Marvin Gaye and “What’s Going On” Five Decades Later

An album released a half-century ago still has much relevance in the 21st century

By Abayomi Azikiwe

1970-71 were years of unrest and upheaval in the United States when racial turmoil, an unpopular imperialist war in southeast Asia and a declining environment were major concerns of socially conscious people.

In the city of Detroit, Motown records had been formed by Berry Gordy in 1959 and would, over the period of the 1960s, become a significant force in shaping youth culture among African Americans and the population in general.

Gordy was the son of African American migrants from the southern state of Georgia. His family settled in the lower east side of the city in areas labeled as Black Bottom and Paradise Valley. His father, Berry Gordy, Sr., operated a small business in the community.

Later Berry Jr. would work in automotive manufacturing where he saw the potential for the mass production of music directly generated largely in the Black communities of Detroit. He would utilize a loan from family members to launch the company which would take several years to reach international acclaim. Detroit had long been a center of musical expertise in the fields of Jazz, Blues, Gospel and Rhythm & Blues, and Gordy was eager to tap into this vast array of talent and creative genius.

Hundreds of people were recruited by the Motown corporation as singers, musicians, writers, producers, managers, technical assistants, etc. The existence of Motown provided opportunities to African Americans in Detroit and other regions of the United States to excel and create new public images within the broader society.

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Marvin Gaye and Motown Records

Marvin Gaye was born in Washington, D.C. on April 2, 1939 and would become one of Motown’s most successful artists. His father was a Pentecostal minister and Marvin began his musical interests within the Black Church. By the early 1960s, he had joined Motown where he worked as a writer and drummer and then issued dozens of singles and albums in his own name. Prior to coming to Motown, Gaye, in 1959, joined the Moonglows, a popular all-male singing group.

Gaye would later collaborate with other singers such as Tammie Terrell and Kim Weston. His stature within the Motown organization was professional as well as personal after he married one of the sisters of Berry Gordy, Ana.

The Motown Sound came into being during a time of profound social change and transformations. Although the professionalism of Gordy and his colleagues sought to extend their capacity to market records beyond the African American communities to white audiences both in the U.S. and in Europe, from its earliest years, albums featuring the poetry of Langston Hughes, Margaret Danner and an earlier rendition of the “I Have a Dream” speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered at the Detroit “Walk to Freedom” on June 23, 1963, were of interest to Gordy.

This was the first serious effort to record and distribute addresses by Dr. King. Motown released the Detroit version of “I Have a Dream” in 1964, which is more extensive and militant in tone than a similar address in Washington, D.C. on August 28, and remains an important contribution to the documentation of the Civil Rights Movement of the period.

In 1970, Black Forum, a division of Motown Records, released a record, after a two-year delay, featuring an address by Stokely Carmichael at a “Free Huey” rally in Oakland, California in February 1968. Carmichael, later known as Kwame Ture, was the former Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and a co-founder of the Black Panther movement in Lowndes County, Alabama during 1965-66. Later Carmichael was drafted as Honorary Prime Minister of the Oakland-based Black Panther Party (BPP) when he gave the speech calling for the liberation of BPP co-founder Huey P. Newton, then awaiting trial in the death and wounding of two white Oakland police officers in October 1967.

Contradictions Between Social Struggles and Corporate Considerations

Understanding the pioneering role of Motown in the 1960s and early 1970s, places the events leading up to the release of What’s Going On in 1971. Contradictory reports about the evolution of the musical project have existed for decades since its debut.

There was reluctance on the part of Gordy to issue such a profoundly innovative album in which the lyrics served as a sharp critique of key aspects of the U.S. ruling structures. At this time, the federal Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) and similar operations had resulted in the deaths of leading African American activists and public figures such as Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Fred Hampton, Mark Clark, among many others. Hundreds of members of the Black Panther Party and other organizations were serving prison terms for political activities aimed at realizing revolutionary change.

Although the Motown discography represented by Black Forum and the King speech in Detroit, clearly did not avoid the scrutiny of the white power structure, Gordy felt the need to proceed cautiously. He would later relocate the headquarters of the corporation to Los Angeles the following year after the release of What’s Going On and entered the film industry with the release of Lady Sings the Blues (1972) and Mahogany (1975), both of which starred Diana Ross, co-founder of the top selling Motown group in the mid-to-late 1960s, the Supremes.

Nonetheless, when the title track was released in January 1971 after a year’s delay, the record became a major hit. The full album followed in April and remained high in the charts for months, becoming the top selling Motown album up until that time in history.

In addition to the title song, other contributions included What’s Happening Brother on the returning African American soldiers from Vietnam, of which Gaye’s brother was one. Mercy, Mercy, Mercy (the Ecology), dealt with environmental degradation and the increasing awareness related to these issues. Then Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler), discussed the social crisis in the U.S.

Today some five decades later, these questions continue to occupy progressive artists and activists. In this sense Gaye was a visionary and has earned the recognition for the album by a myriad of institutions, including Rolling Stone music magazine, which ranks What’s Going On as the greatest albums of all time.

The circumstances as reported around the release of What’s Going On were somewhat similar to the disagreement between Gordy and Langston Hughes nearly a decade earlier. According to one report chronicling the relationship between Hughes and Motown Records, Hughes is quoted as saying: “People had told me that Berry Gordy was a genius. That he had made his life’s work music and had found ways to reach wider audiences than we could have ever imagined, but when we spoke and our recording was delayed, I was unsettled. I had never thought of this as something I wanted to do to make money, but that seemed to be his primary motivation. I was more concerned with the work and what we were able to say. I wanted this material to reach more people than my work normally did and that was a large part of why I had even signed with the company in the first place.”

Nonetheless, Gordy had another view on these events involving the release of a recording of Hughes’ poetry. He recalls that: “I created Black Forum as a response to the growing civil rights movement behind Dr. King. The problem was that the records that we made did not sell well at all. The world wasn’t ready for it yet – or maybe they just didn’t want to hear it right then. So we didn’t release them for a little while. Was Langston upset? Yes, but there was good reason for us to be operating the way we were. It wouldn’t have been good business. And, well, we were in the business of making money, not losing it. It was a calculated risk, but we couldn’t afford to alienate our white client base, so we held off on the release and put the records out when things were a little less…tense.”

Gaye continued to produce hit records during the 1970s and early 1980s. Nonetheless, he would be heavily impacted by financial and personal difficulties. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) made claims against his earnings for back taxes and underreported income. Later Gaye would face substance abuse problems and mental health challenges. There are reports that he attempted to take his own life in 1979.

After living overseas in Europe for several years, Gaye returned to the U.S. in the early 1980s. His 1983 hit Sexual Healing placed him once again as a leading figure in commercial music. However, the following year in 1984, he had moved in with his parents in Los Angeles. An ongoing turbulent relationship with his father would result in him shooting Marvin to death on April 1, 1984, just one day before his 45th birthday.

Such a tragic end to a legendary artist is more of a reflection on the institutional racist and exploitative character of U.S. society. Gaye’s death at 44 due to interpersonal violence within his family, does not retract any of the accomplishments of his illustrious music career.

Today the themes articulated in What’s Going On are quite contemporary. There has been the emergence of a new generation of anti-racist, anti-capitalist and environmental climate change activists across the U.S. and the globe. An announcement was made in February 2021 that Black Forum recordings were being reissued. In this sense Marvin Gaye has left an indelible mark on the cultural history of the U.S. and the world.

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