Marvin Gaye’s Wake Up Call Still Rings True 50 Years Later

Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On captured the pain and turmoil that the 1960s were wreaking on a community that had been marginalized and abused in the name of privilege since America’s inception. Many African American soul artists at this time highlighted the grievances and injustices that the Civil Rights Movement and Black Power Movement were working to disassemble but Gaye’s music rang differently. The foundation of What’s Going On lies on a message of communicating to find peace and understanding. The album isn’t rageful or angry but Gaye still passionately pleas for people to recognize the need for overwhelming structural modifications to the political, social, and economic conditions in the United States. The tone of the music might not be angry, but Gaye is unmistakably frustrated by the overt and institutional racism that far too many people are complacent in. Perhaps more than any decade, the 60s are most identifiable by their music and recognizing the relationship that What’s Going On had to the Civil Rights Movement can inform listeners about the disorder, sorrow and hopefulness that people were feeling at the time of its release.

With the idealism of the 60s crashing head on with racial tension and a violent disposition among Americans, artists and musicians used their platform to foreground the oppression that African Americans were experiencing across the United States. Nina Simone, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin and many other artists began to commercialize the protest against racism and violence. The primary vehicle for this musical protest, and the one Gaye used, was soul. Soul music and blackness in America are inextricable from each other. Soul music “reflects, defines, and directs the strategies, expectations, and aspirations of black Americans” (Stewart 198). With influences from jazz and blues, soul music was a unifying genre that had roots to the music heard in segregated churches. The 1960s and soul music are both reckoning with the past which may be why soul music was suitable for expressing the hundreds of years of racialized oppression. The jazz and blues running through the album allow Gaye to passionately and energetically examine the lengths the United States is or is not willing to go for African Americans, the working class, and veterans without ever making the listener feel like Gaye wants nothing more than prosperity for his peers.

Marvin Gaye’s entry into the Civil Rights Movement coincided with a challenging period in his personal life that led him into seclusion. The disintegration of his marriage, the death of a recording partner, and the disenchantment with the Vietnam War resulted in What’s Going On, Gaye’s most politically charged album. Released in 1971, Gaye said he found it difficult to write the upbeat love ballads that he became famous for and when his studio would ask how his new music was coming along, he would reply with “Have you read about those kids who were killed at Kent State?” (Ritz 168). Before this album, Gaye contemplated releasing music with a larger political message thinking, “Why didn’t our music have anything to do with the [Watts Riot]? Wasn’t music supposed to express feelings?” (Ritz 133). The difficulty was making music that would initiate progress by inspiring African Americans to continue to push for legislative and social equality rather than reflect the current sentiments and climate without any reformation.

Gaye turned his attention to making music that could potentially create change in the African American community and beyond. Ron Keranga argues that Black Art should be functional, collective and committing and there is no “art for art’s sake” (52). The people that the Black Art was made for and the art itself should work together to educate each other, exchange information, and develop one another. What’s Going On articulated the collective grievances of a marginalized race that was waiting for change. The black community embraced the album and used it to express themselves in a way they had not been able to before which allowed them to have progressive conversations about the racism they experience. Before the Civil Rights Movement, black art was not popular art. Gaye’s music would not have been played on the radio or spread the way that it was, which positions it uniquely. He did not make art for art’s sake and his message created a dialogue.

The name of the album and the title track, What’s Going On, sets the tone for the remainder of the songs. The first noise heard is not a strum or a beat, it is voices. The lasting impact of the album is human, not sonic. “What’s Going On” depicts a Vietnam War veteran returning home that has seen the toll that destruction and violence has on victims and the people who inflict it. Gaye sings, “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.” In the first 30 seconds of the album, Marvin’s proposition can be deduced. He is crying out for his mother and his brother but also calling for diplomatic change. Gaye combines the personal and political throughout the album to develop an empathetic connection to his audience. A recurring and perhaps the enduring theme that is also mentioned in the previous verse is spreading love rather than waging war. Gaye was releasing this music after Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination, the Kent State Massacre, and President Nixon’s inauguration. The momentum that MLK, Malcom X, and even Robert Kennedy had galvanized in the mid 1960s was simply no longer there and a helplessness filled the void. Rather than responding with spite or hate, Gaye proposes that everyone see “what’s going on” and be the change.

