Please tell me “What’s Going On”?: the contemporary resonance of Marvin Gaye

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Editor’s Note: Throughout this piece we’ve embedded and linked to the various musical cues that are foundational to Dr. Chaplin’s article. We wanted to provide a direct opportunity to hear Marvin Gaye’s seminal album while comparing it to modern music from Kendrick Lamar and Janelle Monáe. 

Public historians in various fields interpret and preserve the impact music has had on the American cultural fabric. Through audiovisual presentations, publications, exhibitions, and archives, these historians have used music as vehicles to establish dialogues within communities and to comment on injustices that occurred (and still occur) in institutions of power. For example, the National Museum of African American History and Culture offers a tour of the “Musical Crossroads” exhibit that features Chuck Berry’s 1973 Eldorado Cadillac.

Bronze Statue of Marvin Gaye sitting at a piano in Ostend, Belgium.

A statue of Marvin Gaye in Ostend, Belgium. Credit: TeaMeister via Flickr CC BY 2.0

The docent explains the cultural, racial, historical connections to this object while educating the public about Berry’s pioneering role in rock n’ roll. One can also find the critical role of the National Recording Board, appointed by the Library of Congress, which added Marvin Gaye’s hallmark album What’s Going On (1971) to its National Recording Registry in 2003. As with other topical albums on the Registry, What’s Going On provides an aural aid for interpreting the politics, civil unrest, and cultural mindset of its era.

Personal memories invoked by Gaye’s legacy

Albums like Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On ignite our personal and cultural memories and fuel our hopes for the future. As a young child growing up in the South in the 1970s, my mother introduced me to Marvin Gaye and the rest of the “Motown Sound.” I became enamored by Gaye’s quiet and confident persona, his cool, and his soulfulness, all of which radiated Black pride. His music and image permeated the elementary and middle schools I attended.

My classmates and I watched as he pushed beyond circumscribed artistic and socioeconomic boundaries, eventually cementing his niche in the pantheon of American music and history. His drive and achievements incentivized me and my peers. As students, we wore copies of his signature knitted hat that we dubbed our “Marvin Gaye caps.” To us, they were not only fashion statements, but also signs of cultural pride and solidarity. To aspiring youths, Gaye and the rest of the Motown family served as stimuli, and we, in turn, challenged limits placed on us due to race, socioeconomic status, gender, and geography. Today, Gaye’s prophetic lyrics echo anew as current generations tie new experiences to them and hear them in relation to contemporary socio-political problems.

Contextualizing What’s Going On

Marvin Gaye’s album What’s Going On addressed social ills that included the Vietnam War and police brutality (“What’s Going On”); environmental injustice (“Mercy, Mercy, Me” or “The Ecology Song”); and economic disparities and systemic racism (“Make Me Wanna Holler” or “Inner City Blues”), all of which reverberate today. In the May 20, 2011, BBC documentary What’s Going On—Music That Defined a Decade, Smokey Robinson, Motown legend and Gaye’s friend, asserts that What’s Going On, “redefined soul music as an agent for social change.” For example, “Mercy, Mercy, Me” urged environmental consciousness before it was fashionable, and it pictured the devastation that happens when we refuse to be good stewards of the earth.

Now, when social and political activists and others hear “Poison is in the wind that blows from the north and south and east,” we think of climate change, of forest fires and polluted water, and of the economic convenience of American big business. Moreover, these thoughts lead to other considerations, such as how marginalized communities have suffered (and continue to suffer) disproportionately due to manufactured environmental hazards that cause respiratory, heart, and autoimmune diseases. Flint, Michigan comes to mind. Likewise, while “What’s Going On”1 addressed the ravages of the Vietnam War, the lines “Brother, brother, brother / There’s far too many of you dying” now also bring to mind current cases of police brutality and the response by the Black Lives Matter Movement.

