As has been stated multiple times since his death on Friday at age 74 (of respiratory failure), Muhammad Ali was way more than The Greatest boxer of the last 50 years. He was a global icon, and an inspirational figure for countless millions not even that interested in pugilism.
He had two courageous fights outside the ropes. The first came, at great personal cost, with his refusal to take part in the Vietnam war, one he considered immoral. This made him a hero of the anti-war movement as well as an emblematic figure of black pride.
The second was his long struggle with Parkinson’s disease, one he conducted with trademark courage.
Ali’s truly extraordinary life had a huge impact on musicians, as was shown by the spontaneous outpouring of condolences and respect on social media as word spread.
Billboard reported that new supergroup Prophets of Rage (featuring members of Public Enemy, Rage Against The Machine and Cypress Hill) interrupted its set at the Hollywood Palladium on Friday night when they heard the news of Ali’s passing. Group frontman Chuck D declared “We raise a fist and pray for Muhammad Ali," to enthusiastic response from the crowd.
Chuck D had a direct Ali connection in that he narrated the 2006 ESPN documentary Ali Rap, one that explored Ali’s signature colourful turns of phrase, as on the well-known “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” line.
Stars paying tribute to Ali on Twitter and Facebook included Lionel Richie (“you will always be my hero”), Sean Diddy Combs, Snoop Dogg (“he was the people’s champ”), Ben Folds, Tommy Chong, Quincy Jones, DJ Jazzy Jeff, Carole King, Travis Tritt, Rob Thomas, LL Cool J, Paul McCartney, Diana Ross, Pharrell Williams, Lil Wayne, Erykah Badu, and Usher.
R ‘n b great Isaac Hayes praised Ali as” an Eternal Legacy of Strength,” while The Weeknd’s message read “rest in peace to powerful and peaceful King Ali. the greatest of all time. you put confidence in all our hearts.”
One famed Canadian musician who found Ali an inspiration was Tom Cochrane. His father, Tuck, was stricken by Parkinson’s disease, just as Ali was. This prompted Cochrane to write the song “Just Like Ali,” back in 2001.
As he once stated in an interview, "My father and Ali are two of my only real heroes. Believe me, it can be sad to witness your heroes suffer; but the way in which they attempt to champion over this, their most difficult struggle, only adds to their heroism."
In song notes on his website, he added that “it is about inspiration — how our heroes inspire us then we pass that on — like a torch and nothing can really defeat the spirit, not even Parkinson's. I dedicate this song to my Dad and Ali."
Cochrane donated proceeds from the song to the Parkinson Society Canada, and, on October 20th 2002, he was amongst those paying tribute to Ali in person at a fundraising event for Parkinson causes at a Toronto Argonauts game at SkyDome.
In response to FYI this morning, Cochrane reaffirmed that “Ali was a big hero of mine. It was such an honor to have met him and taken part in the tribute the Argos had for him in 2002 ... It was a powerful period for me as my Dad, who was also a big fan of Ali's, died with complications from Parkinson's a month after that tribute."
Of his meeting with The Greatest, Cochrane recalls that "even with that Parkinsonian look he had at that point there was that smirk, that look of mischief. I said 'Mr Ali, what a pleasure to meet you,' or something equally as mundane and he stopped and had a wad of bills. He handed one to me and it was his picture on a million dollar bill. He just smiled and moved on. Incredible man with a childlike sense of humor."
The halcyon days of Ali’s boxing career came when the sport had a much greater hold on an international audience than it does today. His charismatic star appeal was in large part responsible for the sport’s popularity in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
Ali’s appeal to the black musicians of the day was vividly illustrated with the now-legendary 1974 “Rumble In The Jungle” heavyweight championship bout between Ali and George Foreman in Zaire, Africa.
To help hype the fight, a star-studded three night long music festival, Zaire 74, was scheduled, just before the scheduled fight date (the bout itself was then delayed for a month). Those performing included James Brown, B.B. King, Celia Cruz and the Fania All-Stars, Miriam Makeba, the Spinners, The Crusaders, Bill Withers, Sister Sledge, and Manu Dibango, and the results were reprised in the 2008 film Soul Power.
The famed bout inspired English singer Johnny Wakelin to come up with an homage track, "Black Superman (Muhammad Ali)". In early 1975 it became a Top 10 hit in the UK, reaching No. 1 in Australia, and spending six months in the US Billboard Hot 100.
One musician with whom Ali had a close friendship was Prince. On learning of the latter's death, Ali tweeted "We've lost a true original, someone who cared for others and used his genius to help many."
Sources: Billboard, Wikipedia