What’s Going On? Song or Prophecy?

What’s Going On? Song or Prophecy?


America’s current political and social climate leave me asking one question daily, what’s going on? How is it that we as a nation have moved from, Barack Obama, our first Black president to a society that has become so contentious and divided that the nation’s president feels empowered to attack citizens via social media? How is it that we are over fifty years removed from the children’s demonstrations in Birmingham that were focused on civil rights and the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing that killed four young girls and yet current news cycles are saturated with the protests of young students in response to gun violence and oppression? The single “What’s Going On” cries out in response to such protests.

You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some lovin’ here today
Picket lines and picket signs
Don’t punish me with brutality
But just talk to me
So you can see
What’s going on
What’s going on
What’s going on

What’s really going on in America?

There are artifacts and circumstances that will forever be etched into America’s history particularly as it relates to the advancement and progression of Black people. From hymns such as “Go Down Moses” and “Oh Freedom” that were written during or immediately after slavery to Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream Speech”, delivered at the apex of the Civil Rights movement. Black culture and people have never been devoid of cultural expression. That expression however has often been tied to the oppression of Black people. Many cultural artifacts have helped lead to increased equality and opportunities for Black people. However, cultural artifacts of the past that are as relevant now as they were when they were created have a particular place in history and in the present. Marvin Gaye’s album, “What’s Going On” was originally written and produced in 1971 and has a current relevance and salience that serves as a reminder of how many of America’s scars and illnesses have not been cured. The album highlighted the struggles of civil rights, oppression, poverty, violence and war by combining lyrics rooted in poetry and what was then revolutionary musicality. It also serves as a cultural critique of society then and now. The album, in my opinion, is the greatest album of all time. That’s right, I said it, Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” is the greatest album of all time!!!

Marvin Gaye’s prophetic musical mind  and cultural critique still serve as inspiration for modern day artists. He was both ahead of his time and eerily centered in his reality.  When the album debuted, America was just beginning to slowly recuperate from a war with itself, the Civil Rights Movement, and was in the middle of a war abroad, the Vietnam War. Those wars were supposed to lead to a better America and a better world. Although in many ways some changes were made for the better. The pain, hurt, frustration and even hopefulness that was evident in the album still speak to a world that is as divided and self-destructive as it was 46 years ago.

Noting how far Black people in America have come cannot be done without referencing how far we as Black people still have to go. So, if we have realized Dr. King’s “dream” and if we have been granted our “freedom” then What’s Going On? Musically the album was Gaye’s finest studio achievement and provided a new sound, but it’s meaning, and lyrics set it apart from any other album. Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream or the hopes and prayers sung by slaves have become increasingly rooted in history as America slowly achieves the hopes of generations of Black people. ‘Little Black boys and Black girls can now join hands with little White boys and White girls as referenced in Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, and Black people in America are arguably no longer legally, the slaves referenced in the hymn “Oh Freedom”, but there are still far too many brother’s dying as referenced in Gaye’s single “What’s Going On”.

Mother, mother
There’s too many of you crying
Brother, brother, brother
There’s far too many of you dying
You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some lovin’ here today


The economic and political struggles of Black people cannot be regaled to the past. Even with progress Black people have continued to endure unique complexities that have hindered political and economic access. “Inflation no chance, to increase finance. Bills pile up sky high. Send that boy off to die”, these lyrics are just as relevant, if not more so now as they were in 1971. As we move to push the images and rhetoric of slavery, Jim Crow and war to history books, artifacts such as “What’s Going On” are still being played on radios daily because the lyrics still speak to America’s struggles.

It could be argued that Marvin Gaye’s talent and mystery made him a musical and lyrical genius. His influence on music and culture is undeniable. We were reminded of this when in 2015 Marvin Gaye’s family was awarded damages because a jury ruled that “Blurred Lines” a song written and produced by Robin Thicke and Pharrell, copied Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up”.  The cultural appropriation discussion is a discussion for a different day, but the connection between Gaye’s music, most of which was produced between 1961 and 1982 and modern music, highlights his influence. According to accounts, “What’s Going On”, particularly its title track that was co-written by Renaldo “Obie” Benson and Marvin Gaye was the result of Gaye’s frustrationwith police brutality, protests and war. “Inner City Blues” paints an all too familiar struggle of the urban Black existence.

