After 30 Years - Marvin Gaye's laandmark album "What's Going On?"

By Eljeer Hawkins Justice Issue 24 April-May 2001

Justice is the paper of Socialist Alternative, the CWI group in the USA.
"...Crime is increasing
Trigger happy policing
Panic is spreading
God knows where we're heading
Oh, make me wanna holler..."
This May marks the thirtieth anniversary of the release of Marvin Gaye's landmark album What's Going On. The album is a musical, Black-Detroit reflection on the social landscape of the 60's and 70's. The conditions of working class and poor people in the US and worldwide under capitalism have gotten worse since then and What's Going On still serves as a soundtrack to our reality.

From 1964 - 1972 US imperialism was mired in a war in Vietnam and South East Asia so unpopular that it gave birth to a worldwide antiwar movement. A Pentagon report said Blacks constituted 11 percent of US soldiers in South East Asia. 12.5 percent of all soldiers killed in Vietnam since 1961 were Black.

The period also saw a growing connection between the anti-war movement, the civil rights movement, union organizing among Blacks and other US oppressed ethnic minorities, the student movement and other struggles. There were prison uprisings at Attica and Rahway and racial explosions in Detroit, Watts, Washington, DC and every other city where Blacks and others lived in oppressive ghetto conditions. The FBI attacked the Black Panther Party, the American Indian Movement, the anti-war movement, and other radicals. As the connection between the movements grew and in some cases moved towards a socialist perspective, AfricanAmerican supporters and leaders like Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Fred Hampton, and George Jackson (one of the three convicts known as the Soledad Brothers) were assassinated.

Berry Gordy founded Motown in 1958 in Detroit, Michigan. It was one of the first major Black-owned music companies, turning out some of the most popular songs in the country. It made household names of artists like Smokey Robinson and Diana Ross and groups like the Temptations and Supremes. Marvin Gaye was known as a smooth crooner with hits like "I Heard it Through the Grapevine." With his popular success at Motown, Marvin Gaye wanted to expand as an artist, songwriter and producer. His aspirations brought on clashes with Berry Gordy and Quality Control (the body that decided which material would be released under the Motown label). They become legendary and almost kept the album, What's Going On, from being produced.

Two important events contributed to the album's birth. First, while on tour in San Francisco, Renaldo "Obie" Benson of the Four Tops, witnessed a violent showdown between police and protesters over People's Park. He thought to himself, "The police was beatin' on the kids, but they wasn't bothering anybody." He continued to think about this and deeper connections came to him, particularly to the Vietnam War. He questioned sending young people, black, white, working class, and poor, to a war in the name of "Democracy" not practiced at home. Along with Al Cleveland, Benson began to work on a song that addressed these issues. He attempted to have other artists record and perform it, but no one was interested. Even his own group, the Four Tops, wouldn't record a protest song.

Second, in 1968 Marvin Gaye's cousin died in the Vietnam War. His younger brother did three tours of duty there. Gaye's brother told him about events he participated in and witnessed in the war. Marvin Gaye collected more information about the condition of the Vietnamese people, particularly the children. Eventually, Benson gave his song to Marvin Gaye to refine. The song "What's Going On" began to take shape.

Marvin and Gordy had a bitter fight over releasing a protest song‹not a staple of the Motown sound. Gordy later called the song, " the worst thing I've ever heard in my life." At Motown, an artist's choice of material was under the control of Gordy, who feared ruin if Motown became too closely linked to the antiwar or black power movements. Gordy thought that adopting Black Capitalism would save black people. He was in tune with others like James Brown who supported Richard Nixon for president at the time.

After a back and forth struggle, a single of "What's Going On," was released. It was an instant hit on the radio and thousands of copies were sold. The single's success forced Berry Gordy to give the okay for an album to be produced.

Musical Innovation

30 days later a nine-song masterpiece that dealt with war, crime, and environmental destruction was released. The three-layer voice-over style Marvin introduced was a new and fresh concept for vocal arrangements. The jazz-influenced music was a new sound for soul albums. What's Going On ranks with jazz giant John Coltrane's classic A Love Supreme or the works of Bob Marley. It opened the door for other Motown artists like Stevie Wonder to explore and write soul music about the situation facing working class and poor people. These artists seem to draw a big part of their inspiration from the struggle of humanity to free itself from oppression.

The impact of the album is greater than can be measured by the music industry and corporate America's standards and rankings: at number 4 in the Top 100 Albums of Rock 'n Roll by television music station VH1. What's Going On stands on its own as art, but the conditions that led to its creation are of great importance.

Those conditions have not improved. 42 million people now live without healthcare benefits in the US, and face police killings like that of Amadou Diallo, Dawson, Dorismond, and countless others, and suffer from the ongoing rape of nature in the name of profit. The abstract solutions that Marvin Gaye prescribed - a belief in God and more love - are rooted in his family's church background. Ironically and tragically in 1984 his father, a storefront preacher, after a violent fight shot and killed Marvin Gaye.

What's Going On raised the standard for all pop musicians and provided a crystal-ball gaze into the present and future under capitalism for young people, workers and poor people. Marvin Gaye posed the question "What's going on?" It is way past time to answer him and bring forth a solution.

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