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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."

Go deeper

2 hours ago - World

In photos: Protests in U.S., across the world over Israeli–Palestinian conflict

A protest march in support of Palestinians near the Washington monument in Washington, D.C. on May 15. Photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

Thousands of people rallied across the U.S. and the world Saturday following days of violence in Gaza and Israel that's killed at least 145 Palestinians, including 41 children, and eight Israelis, per AP.

The big picture: Most demonstrations were in support of Palestinians. There were tense scenes between pro-Israeli government protesters and pro-Palestinian demonstrators in Winnipeg, Canada, and Leipzig, Germany, but no arrests were made, CBS News and DW.com report.

Updated 9 hours ago - World

Biden in call with Netanyahu raises concerns about civilian casualties in Gaza

Photo: Ahmad Gharabli/Nicholas Kamm/Getty Images

President Biden spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Saturday and raised concerns about civilian casualties in Gaza and the bombing of the building that housed AP and other media offices, according to Israeli officials.

The big picture: At least 140 Palestinians, including dozens of children, have been killed in Gaza since fighting between Israel and Hamas began Monday, according to Palestinian health officials. Nine people, including two children, have been killed by Hamas rockets in Israel.

Updated 10 hours ago - Politics & Policy

"Horrified": AP, Al Jazeera condemn Israel's bombing of their offices in Gaza

A ball of fire erupts from the Jalaa Tower as it is destroyed in an Israeli airstrike in Gaza. Photo: Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The Associated Press and Al Jazeera on Saturday condemned the Israeli airstrike that destroyed a high-rise building in Gaza that housed their and other media offices.

What they're saying: The White House, meanwhile, said it had "communicated directly to the Israelis that ensuring the safety and security of journalists and independent media is a paramount responsibility," according to press secretary Jen Psaki.