The European Parliament has seen its fair share of famous artists coming to address MEPs, but few can match the charisma and musical achievements of US soul legend Mary Wilson, a member of Motown supergroup The Supremes.
Speaking at an event organised by the Parliament’s Anti- Racism and Diversity Intergroup (ARDI) in cooperation with the US Embassy, she told her story about breaking down racial and gender barriers.
“I’m here to speak to women in the European Parliament, to discuss issues concerning diversity, but also about the division, racism and global turmoil we are facing,” she said.
Wilson, along with her fellow band members Diana Ross and Florence Ballard, at their peak rivalled The Beatles in worldwide popularity. Their hits included ‘Baby Love’, ‘Stop! In the Name Of Love’, ‘Where Did Our Love Go’ and many others.
Their 1966 album, ‘The Supremes A’ Go-Go’, knocked The Beatles’ ‘Revolver’ off the Number 1 spot in the US and made them the first ever all-female group in history to achieve this feat. Not bad for three black teenagers growing up in a society dominated by segregation and racism.
Asked what it was like starting out in show business in these circumstances, Wilson said, “We were just three black teenagers in the US. Segregation and racism were not the only things we had to deal with, but it was the law.”
In the 1960s, black people endured legally enforced segregation. In southern states, they were only allowed to visit ‘black only’ restaurants, hotels and even had to use separate drinking fountains.
“It was a difficult time to be a human being and black, where you were looked down upon by others and not considered worthy of being treated as equal, or told you’re not good enough, and that we (white people) are better than you.”
"The Supremes inspired (black) people to dare to dream, as our success was something that no one expected us to achieve"
Yet, Wilson said that the massive success of The Supremes, both in the US and around the world, “inspired (black) people to dare to dream; our success was something that no one expected us to achieve. We three little black girls, we were able to help our families buy homes in great neighbourhoods. We rose to the top.”
Although there were plenty of black female artists before them, The Supremes were the first to become true global stars. Such was their crossover appeal with audiences, the group was labelled ‘The Sound of Young America.’
Wilson attributed her success to the growing popularity of television and its effect on shaping society. “On TV, although we were still black artists, we were no longer segregated and our performances were beamed globally.”
It was only when Wilson started touring internationally, leaving the segregated environment of the US, that she felt true recognition. “I remember that when we went from America to the UK in 1964, it was the first time we actually felt accepted as black people.”
Mary Wilson speaks with Rajnish Singh | Photo credit: The Parliament Magazine
Wilson was not the only artist breaking colour barriers. Her record label, Motown, was also revolutionising the music industry. Established by Berry Gordy, it was one of the first black-owned companies to achieve true global success.
Her fellow artists included soul legends Stevie Wonder, the Four Tops, The Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Mary Wells and many others. “Berry Gordy was one of the first black music business entrepreneurs,” she said.
During her illustrious career, Wilson had the opportunity to meet many important political leaders, however the one who left the most lasting impression was Dr Martin Luther King.
“He would often come on the road and visit us with Berry Gordy when we were performing in different places. It was very special for us, because we knew the important work he was doing,” she said, adding, “He was a big man in terms of history.”
As Wilson’s career flourished during the 1960s, the US was undergoing radical change, with the growing civil rights and feminist movements and Vietnam War protests. Wilson said, “It was a very exciting time for us to be a part of. America was becoming more diversified as the civil rights bill was being passed, and the Jim Crow (segregation) Laws were being withdrawn.”
“I’m here to speak to women in the European Parliament, to discuss issues concerning diversity, but also about the division, racism and global turmoil we are facing"
She pointed out, “Black people were now moving forward, the sports and entertainment industries were booming for us. With people from different races coming in, and we were prospering a lot.”
However, she believes the social progress that has been made seems to have ground to a halt in the current political climate, with politicians and people openly questioning the legislation and social rules on race relations and gender equality.
Asked whether artists like herself can bring people back together in this environment of political division and hostility, she said, “I don’t think it’s up to one person or an individual to handle this. I feel that each of us, and particularly those that are able to make themselves heard, such as politicians, performers and actors, can speak out on certain things.”
Wilson told the packed ARDI meeting that the gathering was a positive example of different people with different voices from across Europe and around the world working in unison.
“What we are doing here today is coming together as a community of women, to discuss out loud how we can bring about change. It may not happen tomorrow, but it will happen before the next election.”