Songs of Black Lives Matter: Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On"

Marvin Gaye
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In the wake of nationwide heartache following the news of George Floyd's death, there is a growing urgency to support the Black Lives Matter cause. Generations of soul artists have contributed to the movement through anthemic songs of protest and statement albums that have begun and furthered the conversations addressing racism, violence and disillusionment.

In this ongoing series, we highlight the songs of the Black Lives Matter movement that launched and empowered people's pleas for a brighter future. Check back in weekly to listen and learn about the songs that have unified people throughout history to stand up for racial equality.

Marvin Gaye, "What's Going On" 

Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" cemented his title not only as prince of soul but also a prince of his people. The Motown star had suffered more than most by the spring of 1970. With the death of his cherished duet partner Tammi Terrell after a 3-year battle with a brain tumor and his veteran brother's horror stories about Vietnam, Gaye stumbled onto a song that would give voice to his personal and societal grievances.

READ MORE: Let's Get It On: Marvin Gaye's Greatest Hits

The idea for the protest song first stemmed from Four Tops member Obie Bension while he was in San Francisco in 1969. 

“They had the Haight-Ashbury then, all the kids up there with the long hair and everything,” Bension told MOJO. “The police was beating on the kids, but they wasn’t bothering anybody. I saw this, and started wondering what was going on. ‘What is happening here?’ One question leads to another. ‘Why are they sending kids so far away from their families overseas?’ And so on.”

Bension teamed up with Motown songwriter Al Cleveland to layout the song's framework, then pitched the song to Gaye, who immediately contributed to the songwriting process in a frenzy. '

"He added lyrics, and he added some spice to the melody," Bension noted. "He added some things that were more ghetto, more natural, which made it seem more like a story than a song. He made it visual. He absorbed himself to the extent that when you heard the song you could see the people and feel the hurt and pain. We measured him for the suit, and he tailored it.”

Released in January 1971, "What's Going On" would immortalize Gaye's pleas for his generation to wake up and face struggles many were willing to overlook. The spiritual anthem would hit No. 2 on the Hot 100 and No. 1 on the R&B Chart, paving the way for the album What's Going On, Gaye's symphonic plea to God, to emerge later that year. 

ON THE SONG'S INSPIRATION:

As Gaye reminisced on the song, he shared, "To be truly righteous, you offer love with a pure heart, without regard for what you’ll get in return. I had myself in that frame of mind. People were confused and needed reassurance. God was offering that reassurance through his music. I was privileged to be the instrument.”

KEY LYRIC: "Picket lines and picket signs/ Don't punish me with brutality/ C'mon talk to me/ So you can see/ What's going on." 

There are many ways people can support the movement against police violence and provide relief to the communities who have been impacted by police racism. Help the family of George Floyd HERE. Fight for Breonna Taylor HERE. Help the family of Ahmaud Arbery HERE.

Want to help protesters? Donate to one or more community bail funds HERE. Visit Movement For Black Lives for additional ways you can help the cause. Want to connect with leaders building grass roots campaigns? Click HERE. Are you an ally and want to learn more? Here are some anti-racism resources.

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