West Virginia native John Ellison made it clear in a recent interview with the Gazette-Mail‘s Rick Steelhammer. The 78-year-old’s new hit song, “Wake Up Call,” isn’t a protest song. It’s about truth.
“If you want to call it something, call it a reality song,” Ellison said.
The song was recently released and is catapulting to success, in part, because it resonates with the Black Lives Matter movement. But, as Ellison himself points out, he actually wrote the lyrics in 2003, after being asked to speak at a school for Black History Month. The words still apply today, Ellison said, because nothing has really been resolved regarding race relations in the intervening 17 years.
As the song itself says, it’s hard to understand how African Americans experience the world unless you’re Black. And Ellison, who grew up in McDowell County, has plenty of experience to draw from, including multiple family members who met violent ends with little or no recompense because of the color of their skin. Ellison himself experienced the reversal of a talent show win in his youth, when a judge said into a microphone that Ellison couldn’t be awarded the prize, using a racial slur as the reason.
Even his career was affected by the color of his skin. Ellison penned the song “Some Kind of Wonderful,” which barely cracked the Billboard Charts when his own band released it in 1967. His group could get airplay only on stations that allowed music by Black artists, which were woefully short at the time. When Grand Funk Railroad covered the track eight years later, it shot up to No. 3, and dozens of artists have covered it since. It is justice, in a way. The residuals have certainly secured Ellison’s legacy.
This most recent foray back into the music world is praiseworthy for its honesty, and for what it’s not. It’s not about mass protests. It’s not an indictment of protests. It’s about lived experience, and delivering a message of understanding for everyone, so that all people can develop empathy for what it’s like to be viewed completely differently because of outer cosmetics. It’s about the extra effort Ellison himself has had to put into everyday living, because, sometimes, just being an ordinary person isn’t enough if you’re externally different.
The song allows listeners to put themselves in Ellison’s shoes and see the world in a different way, which, hopefully, can inspire change, however great or small.
That’s the power of Ellison’s latest work. It’s all about reality.