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.