The genius of Gaye’s lyrics are on display in “What’s Going On” when he sings “You see war is not the answer / For only love can conquer hate.” Gaye could be alluding to the Vietnam War or the war that had been waging on African Americans for hundreds of years. Gaye interwove racial oppression and his anti-war sentiment on What’s Going On because they were not independent of one another. The burden of fighting the Vietnam War fell on minorities and the lower class with privileged whites and those with access to expendable resources or connections evading the draft. The Vietnam War “fragmented the Civil Rights Movement” when civil rights groups took antiwar positions because Americans were still supporting the war (Stewart 13). “What’s Going On” tells the story most African American men experienced upon their return from Vietnam. They had escaped one war only to find another being fought at their doorstep. The Vietnam War produced paradoxes that haunted black Americans. The US military was more integrated than the nation it defended and African American Veterans were afforded opportunities they otherwise wouldn’t receive but faced a greater chance of being on the front lines. Martin Luther King Jr expressed these concerns specifically about how “the amount of money spent to kill each enemy soldier far exceeded the sum that was spent to assist each American who lived below the poverty line” (Stewart 14). Gaye saw his brother experience this first hand and “What’s Going On” asks his audience to recognize the deep racial flaws in the infrastructure of the United States that creates insurmountable barriers for African Americans. His solution is communicative and peaceful as he repeats “C’mon talk to me (Brother)” and “I’ll tell you what’s goin’ on.” These are the main themes of the album and he introduces them in the first song as an archetype of what is to come.

Each song leads in to the next seamlessly as if one starts before the previous one ends. The result is a holistic concept album that is not only connected by the themes that Gaye imbued, but also by the way Gaye requires people to listen to it. Gaye could be commenting about how all of the political, social and environmental issues are connected and Americans should work to improve the conditions of all of them. Gaye said of this choice, “I also saw that I wanted to treat the album as an album, not as a string of small songs. So I found a theme, and I tried to explore it from several different angles,” (Ritz 176). The album is unified in its presentation just as Gaye argues for the unification of Americans. For many African Americans and their allies, the optimism that had driven their efforts for most of the 1960s was obstructed by the minimal return they received from the government that promised life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Gaye recognized that “Even as the civil rights movement struck down legal barriers and transformed the face of southern politics, it failed to diminish economic inequalities” (Litwak 8). Gaye’s music was a unifying force in a time when black Americans were uncertain about their future and the future of the country. His choice to synthesize the album in to a whole that cycles through song after song strengthens his argument that Americans must come together peacefully to effect any change. If one song is removed or put in a different place, the album doesn’t segue or operate as comprehensively as Gaye intended just as if one neighbor or state or race doesn’t peacefully fight for equality, the result is ineffectual.

Taking a cue from the title of the album, Gaye continually questions leadership, government policies, funding, and even fellow American citizens who aren’t proactive in human rights issues. Gaye calls on those establishments, not with malice or blame, but with messages of reconciliation and hope. After the cultural and political upheaval of the 1960s, African Americans were concerned with how things were going to change and questioned the sincerity of American institutions’ promises of change. “Inner City Blues” is the standout on What’s Going On because it sounds differently than the other tracks and serves as the climax of the album where all of the subjects that Gaye has examined are integrated in one song. Gaye’s voice is less smooth and crooning in “Inner City Blues” with more drums and percussion used rather than the orchestra that has dominated the sound thus far. In the first verse in “Inner City Blues” Gaye states, “Rockets, moon shots / Spend it on the have nots / Money, we make it / ‘Fore we see it, you take it.” The lyrics play more like spoken word or rap and Gaye’s tone is noticeably more frustrated than on songs that identify more closely with soul or gospel like “Wholy Holy” or “Save the Children.” Gaye openly criticizes political leadership and the federal government on their policy priorities. The United States deluded itself into thinking it was the pinnacle of modernity in the 1960s with achievements like the Apollo 11 mission while cities like Detroit and Baltimore, which is where Gaye spent much of his time, were underdeveloped and sinking into poverty. Martin Luther King’s tremendous contributions to the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s are perhaps the most important legislative milestones in the 20th century. But the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act could not dismantle the institutional and systemic racism or the white supremacy that corrupted the minds of Americans. Gaye recognized the painful truth that despite the achievements of the previous decade, a flawed system remained.

