"Give me the key in which I am to sing,
and, if it is a key that you too feel,
may you join and sing with me."
 ~ Stevie

The Key of Life

As the holidays approach, I am wondering how to feel joy given the sadness, frustration and despair that has arisen from the recent deaths of African-American men at the hands of law enforcement officers.

This question sat with me on the Friday after Thanksgiving when a dinner conversation with my in-laws turned to public education, taxes, and fairness. I had been having a great time, but as folks made their points, the words hit home and evoked some strong emotions. I began to tremble.

When I at last spoke up and challenged them to reconsider the idea of fairness from a racial point of view, my comments, while acknowledged, got dismissed as important but “missing the point.”

For days, I replayed the conversation, scolding myself for not providing a sharper case.  I felt I had missed a chance to bring home new perspectives on racial equity and healing; I felt like I had failed.  I needed to study and practice more so that my arguments would be clear and grounded.

The following Friday, still saddened by the echo of this dinner conversation, I experienced what my friend Juanita calls "the 8th Wonder of the World," by attending Stevie Wonder's "Songs in the Key of Life" concert. His seminal double album was a mainstay in my developing years. The joy and loss of my first love is reflected in "Knocks Me Off My Feet" and "Another Star." My commitment to social justice nurtured in "Village Ghetto Land" and "Pastime Paradise." 

I wanted to have the time of my life, but  I couldn't shake a tinge of guilt that having a good time evoked. Still, my emotions had a home in this concert hall. The room seemed to fill with healing.

Greg and I looked at those around us - an elderly African-American couple on one side, a young Latino couple on the other.  An Asian couple in front. Behind, a couple of white hippies in their 60's and a group of African-American ladies in their Sunday best.  My friends Shiree and Dennis brought their teenage sons. Collective love for this man and his music lifted us above race, age, sexual orientation and the noise of the day.

Once Stevie took to the stage, tensions and divisions continued to dissolve. We tapped our feet, sang, danced and cried.  He did not shy away from mentioning the current troubles, and embraced them through his songs of suffering and hope.  It was well after midnight before he left the stage, as the lyrics to my favorite song of the album lingered - "Let's all sing someday sweet love will reign, throughout this world of ours, Let's start singing with love from our hearts."

As we made our way home, sweetness infused the air. I felt a renewed sense of kindness and compassion and marveled at a man with the magic to bring those feelings forward in so many.
Quincy Jones once said of Stevie - "He is the master at expressing social ideas through music and communicating past human biases that reach people who might not want to listen, but through his musical genius would digest it and understand it." 
I hope some day to master that same skill. Seek truth. Gather facts. Then, remember to speak from a place of love. As my friend Grace says, turn to joy without ever forgetting sorrow. After all these years, Stevie Wonder's songs still teach me this essential lesson – how to sing in the key of life. 


Elemental Partners cultivates healthy and prosperous organizations through clarity of purpose, alignment of principles, and integration of systems.

For more information, visit us at www.elementalpartners.net or email us at kevin@elementalpartners.net



Kevin and Puanani will be working with several clients in San Francisco from December 15-19.

Kevin will be co-facilitating a series of Welcome Table community meetings with the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation on January 5-8 in New Orleans, LA.

Kevin's missive - Finding a Decent White Man - is featured in the Winter 2015 issue of Yes! magazine.

For more on Songs in the Key of Life, check out this great documentary.
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