New York Series: Stevie Wonder “Living for the City”

At first listen, you might classify the forward-moving, walking-pace energy of “Living for the City” within the same hustle-and-bustle, working-man category occupied by “Takin’ Care of Business,” and songs of the like. But take a deeper dive and you’ll find that the content of Stevie Wonder’s 1973 single paints a far deeper portrait of life in New York City—one that is still intensely relevant in conversations today regarding race, income, and opportunity.

“Living for the City” came as a single from 1973’s Innervisions, an album that’s considered one of Wonder’s best displays of virtuosity—composing and playing every main instrument on a majority of the tracks. Innervisions followed 1972’s Talking Book (which included the likes of “Superstition”) and featured diverse styles and themes, along with classics like “Higher Ground.” Though perhaps none of the songs on Innervisions are as surgically insightful or keep a finger closer on the pulse of society than “Living for the City.”

The song reflects “a snapshot of a certain part of the reality of life,” as Wonder explained to Barney Hoskyns in a 2005 interview for Uncut. Particularly—reality as a black American. The lyrics tell the story of siblings growing up in Mississippi with parents who supply plenty of affection, but can’t fully shield the children from the harsh realities of life. All the while, there’s a dream of an easier, more financially stable life in the big city.

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

As a young child—a child of color in this case—one can only imagine the harrowing, and sobering, experience of watching your parents toil away day after day just to stay poor. Wonder paints this vignette detailing each sibling’s experience, from the girl having to walk far to school repeating the same outfit each day, and the boy growing up smart but with little prospects for a higher pay job, because “where he lives they don’t use colored people.”

Enter “The City.” Living in the city is the answer. The Big Apple is a place where anyone can take a bite and enjoy the opportunity available—or so they thought. “Living in the City” is an ambitious song, and sets the tone for the entire album—mostly due to a spoken word portion in the full record version that shows us what happens when the boy decides to follow his dream to the big city.

In this section, having just gotten to the city and being ready to put his smarts to good use, he’s preyed upon by a criminal who sets him up. He’s given 10 years in jail, with no sympathy from the justice system or the police. Re-reading the lyrics of this section is no easy task. It’s difficult to realize that, in many ways, we are having the same conversation as a society today as Wonder penned nearly 50 years ago. 

Afterward, the once-hopeful country boy is seen as a product of the “big city” justice system, spending his days “walking the streets of New York City” and “almost dead from breathing in air pollution.” The question becomes: was he better off staying poor and not coming to the city at all? It’s not a question that’s answered in the content of the song, but it’s certainly one that is posed to the audience. Wonder makes an even bigger statement with the last verse:

I hope you hear inside my voice of sorrow
And that it motivates you to make a better tomorrow
This place is cruel, nowhere could be much colder
If we don’t change, the world will soon be over
Living just enough, stop giving just enough for the city

It’s a plea to change the circumstances that affected the characters of the song; the circumstances that make the song more fact than fiction. Here, Wonder addresses the systemic nature of discrimination as he addresses the world, not only the individuals. It’s a tale that’s, unfortunately, as old as time. But, if there’s any consolation, it’s that messages of motivation go further today and affect more people than they ever have. Perhaps, if revisited sometime in the near future, Stevie might be inspired to write a slightly different ending to the song.

“Living for the City” Lyrics

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

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

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

His hair is long, his feet are hard and gritty
He spends his life walking the streets of New York City
He’s almost dead from breathing in 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!

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