Gaye continued to capture the collective dissent that African Americans and those opposed to the Vietnam War were feeling toward politics and economic funding in “Inner City Blues.” Gaye was not yet as disillusioned with America’s institutions as the rappers or R&B artists of the 1980s and 90s would become. But the beginnings of that genre can be seen in Gaye’s lyrics when he sings, “Oh crime is increasin’ / Trigger happy policin’ / Panic is spreadin’ / God knows where we’re headin’.” As the song goes on, Gaye is almost exasperated and fearful of the racism and senseless violence that he is witnessing. Gaye is confronting issues that African Americans were going to encounter for the next 50 years such as poverty and police brutality. He was astute enough to anticipate the next wave of racism that the Civil Rights Movement was unable to combat. In the 1970s during “the Reagan administration, the United States witnessed massive upward redistribution of wealth unequaled in our history” (Marable 98). The class disparity and wealth gap has crippled African Americans from receiving high quality education and competing for higher paying jobs. Gaye acknowledged that the trajectory that African Americans were on only perpetuated an ideological form of racism that would clear a path for contemporary racial inequality issues. Gaye also recognized how dangerous the crime rate increasing was and how “the racial oppression that defines U.S. society as a whole is most dramatically apparent within the criminal justice system and the prisons” (Marable 98). The discrepancies in city funding, health care, education, and police brutality are the evolution of the Jim Crow era racism that the Civil Rights Movement fought to end.

“Inner City Blues” feels like Side B to “What’s Going On” which may be why it feels like the climax of the album. Gaye is responding to his calls to action that he put forth in “What’s Going On.” At the end of “Inner City Blues” he sings, “Yeah it make me wanna holler / And throw up my hands.” “Inner City Blues” explores the reactions to becoming aware of the corruption and prejudice in “What’s Going On” It is also why having the album play in a cycle is so effective. Gaye’s emotions, just like everyone else’s, are fluid and although he is more frustrated and pointed in “Inner City Blues” his message of love and peace is not lost because when this song ends, the album loops and starts again with “What’s Going On.”

The religious undertones throughout the album are difficult to ignore especially on songs like “Wholy Holy” and “God is Love.” These two songs have the rhythm of gospel music and incorporate church choir background vocals. In “God Is Love” Gaye sings, “He made this world for us to live in / And gave us everything / And all He asks of us / Is we give each other love.” “God Is Love” feels most like a gospel song with Gaye calling his audience to action to “Love your father / Love your sister / Love your brother.” Many compared Gaye’s music to listening to a sermon at a church. The words, the message, and even the rhythm of the music instill an enthusiasm that is palpable. The feeling after attending a church service is simultaneously peaceful and motivational. Gaye replicates those sensations here.

The Civil Rights Movement was founded by men whose beliefs were grounded in Christianity. Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, and other religious Civil Rights Leaders galvanized the power and consciousness of black southern churches to invigorate the Civil Rights Movement. Paul Harvey notes that the “historically racist grounding of whiteness as dominant and blackness as inferior was radically overturned in part through a reimagination of the same Christian thought that was part of creating it in the first place,” (Harvey 1). Gaye uses that strategy here by weaponizing Christianity and asserting that God is the only answer to defeating the violence that racism and war cause. In the liner notes of What’s Going On, Gaye says, “Find God: We’ve got to find the lord. Allow him to influence us. I mean what other weapons have we to fight the forces of hatred and evil,” (Motown Record Company). As discussed earlier, gospel and soul are similar in their ability to cultivate a community for African Americans to amplify their voices and express their black pride. Gaye’s music is effective in communicating the emotional turbulence that African Americans were feeling in the 1960s because he was appealing to an audience that responded positively to religious rhetoric and gospel.

During the 1960s, protest music empowered people who were struggling for equality and searching for self-determination. Gaye unquestionably believed that he could initiate change with his music but not all artists felt this way at the time. Even Gaye’s own record label discouraged him from working on a politically charged album, fearing it would not achieve commercial success. As stated earlier, Ron Karenga also believed that black art is “functional, collective, and committed,” (51). Artists at this time who rejected political interpretation of their art were participating in a question that was in its very nature political. They are asking to be “free” from political association. That freedom is abstract, just as their art is abstract. Marvin Gaye encouraged the political discourse that What’s Going On prompted, unlike Bob Dylan who had the privilege of distancing himself from such affiliations because of his skin color.

