Stevie Wonder has hot debut as UN peace envoy

AP News
Posted: Dec 03, 2009 3:23 PM

Pop star Stevie Wonder had a hotter debut Thursday as a U.N. peace envoy than he expected.

The singer-songwriter was in the middle of his acceptance speech as a prestigious Messenger of Peace and advocate for the world's estimated 650 million people with disabilities when a fire alarm went off in the basement conference room at U.N. headquarters.

After six long alarm blasts, Wonder cracked: "I'm trying to figure out a new melody!"

U.N. security officials ordered an evacuation of the three basement levels of the 39-story building, but a U.N. official said soon after that the program could continue.

"I didn't realize that what I was gonna say was gonna create so much heat!" Wonder quipped as he resumed his speech.

Less than a minute later, however, U.N. security officials interrupted and ordered Wonder, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice and more than 100 others in the conference room to leave.

Since only the three basement levels were affected, the three VIPs were taken upstairs to a previously scheduled press conference on Wonder's new U.N. role. The rest of the audience was taken outside the building, but they returned about 15 minutes later when the all-clear was given.

U.N. deputy spokeswoman Marie Okabe said the alarm was triggered by smoke from construction work in the second basement level. "There was no damage reported and no fire," she said.

Ban chose the International Day of Persons with Disabilities to introduce Wonder, who has won 25 Grammy Awards, as the 11th U.N. Messenger of Peace.

He joins a list of notable figures _ including Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel, actor Michael Douglas, primate expert Jane Goodall and conductor Daniel Barenboim _ who use their prominent positions to promote the U.N. and help the less fortunate.

The secretary-general said he selected Wonder to be a peace envoy focusing on the disabled not just because he is a global musical star but because "he is a great humanitarian and activist."

Ban cited Wonder's campaigns against apartheid in South Africa and hunger in Ethiopia, his benefit concerts for children and families in need, and his long years of work on behalf of the disabled.

Rice hailed Wonder, whose work with the U.S. President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities and the Junior Blind of America and launching of the Wonder Vision Awards have encouraged innovations to help the disabled and promoted equality for all people.

Wonder was born in Saginaw, Michigan, in 1950 and became blind shortly after birth. He learned to play the harmonica, piano and drums by age 9 and had his first recording contract with Motown Records by age 12.

Calling it "an amazing day," Wonder said "I never imagined that I would in my lifetime be given this honor."

"But when receiving such an incredible honor, it inspires me to move and do more _ commit myself ... for a lifetime," he said.

Referring to the 650 million people with disabilities, Wonder said, "It is beyond my ability to fathom that 10 percent of the people of this world don't matter to the other 90 percent of the people in the world."

"I would hope that every single human being, and every single world leader, will commit themselves to making this world a better place and accessible for every single human being on this planet," he said.

"I'm committed to this," Wonder said, "And this honor gives me again another challenge. And this challenge is like writing another song. At the end of the day, it's not a challenge to write a song that's a hit. It's going to be number one. So we're going to win on this one, too."

And the star hinted that there might even be a new song as well.

The secretary-general said he would really like to borrow Wonder for a few weeks, not to campaign for the disabled but to help him "Seal the deal" on a new agreement to combat climate change at the U.N. conference opening next week in Copenhagen.

Why Wonder?

"I have realized that the perfect motto for what we want to achieve is the title of one of your great songs: `Signed, Sealed and Delivered'," Ban said.

Asked later whether he would write a song on climate change, Wonder replied: "Obviously, I do like challenges. ... It's a done dollar!"