The healing connections and magic of Motown

March 20, 2016

The unique sound of Motown music – the insistent beat, the innovative baselines, and those soaring harmonies – fills me with as much joy today as the first time I heard it. Motown is the pulse of happiness; it is emotive, expressive music which makes the world laugh, dance and sometimes cry.

It makes the perfect score for musical theatre, too. And when I saw a recent performance of the new show Motown the Musical at the Shaftesbury Theatre, I was not disappointed.

What struck me most was how the music – songs like My Girl, What’s Going On, Dancing in the Street, I Heard It Through The Grapevine and Ain’t No Mountain High Enough – demonstrated the soul and spirit of the black people of America during a time of tremendous social change.

When Berry Gordy set up the label in 1958, segregation was still not illegal (it took the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to end it across all states). In 1967, The Supremes topped the chart with The Happening, but the streets of Detroit were filled with black rioters tired of empty promises.

The US was able to celebrate sending a man to the moon in 1969, but among many black communities, poverty was rife, and access to all levels of education was poor. Motown’s musicians offered a beacon of aspirational hope to these profoundly disadvantaged communities.

All communities know that rhythms and harmonies can connect and heal. The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu explained: “Music in the soul can be heard by the universe.” And Motown’s ineluctable effect on young white audiences as well as their black contemporaries played its part in breaking down prevalent racial prejudices.

It’s a tradition that continues to the present and modern communities use music directly for its healing qualities. Last year, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra joined youth musicians for a “Music for Peace” concert after violent protests had broken out when a young African American died in police custody.

The former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan even gave a lecture on the subject, saying: “In a world of diversity where often values clash, music leaps across language barriers and unites people of quite different cultural backgrounds. And so, through music, all peoples can come together to make the world a more harmonious place.”

For Motown, that unifying power of music came home when it brought Berry Gordy back to all his original stars at the label’s 25th birthday party in 1983. By then, some of his artistes had left the label, following disputes over money and status. Some had died. Tensions – emotional, creative, sometimes romantic – had grown inevitably alongside success.

So it is uplifting to see Gordy at the end of the show, feted once more by his old musicians as the future appears in the form of a still young Michael Jackson. For Gordy, it seems no mountain was too high for him to climb, no valley too deep to cross. Music was his boots, his bridge and his compass. And it has played its part in connecting communities the world over.

Bruno Wang, founder of the Pureland Foundation