black people in America. The mixture of classical overtones and funk is one that is very rare and reminiscent of the great Bernie Worrells work with P-Funk. Stevie Wonder takes a powerful moral approach in this song, like great figures such as Maya Angelou, Malcom X, and Dr. Martin Luther King took. He makes his point about the evils of black misrepresentation, both outside coonery imposed from those who neither understand nor care, and what Raashan Roland Kirk termed “Volunteer Slavery”, not through simply bemoaning every ignorant thing he sees. No, he details the hurts African Americans have experienced in this country as if to say, “if you really realized what we’ve been through you’d never allow yourself to be potrayed in that manner.” In that way, this funky song is a song of enlightenment. This song and message was one I particularly appreciated because in 1999/2000 there was so little music that carried such a powerful black political and historical message. It’s a true 21st Century classic from Mr. Stevie Wonder and needs to be heard today, as so many in this culture of over exposure go further and further down the path of misrepresentation.