Living for the City

Stevie Wonder, 1973

What was life like in Mississippi for the young man in this song? What was good and bad about life there? What was his family like? Why does he leave Mississippi? No work, discrimination.

Imagine this is a skit. What happens between the second and third verses? Who takes advantage of him in the city? Why does the newcomer trust the city guy? Called him "brother," offers a chance to earn money.

Does he escape racial discrimination in the city? Where does he come up against it? What other problems is he confronted with? Crime, drugs, strangers. What ends up happening to him?

Compare this song to "The Bowery" and "No Irish Need Apply" in Unit 5, and "In America" in Unit 9. How are the experiences of these newcomers to the city similar to and different from the story in this song? Compare it to "Small Town" also in Unit 9. Which is better: living in the city or in a small town?

What was the Great Migration? When did it happen? Are we still seeing this kind of migration today? Who and where? "Rust belt" to "Sun belt." Why? What causes people to move from the place where they grew up?

What kinds of support systems did migrating groups set up to help out newcomers to the city? What groups specifically helped Blacks? Urban League, NAACP, churches. How could groups like this participate in Stevie Wonder's vision?

"Living for the City" performed by Stevie Wonder on Innervisions. Motown Records, © 1973. Available on Itunes, Spotify, and YouTube.


For more informaton on Stevie Wonder, visit his official website.

Rights have not been secured to reprint the words for this song. For the lyrics please consult this online source:

Sheet music cover for Stevie Wonder's "Living for the City."

Born Steveland Judkins Morris in 1950 in Saginaw, Michigan, and blind from birth, Wonder learned piano at age seven and by age nine also played drums and harmonica. In 1954 his family moved to Detroit, where he sang in the church choir and developed an affinity for R&B, particularly Ray Charles and Sam Cooke. He signed with Motown records in 1961 as "Little Stevie Wonder" and was marketed as a young "genius," especially after his first hit album in 1963. Like other Motown artists, Wonder's earliest recordings were strictly supervised, allowing little artistic freedom, but resulting in a string of Top 40 hits.

In 1971, when Wonder reached the legal age of 21 and his contract expired, he financed his own albums so he could maintain artistic control. He began to address the social issues that he cared about. His songs, like much of African American music after the mid-1960s, became more political as they reflected and commented on the charged atmosphere in African American communities and the sometimes-strained relationship between Blacks and whites.

"Living for the City" is one of his most poignant songs, dealing with the struggles of a young Black male in New York City. The leading motivation of the Great Migration of the 1910s–1940s was to escape the hard times in the rural south and seek better opportunities in the northern cities, yet many Blacks found that urban life did not fulfill expectations, as related in this song.

Although Wonder's productivity declined after 1976, he continues to collaborate with a diverse group of popular musicians, especially in support of social efforts.



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