Feb 3, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" is still asking hard questions at 50

Marvin Gaye poses for a portrait session for his album "What's Going On."

Gaye at a portrait session for "What's Going On," released in May 1971. Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" turns 50 this year, inspiring events from now through the anniversary of the album's May 1971 release that highlight its enduring influence on social activism — from Black Lives Matter demonstrators in Minnesota to Chicano lowriders in New Mexico to Standing Rock Sioux pipeline protesters.

Why it matters: Themes of three of the album's iconic hits from a half-century ago reflect some of the most significant challenges and divisions to the country today — excessive police force, climate change, and a seemingly endless war in a foreign land.

Driving the news: Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer recently declared Jan. 20 to be What’s Going On Day to commemorate the soul singer's release of the "What's Going On" single.

  • The Motown Museum in Detroit is planning a series of events to celebrate the album.

Details: Gaye released the "What's Going On" single after co-writer and Four Tops member Renaldo "Obie" Benson saw police in Berkeley, Calif., brutality beat anti-Vietnam War protesters.

  • Gaye, disturbed by urban riots and by his brother's stories from Vietnam, added his own take to the lyrics to tell a socially conscious tale of racial unrest and violence.
  • "(Marvin) added some things that were more ghetto, more natural, which made it seem like a story than a song... we measured him for the suit and he tailored the hell out of it," Benson would later say.
  • Motown Records founder Berry Gordy didn't want the politically charged song at first. Skyrocketing sales forced him to admit he'd been wrong.

The Washington, D.C.-born Gaye followed the hit with a concept project that tackled some of the most pressing social issues of the day.

Flashback: "What mattered was the message. For the first time, I felt like I had something to say," Gaye would later say about his groundbreaking project.

The intrigue: The "What's Going On" album went platinum, and Rolling Stone would place it among the greatest albums of all time. But its influences are evident today as the nation wrestles with inequality and a racial reckoning.

  • Black Lives Matter protesters played "What's Going On" as a source of inspiration during the 20202 summer demonstrations in Minneapolis and Kenosha, Wisconsin.
  • Native American hand drummers sometimes deviate from traditional songs and sing "What's Going On" lyrics at powwows to cheering crowds.

What they're saying: "It's political music, but you can dance to it. There's pain, but there's also love. That's why so many of us keep returning to it today," said Los Angeles-based Chicano writer Matt Sedillo.

Between the lines: Wayne State University English professor and Detriot poet M.L. Liebler teaches "What's Going On" every year and students are blown away about how relevant their grandparents' music remains.

  • "That's the purpose of this older piece of art, is to remind that we've got work to do, we've got things that we need to finish what people have been singing and talking about for decades and decades."
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