Living For the City- Stevie Wonder

Country boy goes to live in the city

The minute you press play on this song your fingers start to snap to the beat, it is what I call the “soul power” of Stevie Wonders. Truly there are few who can make you feel the rhythm like this man. .

‘Living For the City’ is a hit single of the album released in 1973 called Innervisions. It is one of the first soul singles to deal so explicitly with systemic racism in America. It tells the story of a young boy from Mississippi who migrates to the Big Apple. At home he faced hardships such as poverty and harsh living conditions, but was is loved by his parents, in the city it doesn’t end well.

The song begins by talking about the realities of living as a black family in US at the time; bad pay for hard labour, difficulty of finding jobs, and the sacrifices made to gain a proper education. It is a harsh scenario, which highlights a strong classism  and racism in the country, which is unfortunately still very real today.

To find a job is like a haystack needle
Cause where he lives they don’t use colored people

All the hard work is an effort to finally move to the city, where there are opportunities. But the scenario in the city is gruesome for the boy, he is taken advantage of and gets caught up in the drug business and is  finally sent to prison. It is like the death of the American Dream, the listener is suddenly hit with the unfairness of that situation. After all the hard work his family has done, this is how quickly it ends.

When asked about the song, Wonder said:

 “I think the deepest I really got into how I feel about the way things are was in ‘Living For The City.’ I was able to show the hurt and the anger. You still have that same mother that scrubs the floors for many, she’s still doing it. Now what is that about? And that father who works some days for 14 hours. That’s still happening.

Wonder recorded in the studio playing all the instruments himself, helped by recording engineers and synthesizers. The song was one of the first to use real street sounds, which make the story very real. He also asked a janitor of the studio to say “C’mon, C’mon get in that cell nigger”, when the boy is sentenced to 10 years in prison.  In this way, the song becomes a kind of walk through America, with the boy passing through different scenarios and telling his story.  The song won a Grammy in 1974 as Best Rhythm and Blues Song.

A boy is born in hard time Mississippi
Surrounded by four walls that ain’t so pretty
His parents give him love and affection
To keep him strong moving in the right direction
Living just enough, just enough for the city…ee ha!

His father works some days for fourteen hours
And you can bet he barely makes a dollar
His mother goes to scrub the floor for many
And you’d best believe she hardly gets a penny
Living just enough, just enough for the city…yeah

His sister’s black but she is sho ’nuff pretty
Her skirt is short but Lord her legs are sturdy
To walk to school she’s got to get up early
Her clothes are old but never are they dirty
Living just enough, just enough for the city…um hum

Her brother’s smart he’s got more sense than many
His patience’s long but soon he won’t have any
To find a job is like a haystack needle
Cause where he lives they don’t use colored people
Living just enough, just enough for the city…
Living just enough…
For the city…ooh,ooh
[repeat several times]

His hair is long, his feet are hard and gritty
He spends his love walking the streets of New York City
He’s almost dead from breathing on air pollution
He tried to vote but to him there’s no solution
Living just enough, just enough for the city…yeah, yeah, yeah!

I hope you hear inside my voice of sorrow
And that it motivates you to make a better tomorrow
This place is cruel no where could be much colder
If we don’t change the world will soon be over
Living just enough, just enough for the city!!!!

La, la, la, la, la, la,
Da Ba Da Da Da Da Da Da
Da Da Da Da Da Da
Da Ba Da Da Da Da Da Da Da
[Repeat to end]


Sounds from the Bucket
Virginia Vigliar

Virginia is a freelance journalist and editor based in Barcelona, consults for Oxfam in Spain and the Netherlands, and she is the Chief Editor of WIB. She is a passionate advocate of human rights and freedom of speech. And a meme enthusiast. She has worked in the development sector in Malawi and Kenya and Somalia before returning to Europe, where she gained experience in the United Kingdom, Norway, and Spain. To see her work, look at her website here:
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