The funky, upbeat, R&B tune of Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City” was a stark contrast the lyrics and message of the song. Whereas other songs trying to approach this subject matter may use metaphor or sweeping generalizations, Stevie pulls no punches and confronts you with an issue many are aware of, but are uncomfortable acknowledging: many black people have a lower standard of living than other races in the United States.
He does this by telling the story of a family living in a city that acknowledges their hard work with criminally low pay, their children as second-class in comparison to their own, and their existence as a means to an end. They live in a shabby, run down, dilapidated, home, and are refused opportunities that anyone with a different skin tone would gladly be given. As the title of the song and the chorus tells you, they are living just enough for the city: enough to do work and survive, but not enough to pursue happiness or a life of their own. The song even describes how every member of the family experiences their own hardships. The parents work long hours and do hard work for pennies on the hour, the older brother won’t be hired by anyone because he’s black, and the sister has to wear the same clothes every day and walk miles to school because her family can’t afford anything better.
While this may seem specific to this one family, it likely covers what many faced in 1973 (the time of the song’s release) and even today. Many people still face prejudice daily that affects their work, their well-being, and their standard of living. It’s still a common aspect of some people’s lives, and the song treats it as such. This is something that happens every day to a large portion of the population, and they’ve likely had to accept it, and come to terms with that. Their lives aren’t their own; they’re simply living for the city. And that’s an injustice we should all live without. I really enjoyed the song despite the subject matter.