“What’s Going On”: a prototype for future generations

Today, Gaye’s anthem “What’s Going On” presses both public historians and musicians to actively engage socially and politically and to reflect on music as an art form has carried the impetus for change in the past and in the present. Gaye’s songs are historical documents that public historians can use to engage audiences about social injustices, while also demonstrating how they will continue if we do not move to action. The song resonates intergenerationally, revealing the turbulence of society today just as it did in Gaye’s time. Just as Marvin Gaye’s music and style inspired activism in the 1970s, his work serves as a prototype for today’s artists who use their platforms to make effective social and political statements.

Young musical artists today are continuing the call for social reform enunciated by Marvin Gaye. In his song “Alright” (2015), Kendrick Lamar, Pulitzer Prize awardee and songwriter, calls attention to police brutality and race relations in America while also offering hope and demonstrating faith. At one point, Lamar laments, “But homicide be looking at you from the face down,” but then signals hope when he repeats: “But if God got us then we gon’ be alright.” Reverend Otis Moss, III, mirrors the words “it’s gon’ be alright” in his sermon “The Cross and the Lynching Tree: A Requiem for Ahmaud Arbery.” Kendrick Lamar’s lyrics—those in “Alright” and many others—suggest that he is one of those wearing the mantle of Marvin Gaye. They also prove that the issues addressed by Gaye in the early 70s are still with us, as is the need for resilience.

In addition, singer, activist, and actress Janelle Monáe also uses her platform to protest violence, as seen through her collaboration with other artists in the song “Hell You Talmbout” (“What the Hell Are You Talking About?”). This song utters the names of Black Americans killed due to police and/or racial violence. Monáe memorializes the slain men and women in her refrain: “Say Her Name,” she sings, and “Say His Name.” Just as Marvin Gaye used his microphone to demand social justice in the 1970s, these artists use their podium to explain the contemporary urgency of some of the same socio-political and cultural issues, such as the need to end police brutality and systemic racism that are the root of the current Black Lives Matter Movement. These leaders and artists continue to exhibit grace, spur action, and inspire hope as they confront injustices like those that seared me as a Black youth.

Marvin Gaye turned his music into a call for the positive change that can be wrought by love, and “What’s Going On” implores us to realize his aspiration for unity: “Let’s get some understanding here today.” As an advocate for social and environmental justice, Gaye created music that would retain its relevance and urgency for generations to come. Gaye’s “What’s Going On” invokes personal and historical memories and continues to resonate and stir emotions. As such, it became a model for current sociopolitical commentary in American music. Contemporary topical music not only provides insight into current protests, but it also provides connections between the past and the present that public historians can use to help audiences understand the struggles that continue through today.

~Jennie Chaplin grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, and now resides in Washington, DC. She holds a PhD in American Studies.  Her research interests are in the African American and African diasporic cultural arts.


1. Renaldo Benson, Al Cleveland, and Marvin Gaye are the songwriters.

  1. John says:

    This work just heralds a louder cry to what been called for and ignored so long.But cat’s out the bag. Where are your profits and political advantages now as the world begins to react to the neglect of mankind.

  2. Marvin Gaye’s highly influential work, What’s Going On (Tamla, 1971), had a profound impact on the music of oppressed people everywhere getting into the mainstream. The Wailers released Burnin’ (Island, 1973) shortly thereafter and in the communities that I was involved with in NYC during this time were similarly affected by their strong voices for freedom and equal rights. When viewed in this way, Gaye’s work is part of a musical force for political and societal change that has a very long history. We should not lose sight of the fact that jazz since its beginning has been an agent of political and social change. Artists such as John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Billie Holiday (Strange Fruit, Commodore, 1939) and hundred of others, some lesser known like saxophonist Fred Ho for the Asian Community, and the Klezmatics and John Zorn for the Jewish Community also were also a major part of the role music plays in giving oppressed people voice. Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and a majority of folk musicians, back to its earliest beginnings, were also important social change agents. Putting Gaye’s important work in context gives it even more power and should continue to make us ask, What’s Goin’ On?

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