It might have been their commencement ceremony, but Peabody Conservatory’s class of 2024 got one more lesson — from Stevie Wonder.

Wonder was at the Miriam A. Friedberg Concert Hall on Wednesday afternoon as the recipient of the George Peabody Medal, the highest honor by the institute at the Johns Hopkins University, for his “outstanding contributions” to music. He was described as a living legend whose lyrics and activism helped “advance civil rights in America and racial justice around the world.” He will also receive an honorary doctorate at the universitywide commencement ceremony Thursday.

The multi-Grammy Award winner has a history of performing in various institutions and venues in Baltimore. He talked to a crowded auditorium at the Polytechnic Institute in 1986. He was a guest of honor at Morgan State University in 1988, celebrating the national observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day alongside Levi Watkins Jr. and Rosa Parks.

Wonder performed outside the Ravens’ stadium in September 1998 on the eve of the venue’s debut in the National Football League — if Baltimore wants to have a party, he said then, he would be there.

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Standing at the podium, Wonder took in the long applause following his introduction.

“I must say, I don’t know that guy,” he said chuckling, earning cheers and laughter from the crowd.

The room grew quieter as he spoke about sound, “the most important thing that we live with.” As a baby — Little Stevie — the first sound he discovered was glass breaking.

He was in the crib — “you know, just chilling” — when he grew hungry. His mother had fed him. He was crying and crying, trying to get his mother’s attention and let her know his bottle was out of milk.

“The first discovery of sound made it possible for me to get what I wanted,” he said.

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So, he threw the bottle — sheesh, was the first sound he heard. Then, something new entirely: the breaking of glass.

“Uh, that was unique,” he said, as people in the audience laughed harder. And then he discovered that sound got him more milk.

He did that a few more times, he said, before his mother switched to plastic bottles. But his point was that sounds contain messages, even if they have no words.

Hearing voices from places throughout the world, places he never imagined he would go, inspired him to write “Don’t You Worry About a Thing.” A dream he had before a rehearsal in 1979, where he could hear himself singing the chorus to Martin Luther King Jr. and marching to make the activist’s birthday a national holiday, inspired him into writing “Happy Birthday.”

Nothing is impossible, Wonder told the graduates, as long as they want it for the good.

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“We need to have that vibration, gathering not only the spirit of oneness together in the United States but throughout the world,” he said. “We as musicians and artists, we have the power.”

Then, he paused. He hummed for a second, looking at the graduates.

“Is that a C?” he asked. “Can somebody hit a C?”

Someone played the note on the piano. He turned back to the graduates.

“I’m going to be your teacher,” he said.

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There’s a song he was thinking about putting on his next project called “Through the Eyes of Wonder,” which is coming out — he paused — very soon.

“I’m going to need you all to —” then he began stomping his feet. People in the audience followed his lead.

“I’m going to need you to sing this: “You’re doing something. You’re doing something,” he sang. Then, he started clapping on a different beat than his foot.

“You gotta do something. You’ve got to do something twice as much as nothing. You’ve got to do something. If you can make someone smile, you’re doing something. If you can bring someone joy, you’re doing something.” The crowd sang with him.

“If we’re going to cancel something, let’s cancel hate. If we’re going to do something, let’s do something in the name love.”

Clara Longo de Freitas is a neighborhood reporter covering East Baltimore communities. Before joining the Banner, she interned at The Baltimore Sun as an emerging news and community reporter. She also has design and illustration experience with several news organizations, including The Hill and NPR.

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