“What’s Going On” — Marvin Gaye

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Photo by Simone Secci on Unsplash

Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” was released nearly 50 years ago during another time of political strife, but it could have been written yesterday.

Renaldo “Obie” Benson of The Four Tops started scoping out the idea for a song that would become “What’s Going On” after he witnessed a peaceful protest against the Vietnam War being violently broken up in Berkeley, California.

First, he took the idea to his fellow band-members. But The Four Tops, riding high in the charts at the time, were unwilling to take the commercial risk on a song with an overtly political message, and passed.

Undiscouraged, Obie Benson mentioned his idea to Motown songwriter Al Cleveland who had, among other things, written “I Second That Emotion” for Smokey Robinson and The Miracles. Between them, they worked up the song a little more, but still there were no takers.

Finally, it came across Marvin Gaye’s path who, inspired by stories of his brother’s experiences as a soldier fighting in Vietnam, altered the melody and added some lyrics of his own, making “What’s Going On” into the song we know it as today.

Motown Records boss Berry Gordy hated the overtly political stance of “What’s Going On” and was determined to squash the record. In fairness to Berry Gordy, he saw his label as lifting people’s spirits with a succession of joyful, danceable, sing-along-able songs written and performed by some of the finest singers, songwriters, musicians and producers who have ever walked on the surface of the earth.

So, although he’s taken some stick for his initial reluctance to release “What’s Going On”, it’s fair to say the theme of the song wasn’t exactly on-brand for Motown.

Thankfully, Barney Ales, Motown’s VP for Sales, sneaked it out into the world…reportedly without Berry Gordy’s knowledge…where “What’s Going On” caught the mood of the moment and quickly became an overnight success.

Which is probably just as well. If there was one thing Berry Gordy liked more than keeping his stable of artists firmly on-message and on-brand, it was truckloads of cash turning up in his bank account.

Soon “What’s Going On” was selling 200,000 copies a week and quickly became the fastest-selling song in Motown history, topping out at Number Two in the Billboard Hot 100.

This was socially conscious Marvin Gaye in full flow. His “What’s Going On” album was full of commentary about a society which had become increasingly polarised and, in Marvin Gaye’s view, unjust.

In addition to the title track, Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” album also boasts “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” and “Inner City Blues” among its track listings.

On one level “What’s Going On” was about the Vietnam war and the unimaginable horrors experienced by a generation of young men and the civilian populations of the country they were sent to do battle in.

But Marvin Gaye was also drawing parallels with other protest movements of the time, such as the Civil Rights movement, and asking us to consider the motives of those who would crush peaceful protests…with violence if necessary…to protect their own interests and privilege.

Although the Vietnam War ended not long after Marvin Gaye released “What’s Going On”, his message about the importance of free and peaceful protest still resonates today.

We’ve become a world where many people are so blinkered by their own perspective they struggle to see there could even be another side to the argument, much less articulate what that alternative worldview might really be.

I’m not saying I do this perfectly by any means myself, but the biggest lesson I learned studying law at university was that there are always at least two sides to every case. Sometimes there are more than two, but there are always at least two.

So I try to work out how people might have come to hold points of view I may not necessarily share. What I’ve learned it this.

Unlike the way large-scale protests are often presented in the media, they generally aren’t a hasty reaction to a one-off event…although one-off events, such as Rosa Parks riding in the wrong section of a segregated bus, can sometimes become an especially memorable part of the narrative.

No. Protest movements are borne out of the intense frustrations which build up after years or even decades of inaction in the face of continuing indignities and a deeply-ingrained unwillingness to right self-evident wrongs.

For example, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, but 100 years later the lives of many non-white people had changed very little, leading to the large-scale protests of the early to mid-1960s.

It’s generally better for everyone not to let things get that far, though.

When we seek to deny the humanity of others our own humanity withers and dies.

But we’ve seen a fair bit of that already in 2020…

In a world which desperately needs to heal, if you want to know what’s going on talk to someone who doesn’t look like you, who didn’t go to school with you and who doesn’t do a similar job to you.

Then we might start to make some progress.

It costs nothing. It doesn’t require much of your time. But listening to someone else talk about their experience doesn’t just benefit them. It benefits you too, by making your life richer.

Listening opens the door to love. You can’t love without listening. And, my goodness, doesn’t the world need all the love it can get in the world at the moment?

Marvin Gaye, Al Cleveland and Obie Benson called it pretty much right, all the way back in 1970, when they wrote “What’s Going On”…


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Without words, it’s just a nice tune. Add words — now you’ve got a song. And songs can change your world. I write about some that changed mine.

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