American singer, songwriter, and record producer Marvin Gaye helped to shape the sound of Motown in the 1960s. Nicknamed “Prince of Motown” and “Prince of Soul” Marvin Gaye released his landmark album “What’s Going On” fifty years ago this year. This album’s message and sound has inspired artists and activists for years. When it came out unemployment was at a high 6%, protests against police brutality were all around, and Americans were angry and hurt due to the Vietnam War.
Inspired by Renaldo “Obie” Benson he wrote “What’s Going On” after witnessing a scuffle between police and demonstrators at an anti-Vietnam War protest. At the time Motown was not known to target political or social themes in their albums and upon hearing the song, Berry Gordy refused its release due to his feelings of the song being “too political” for radio and feared the singer would lose his crossover audience. Gaye responded by going on strike from releasing anything until the label released the song. Once released in 1971 it reached No. 1 on the R&B charts within a month, staying there for five weeks. The album also became Gaye’s first million-selling album launching two more top ten singles and even got him two Grammy Awards nominations in 1972.
Divided into the verses “mother, mother,” “father, father,” and then “brother, brother,” the song addressed a multitude of groups and asked the American people to take a moment to reflect. Since the album’s release “What’s Going On” has been used throughout the world during demonstrations against totalitarian regimes and has been used to call for peace in the Middle East and during recent Black Lives Matter protests. The lyrics spoke of American failure and oppression and if it impacted you back in 1971 its sure to impact you today in 2021.
Other hits such as “Mercy, Mercy Me” touched on our detrimental environmental impact and had “inherent spiritual dimension” that embraced many of the traditions from European and Black churches. While other songs such as “Inner City Blues,” depicted the struggles of certain communities including people of color, progressive activists, Trans people and more. It highlighted the injustices faced at the hands of the government and authority which still reign true in many instances.
Though there were many who originally believed this album would end Gayes’s career, the album became Motown’s biggest success at the time, deeply reflecting the issues and struggles of the American people. Now, 50 years later, the themes of the album continue to reflect some of the most significant challenges and divisions we face as a society.