The quint­es­sen­tial socially con­scious album offi­cially turns fifty. I am talk­ing about none oth­er than Mar­vin Gaye’s What’s Going On released in 1971. It was a clas­sic and time­less mas­ter­piece that went against the grain and set a new stand­ard for artists to branch out and use their art for a big­ger pur­pose.

Dr. Mark Anthony Neal, Pro­fess­or of Afric­an Amer­ic­an Stud­ies at Duke Uni­ver­sity and one of the most cut­ting edge cul­tur­al crit­ics put it best. “It is the most exquis­ite response to social issues we have seen in an album” he said.

Fur­ther­more, it came out at the exact right moment in time for both Mar­vin and for soci­ety at large. In 1971, the war in Viet­nam was still raging, racist viol­ence was still flour­ish­ing, and poverty was still rising and Mar­vin wanted to call atten­tion to these prob­lems and in part his desire came from hear­ing the hor­ror stor­ies told by his broth­er Frankie who had served Viet­nam.

Also Mar­vin was break­ing free from being under the thumb of Motown and its founder Berry Gordy who was adam­ant about the label being run like the Ford assembly plants in Detroit that pro­duced pop songs that were pol­ished to per­fec­tion and appeal­ing to the masses.

Even though this album was under Motown it even­tu­ally became the spark that lit the fire for oth­er black artists to take cre­at­ive con­trol of their des­tiny and to be unapo­lo­get­ic­ally black with its riv­et­ing fusion of jazz, soul, and gos­pel hymns and social com­ment­ary.

The release of this album came at a time when Mar­vin was anguish­ing with feel­ings of loss and hope­less­ness as was Amer­ica. From the mid to late six­ties the assas­sin­a­tions of Mal­colm X, Mar­tin Luth­er King Jr., Robert F. Kennedy, and Fred Hamp­ton, men who rep­res­en­ted so much hope for a bet­ter world, rocked the nation to its core.

Muhammad Ali refused to be induc­ted into the US army in 1967 and was in the midst of try­ing to recov­er the three and a half years of his prime lost and whose con­vic­tion was ulti­mately over­turned by the US Supreme Court in 1971.

The begin­ning of the 1970’s kicked off with the murders of stu­dent pro­test­ers at Kent State and Jack­son State Uni­ver­sit­ies as well as Richard Nix­on increas­ing US troop pres­ence in Cam­bod­ia.

UCLA Pro­fess­or and act­iv­ist Angela Dav­is was unjustly charged with being implic­ated in the the 1970 armed attempt at free the Soledad Broth­ers, a group of black men who were alleged to have killed a pris­on guard at the Cali­for­nia pris­on they were jailed in.

1971 also saw the year that George Jack­son, one of the Soledad Broth­ers, pub­lished his fam­ous let­ters from pris­on in the book Soledad Broth­er which became a cult favor­ite among act­iv­ist revolu­tion­ar­ies.

He was killed in August and it was his death that became a major cata­lyst for the most fam­ous pris­on upris­ing in Amer­ic­an his­tory at Attica Cor­rec­tion­al Facil­ity in upstate New York in which over half of the 2,000 inmates organ­ized to rebel against inhu­mane con­di­tions and unjust treat­ment with­in the pris­on walls.

All this set the con­text for someone like Mar­vin to put togeth­er a pro­ject of this mag­nitude as he was in the midst of his own suf­fer­ing.

Mar­vin mean­while suffered from the loss of his famed record­ing part­ner Tammi Ter­rell on March 16, 1970 due to a brain tumor.

They made magic with Motown pro­du­cing clas­sics such as “Ain’t No Moun­tain High Enough,” “Ain’t Noth­ing Like The Real Thing” and “You’re All I Need To Get By.”

He was begin­ning to lose his love of mak­ing music and feel­ing suf­foc­ated by Motowns’ lim­it­a­tions on cre­ativ­ity and in the midst of this he sought out a new ven­ture that was sur­pris­ing, he attemp­ted a try­out with the Detroit Lions of the NFL.

Mar­vin was nev­er good enough to make the team but accord­ing to Dr. Neal there was much more to it.

“Mar­vin was hav­ing a mid-life crisis at that time and dur­ing his try­out with the Detroit Lions he had developed a rela­tion­ship with the play­ers.”

That rela­tion­ship even­tu­ally led to hall of famers Mel Farr and Lem Barney being included on the title track for What’s Going On which was organ­ic in nature as well as a way to pick up the pieces of a city fad­ing away.

“There was some­thing nat­ur­al about hav­ing the play­ers in a party like atmo­sphere” said Dr. Neal.

“Mar­vin was hold­ing on to what was left of Detroit.”

That syn­ergy of ath­letes and artists cre­ated a land­mark moment in pop­u­lar music that has with­stood the test of time and laid the path for oth­er artists to take on socially con­scious endeavors includ­ing in the world of Hip Hop.

Some of the most his­tory defin­ing pro­jects such as but not lim­ited to Grand­mas­ter Flash’s The Mes­sage, Pub­lic Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Mil­lions to Hold Us Back, Tupac Shakur’s Tupac­a­lyspe Now, and Kendrick Lamar’s Pimp a But­ter­fly that took on social issues mir­rors fol­lows in that path.

“It is the album that set the mod­el for the concept album” says Dr. Neal.

In the present day, the themes of What’s Going On are more pre­val­ent than ever when it comes to tack­ling the triple threat of racism, poverty, and mil­it­ar­ism expressed by Dr. King in 1967.

The artists of today are tak­ing on Marvin’s call through their col­lect­ive response around racial injustice in terms of util­iz­ing their vari­ous resources and out­lets to advoc­ate for crit­ic­al issues such as police reform.

They are demand­ing that we pay atten­tion to what has been evid­ent since the incep­tion of this coun­try and to take on the task of actu­ally once and for all rem­edy­ing these wrongs in the spir­it of solid­ar­ity.

It’s pos­sible to assume that if Mar­vin Gaye was around he would have been immensely frus­trated with how fifty years later the pace of pro­gress is still pain­fully slow and the same sub­ject mat­ter is being repeated while also tak­ing pride in the increased levels of organ­iz­ing mobil­iz­a­tion. There are still too many moth­ers cry­ing and still too many broth­ers dying and we still got to find a way to bring some love here today.

The key word is STILL.

Let’s not just talk about what’s going on but actu­ally address what’s going on.

Mar­vin wouldn’t have wanted it any oth­er way.

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Zachary Draves
I am a viol­ence pre­ven­tion edu­cat­or, act­iv­ist, journ­al­ist, aspir­ing film­maker, adjunct pro­fess­or of social justice and civic engage­ment at Domin­ic­an Uni­ver­sity in River Forest, Illinois. I am based in Chica­go, Illinois.

About Zachary Draves

Zachary Draves
I am a violence prevention educator, activist, journalist, aspiring filmmaker, adjunct professor of social justice and civic engagement at Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois. I am based in Chicago, Illinois.