Mother mother, there’s too many of you crying,
Brother brother, there’s too many of you dying
Does history really repeat itself?
As it turns 50 today, the fact that Marvin Gaye’s song “What’s Going On” doesn’t miss a beat with foretelling today’s social climate is outright troubling. Often, claims like these regarding music come with praises for aging like fine wine. To say the track is timeless is an understatement: it’s a little too timeless. January 20, 2021 is just a mirrored reflection of where this country stood half a century ago.
Like the beginning of this decade, 1970 was a year plagued with recession, epidemic, and social injustice. With the U.S. being knee-deep in a global fight that has claimed thousands of American lives a month, the nation split in two and began coming to blows against each other. Protestors wore thin of their trust for those in political power and swarmed the streets to voice their concerns at the risk of their own lives.
You know we’ve got to find a way,
To bring some lovin’ here today, yeah
The song itself was inspired by the tragic Bloody Thursday events that took place on UC-Berkeley’s campus. Students speaking out against America’s interference in international affairs and formed by the thousands at People's Park. Ultimately, this led to many being beaten and shot at by National Guard officers deployed by then-Cali. governor Ronald Reagan. When members of Motown’s group act the Four Tops, witnessed the altercation in detail, it moved them enough to form an idea for the song. After they approached Gaye about it and he accepted it, he got to work on constructing it as his own. Gaye was no stranger to the heated emotion as he was already finding himself affected by the tales that his brother would give about fighting in Vietnam. For a black war veteran returning from international turmoil to even more brewing back at home, it gave cold truth for what the world had become. It was through these stories that Gaye was able to form the lens from which he wrote lyrics.
Prior to the song’s creation, Gaye himself was climbing out of a personal low point. This had left him searching for new direction as an artist that was more conscious and though-provoking. His outlook on the world caused him to make music outside of his norm and Motown’s. In fact, the label’s founder Berry Gordy was against the track’s release due to its outspoken lyrics. As a policy, Motown prepared their musical acts with training to avoid controversial topics in songs and public appearances.
Father, father, We don't need to escalate
You see, war is not the answer, For only love can conquer hate
The label’s cemented pop success during the doo-wop era made Gordy reluctant for change. This led Gaye and Harry Balk to secretly press 100,000 copies of the song. Motown’s first official protest in music paid off as it quickly became one of the label’s most successful singles. His past success had made him a voice of his time, but it was “What’s Going On” that made him a voice of the people. But it wouldn’t have happened without his blatant disobedience against tradition that was driven by his love for humanity.
”I began to reevaluate my whole concept of what I wanted my music to say... I realized that I had to put my own fantasies behind me if I wanted to write songs that would reach the souls of people. I wanted them to take a look at what was happening in the world." -Marvin Gaye, Rolling Stone
The moment you press play, the scene painted is similar to the one heard in Childish Gambino’s “This Is America”. Amongst the joyous voices in both intros eager to dance and party is a brutal acknowledgement of what’s really happening. To a point that you can tell the voices want a good time to shake off the trauma they face everyday.
Out from the voices comes Marvin Gaye with his troubled recollection of a world his people truly resided in. At the height of his success, he could not turn a blind eye to what he heard and saw. It affected him to his core so dearly that drove him to speak on the harsh realities on record.
Picket lines and picket signs/Don't punish me with brutality
Come on talk to me/So you can see, What’s going on
Those last three words were not uttered to question what he saw, for that would’ve made Gaye oblivious to his surroundings. Instead, it was said as a statement to summarize the confused state of the world in much need of hope. Similar to the one this country has found itself inside of today.
It’s safe to say that what we’ve endured within the past year is within one of our darkest hours. Economies and job sectors have been rattled to their core, causing massive job losses and small businesses to fold. COVID-19 cases skyrocketed by the millions and took hundreds of thousands away from us. In an effort to minimize the spread, it became essential for our safety to stay home and quarantine. Even then, we found ourselves taking to the streets even more angered over the blood of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor spilling at the hands of police. Protestors that actively voiced their outrage and were quickly met with rubber bullets, tear gas, and excessive physical force as a means to “control the crowds”. Because of this, a wedge between the two grew even deeper
As we all glance into our screens to watch the virtual inauguration, the country rests in bittersweet uncertainty. The official start of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’ time in office begins and a well-deserved ending comes for Trump. As beautiful as this sounds, we don’t even have a moment to enjoy it. DC’s 295 highway has been giving drivers various PSAs about avoiding the city today. Not due to fear of the pandemic spreading, but because of the Proud Boys exerting an unwarranted authority in protest.
These lines still hold so much weight that you’d think he’s here witnessing it all. He’s not here to foresee today’s social climate and yet, he’s still saying all the right things.Though he is not around to see the social climate today, Gaye's lines, still holding a tremendous amount of weight, brings about the same question that we've never gotten an answer for. Half a century later, his song continues to make it evident that America needs to accept some hard truths so we may finally be able to say what's going on. As the album baring the same name doesn’t turn 50 until May, we can only pray that today’s turning point in history will only serve for the greater good. That way, we can reminisce on the album being an oracle of yesterday and not tomorrow.