Make me wanna holler

And throw up both my hands.

Crime is increasing, trigger happy policing.

Panic is spreading

God know where we’re heading.

There has been a heightened awareness surrounding police brutality recently with the acquittals of police officers in the murders of Black men. From Philando Castile to Freddie Gray and dozens of others, unarmed Black men have died at the hands of a police violence. Leading many Black people to scream out for the need to not be “punished with brutality”, ironically that same sentiment and plea is echoed in the album’s title track, “What’s Going On?” Police brutality and the grim picture of the struggle and even the beauty of being Black in America are not the only political statements made on the album. The song also references the economic struggle that many Black people still face at the hands of circumstance.

Money, we make it
Fore we see it you take it
Oh, make you wanna holler
The way they do my life
Make me wanna holler
The way they do my life
This ain’t livin’, This ain’t livin’
No, no baby, this ain’t livin’



The song “Mercy Mercy Me” seems to be a prayer and a projection into the future. With lyrics that speak of the environmental struggle that the nation is currently fighting it almost seems as Gaye could foresee the political and social battle that we are currently witnessing surrounding global warming, climate control and sustainability.

Oh Jesus yeah mercy, mercy me ah
Ah things ain’t what they used to be, oh no

Radiation under ground and in the sky
Animals and birds who live nearby are dying
Hey mercy, mercy me oh
Ah things ain’t what they used to be
What about this overcrowded land
How much more abuse from man can she stand?

Those lyrics speak to our current battles and also are a very disappointing reflection of just how long we have been mistreating our environment, particularly because those lyrics were written almost fifty years ago!

The album’s creation was almost as controversial and complex as it’s lyrics. In fact, Berry Gordy, Founder of Motown Records had a complex view of the album based on his relationship with Gaye. Motown Record Corporation was largely responsible for the success of numerous Black artists. The Black owned company launched the careers of Michael Jackson, Diana Ross and The Temptations.  Black music was already popular, but Motown allowed Black people the opportunity to produce, write, create and OWN our music. The fact that the album struggled to be accepted by Motown’s leadership was not the result of a lack of awareness, but was according to Gordy the result of his need to provide consciousness and leadership.The mere fact that a 40th Anniversary Edition of the album was released in 2011 shows it’s continued relevance and it’s sustainability.

As I wrap up this almost cathartic critique of my favorite album, I think it is necessary to share my personal context. I still own originally versions of this album because my mom and my uncle used to play it for me when I was a little girl. My uncle, who was in many ways my dad loved this album and it became almost a soundtrack to our daddy daughter days. My uncle was a political figure at the time and was injured after falling out of a plane during the Vietnam War. We would often take long rides with the convertible top dropped back while listening to this album. As a little girl the words “I just wanna ask a question. Who really cares? To save a world in despair. Who really cares? There’ll come a time when the world won’t be singin’. Flowers won’t grow. Bells won’t be ringin’”, served as both a lullaby and a challenge to me to believe I could try to change the world. Those words were taking from Save The Children my favorite song on the album. The album was my involuntary introduction to cultural critique. I unknowingly was introduced the injustices of the society because they were paired with music that was appealing to me. As an adult I like to think that my family played this album not only because it showcased one of the greatest musical talents of the 20th Century, but because they wanted to acclimate me to the struggles that the world faced and would continue to face during my life time. I was raised to believe that my actions, education and determination could change the world and that Black America, Black culture and America as a whole, would be better because of it. However, I also think that my uncle who witnessed bombings and marches in Birmingham, the oppression of urban Black citizens and the Vietnam War was also trying to make sure that I was aware that our country still has so much work to do. So, I will close with saying in many ways we are living a dream realized, we as Black people have been freed from the bondage of slavery, but I still must ask…What’s Going On?

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