There was a mutual belief that Gaye shared with other black artists. There was simply too much at stake to not make revolutionary art. Gaye knew that his music could foster “networks of solidarity and connectedness and [provide] marginalized communities in the U.S. and abroad with powerful symbols of resistance and self-affirmation in the face of oppression and exclusion,” (Kaltmeier and Raussert 13). In part because Gaye felt he was “prophetic” and because the climate in 1970 was just as destructive and subversive as it was in the 60s , he traded love songs for “soul and salvation” (Ritz 163). A Rolling Stone journalist who reviewed the album was taken aback by the change, noting “There are very few performers who could carry a project like this off. I’ve always admired Marvin Gaye, but I didn’t expect that he would be one of them. Guess I seriously underestimated him. It won’t happen again,” (Aletti). What’s Going On relayed the reality of the frenzied 1960s but it was not just a narration of the experiences and moments happening in the world. The title of the album is not a question, it is a statement. Gaye is conscious of the urgency for Americans to see the deep racial and class disparities and believes communication and reconciliation are the only approaches that can conquer hate. Gaye’s message is clear. There needs to be immense legislative and social transformations to improve the conditions of African Americans and they can only do it together.

Marvin Gaye’s Album, What’s Going On, characterized the radical disruption in culture and politics that occurred in the 1960s. It was a significant album at the time, and unfortunately it is “a measure of the album’s power and of our continuing failures as a nation that What’s Going On rings as true today as it did when it was new” (Werner 195). Gaye managed to incorporate elements of African American history with his use of jazz and gospel to pay homage to the black struggle that originated in antebellum slavery and segregated churches. Integrating gospel into What’s Going On also allowed Gaye to speak directly to the audience that was most involved in the Civil Rights Movement. Throughout the album, Gaye repeatedly calls on institutions and the federal government to end the sustained racism that has debilitated African Americans from seeing any improvements in their conditions. Gaye believed that he could inspire a political awakening with his music and unify his audience under a singular objective: love conquers hate. What’s Going On expresses the contradictory feelings of faith and despair that echoed through the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement, and the next 50 years of a society that foolishly believed it had already righted its wrongs.

Works Cited

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Gaye, Marvin. What’s Goin On. Marvin Gaye. Tamala. 21 May 1971.

Harvey, Paul. “Civil Rights Movements and Religion in America.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion, 2016, doi:10.1093/acrefore/9780199340378.013.492.

Kaltmeier, Olaf, and Wilfried Raussert. Sonic Politics: Music and Social Movements in the Americas. Routledge, Taylor Et Francis Group, 2019.

Karenga, Ron (Maulana). “Black Cultural Nationalism.” SOS — Calling All Black People: A Black Arts Movement Reader, edited by John H. Bracey et al., University of Massachusetts Press, AMHERST; BOSTON, 2014, pp. 51–54. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt5vk2mr.10. Accessed 4 Aug. 2020.

Litwack, Leon F. “‘Fight the Power!” The Legacy of the Civil Rights Movement.” The Journal of Southern History, vol. 75, no. 1, 2009, p. 8. JSTOR, www-jstor-org.ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/stable/pdf/27650400.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3A05e66acd593d1dd913d567c5c5c3c44a.

Ritz, David. Divided Soul. Da Capo Press, 1985.

Stewart, James B. “Message in the Music: Political Commentary in Black Popular Music from Rhythm and Blues to Early Hip Hop.” The Journal of African American History, vol. 90, no. 3, 2005, pp. 196–225., doi:10.1086/jaahv90n3p196.

Werner, Craig. “ ‘What’s Going On’: MUSIC AND THE LONG ROAD HOME.” We Gotta Get out of This Place: the Soundtrack of the Vietnam War, by Doug Bradley, University of Massachusetts Press, 2015, pp. 185–195. JSTOR, www-jstor-org.ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/stable/pdf/j.ctt1cx3srf.9.pdf?ab_segments=0%252Fbasic_SYC-5187%252Ftest&refreqid=excelsior%3Aeab6eca4c9d17dd29d0e43404f35c0ca.

“What’s Going On.” aln2.Albumlinernotes, Motown Record Company, L.P.,aln2.albumlinernotes.com/What_s_Going_On.html.