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“What’s Going On?” – 45 Years Later and We Still Don’t Have an Answer for Marvin

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It’s been 45 years since Marvin Gaye released his song addressing the state of the world he lived in, and it seems not much has changed.

“Mother, mother/There’s too many of you crying/Brother, brother, brother/There’s far too many of you dying/You know we’ve got to find a way/To bring some lovin’ here today…”

Music has always carried messages. The histories of entire societies have been passed down through song. Soundtracks tell the stories of movies. Even kindergarten teachers turn simple facts into songs so students can better remember them. So it’s no surprise that when an artist releases a song with lyrics as powerful as the ones above, the song transcends time and is found relevant through generations.

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Marvin Gaye, one of the iconic names in the Motown dynasty, released “What’s Going On?” on January 20, 1971 as a response to police brutality witnessed by Renaldo “Obie” Benson, the bassist for the Four Tops. Benson, Gaye, and Motown writer Al Cleveland then composed the classic song, and Gaye produced it, himself.

At the time, the United States was coming off of a tumultuous period – the 1960s – a decade rife with assassination, war, political unrest, drug use like the country had never seen before, racism, and revolution in every social arena. The country found itself shell-shocked with sudden turmoil after the ease and economic prosperity of the 1950s, and understandably, many people were confused as the world they thought they knew was turned on end. The “American Dream” seemed to be turning into more of a nightmare.

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Motown, a record label known for feel-good ballads and dance songs, masterful musicians, and unmatched vocalists, was one of the most well-respected labels through all of the societal changes, and this song, full of social commentary, was even more impactful coming from one of the most prominent artists on the label. Not only were people listening already just because of the name associated with the song, they were having to come to terms with the fact that Marvin wasn’t above the issues he was addressing – he was, in fact, a black man, not just a singer, not just an entertainer. Addressing the people in the song as “brother,” “father,” “mother,” Gaye identified the people being discriminated against as his family because the fact of the matter is that because of his skin color, police brutality affected him personally, regardless of his assumed social status as a celebrity. For some who were just in it for the music, it was a hard pill to swallow.

Fast forward 45 years….

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Beyoncé’s video for “Formation” took fans by surprise as it was released randomly, without prior notice. The imagery in the video, the featured voices of Messy Mya and Big Freedia, the lyrics in the song detailing how Beyoncé loved her baby’s hair in its natural state and was also very fond of her husband’s ethnic facial features – those elements of the surprise video forced audiences to deal with an even bigger reality: Beyoncé was, is, and will always be black.

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“Race music” was a term used to describe music that crossed over from the black audiences into white radio. The term diminished, then ultimately disappeared, as the color lines were blurred in order for races to enjoy each others’ music. Music brought people together as a common diversion. However, artists’ skin colors and cultures do not disappear just because their art is enjoyed by everyone. It is during times like Marvin lived in – like WE live in now – that we, as music-lovers, have to figure out what to do with the humanity of our favorite artists.

Just as we had to take “Let’s Get It On” Marvin with “What’s Going On?” Marvin, we have to accept “I Love Myself” Kendrick with “We Gon’ Be Alright” Kendrick.

The difficulty comes in the lack of instructions on how to break down these barriers we may not even be aware we have erected. Music is great when it’s time to have fun or relax, but we have a responsibility to be intelligent listeners and respond to the messages we’re hearing.

What do we do with the fact that the person who sings our favorite songs belongs in the same group of people for whom we might hold some kind of prejudice or ignorance?

What happens when they speak out and remind us that they, too, are living in the same world in which we live?

What happens when music is no longer a diversion, but it’s a message?

We’re living in the same times in which our parents grew up. It’s not that racial tensions, ignorance, social unrest, and political corruption have escalated. That’s not the difference. The only difference is that there are more cameras.

As music consumers, we are responsible for learning that we cannot fairly separate a person’s experience as a human from that person’s expression. Marvin Gaye was pained and confused by what was happening in his world. Beyoncé, Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, Chance the Rapper – they are all begging the same question, “What’s going on? Why is it that “they” can accept my music but want me to quiet down about what’s happening to my mother, father, sisters, and brothers?”

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More and more music is popping up with newer technology so that artists no longer have to wait for anyone to approve of and publish their music. Artists are beginning to put out free mixtapes more often to get their voices heard. It is not time to silence their “What’s Going On?” because the fact is…we still don’t have an answer.

The only solution just as Marvin suggested in his original song: dialogue. Perhaps while people are still listening, they can be further educated on the real experiences their “favorites” are having.

Music has always brought people together. Let’s hope that in these times it continues to do its job.

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Hope Carter
Hailing from "Screwston," Texas, Hope has been immersed in music since birth, first being exposed to Motown by her parents, then discovering her love for all genres as she trained as a dancer. Her unique set of life experiences growing up in Houston's Historic Third Ward as a lower middle class child, attending schools in more affluent neighborhoods, all the while attending an international church in which she was very involved, created her open-minded approach to music and art. Hope is very socially conscious, and prefers to take songs as a whole - both lyrically and sonically - before making her final judgment on their quality. As a dancer, she is inclined to be interested to anything she can move to, but her Dirty South roots give her room to appreciate a more laidback, chill (screwed) vibe. Her taste in music continues to change as she discovers new artists and as genres evolve.