An Ode to Marvin Gaye: What’s Going On

On May 21, 1971, music changed forever.

On this day, the socially conscience hit album, What’s Going On was released by musical pioneer Marvin Gaye.

What’s Going On not only challenged the political/musical dichotomy that many record label execs fought against for fear of controversy and financial loss, but it inspired other artists to delve into the political realm of music without the fear of losing their reputation because of what they may have said.

I originally intended to highlight Gaye’s  album during my Black History Month series, which dealt with socially conscience music, but since today marks the 41 anniversary of the album, I thought this would be a great day to honor Gaye’s musical legacy and discuss the album which put Marvin on a level of supreme excellence.

Ironically, I just finished reading Dr. Michael Eric Dyson’s  book Mercy Mercy Me: The Art, Loves, and Demons of Marvin Gaye, which superbly details both the music and life of Gaye from both a social and historical perspective.  Dyson showcases how Gaye’s music had an impact on his life, and how Gaye’s personal trials and tribulations served as the fuel for so many of his musical masterpieces. “In my teen years, Marvin’s songs, especially “Inn City Blues” fed my hunger for social justice. It also helped me to grasp my ghetto roots,” Dr. Dyson states in the book.

As a child and even as a teenager, I did not understand the significance of tracks like “Inner City Blues” or  “Mercy Mercy Me.” Unlike Dr. Dyson,  I didn’t get a desire to go out and try to correct the unjust issues plaguing the community after listening to Gaye’s  plea for social empowerment.

But, now I can see how Gaye’s  music lit a flame into the souls of so many and why Dr. Dyson was fired up after hearing soulful jazz chords serenade passionate pleas for justice, equality and a deeper spiritual connection. Marvin Gaye’s music speaks to the unfortunate times that we are living in and its melancholic, yet powerful theme  inspired me to want to make a difference in the lives of young people.  In “Save the Children” Marvin poetically predicts our downfall if we don’t provide a better life for children because they are our future.

In “What’s Happening Brother” Gaye’s lyrics “War is hell, when will it end”  and “Money is tighter than its ever been” echo as much truth today as it did in the 70s.  Gaye asks many questions, and he leaves it up to us to come up with solutions.

But, I believe Marvin answers his own question in What’s Going On: the answer to our problems lay in God’s hands. Spiritually awakening songs such as  “Wholy Holy” and “God is Love” is Marvin’s sermon to the world. He tells us to believe in one another and also to believe in the Father, because only through Him can we live a fulfilling life.

Below is a quote from Gaye where he talks about what inspired him to record Whats Going On.

I remember I was listening to a tune of mine playing on the radio, ‘Pretty Little Baby’ when the announcer interrupted with news about the Watts riot. My stomach got real tight and my heart started beating like crazy. I wanted to throw the radio down and burn all the bullshit songs I’d been singing and get out there and kick ass with the rest of the brothers. … Why didn’t our music have anything to do with this? Wasn’t music supposed to express feeling? No, according to BG(Berry Gordy), music’s supposed to sell. That’s his trip. And it was mine.—– Marvin Gaye

Courtesy of Mercy, Mercy, Me.

Background on What’s Going On:

  • Album was recorded in 10 days
  • This was the first album Marvin produced on his own with total creative control
  • Marvin didnt write the title track, but recorded it and arranged it himself
  • This was the first R&B album that delved into spirituality on a deeper level.
  • The single, “What’s Going On” sold over 100,000 copies the first day it was released.
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