When it was released in May of 1971, Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” not only rocketed up the music charts, it also shook the collective consciousness of a nation at a crossroads, one that was battling with its sordid past and the direction of its future.
The months that preceded the album’s release had been roiled by conflict — nationwide protests in response to the seemingly unending Vietnam War, horrific events at Kent State University, the ongoing struggles of the civil rights movement, the underlying threat of the Cold War.
America, having just emerged from a recession, was a country divided, seething, alert and searching for answers.
Marvin Gaye had slumped into a deep depression. Burdened by a marriage fallen apart, the untimely death of singing partner Tammi Terrell and mounting legal troubles, Gaye disappeared from the music scene and slipped into seclusion.
He emerged armed with a message of peace and equality, one that highlighted the dangers of poverty and tackled environmental issues years before they became part of the national conversation.
“What’s Going On” became a soundtrack of sorts for an era defined by protests.
It was fresh and hip, soulful and soaring, daring in its dissent.
And 48 years after its release, it is still relevant. We are living, once again, in the age of the protest.
The teenagers who gathered in Washington, D.C., and around the country as part of the March for Our Lives movement aren’t going away any time soon. Neither are groups like Black Lives Matter and Me Too, or the teachers who are striking across the country.
Protests are bursting with anticipation, buoyed by a sense that change is somewhere on the horizon.
After his brother, Frankie, returned from Vietnam in 1970, Marvin wrote “What’s Happening, Brother.” It would serve as the second track, and a pivotal one, on “What’s Going On,” chronicling a solder’s return to civilian life after horrific experiences.
“War is hell, when will it end,” Gaye sang. “Can’t find no work, can’t find no job my friend. Money is tighter than it’s ever been.”
That song followed the title track, “What’s Going On,” with its focus on unity amid violent protests of the war. It was also an answer to the Watts riots in 1965.
“With the world exploding around me,” Gaye once said, according to biographer David Ritz, “how am I supposed to keep singing love songs?”
Instead, the Motown legend infused his music with themes of reconciliation and hope.
The album, author Michael Eric Dyson once said, was as “complete a sermon as you hear in church.”
“Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” focused on the threat of global warming, particularly as it related to America’s addiction to oil. It was a visionary track, one that lamented the disappearance of beauty in favor of multimillion-dollar profits.
Throughout “What’s Going On” there was one important message: talk to me, listen and hear what I have to say. In the Deep South, America was still in the process of desegregating its schools. The country was trying to come to terms with the violence it saw in Vietnam and on its own street corners.
Its strongest black leader, Martin Luther King Jr., had been assassinated three years earlier. In those early 1970s, Gaye helped fill a void by singing about the importance for dialogues on race.
The singer died April 1, 1984, 34 years ago last week, one day before his 45th birthday.
His death was the stuff of tragedies. Gaye was shot and killed after an argument by his father, who, it was later revealed, was suffering from a brain tumor at the time. The son died from a bullet fired from the very gun he had given to his father for protection.
If he were alive now, perhaps Gaye would be right there with the March for Our Lives or the Black Lives Matter movements, advocating for tighter gun control or against systemic racism.
One thing is for sure: He would be somewhere, taking a stand.