“What’s Going On”
by Gabriel Valdez
“Have you heard Marvin Gaye?” is a silly question. Of course you have. His songs are on the radio all the time. But have you sought him out lately, not to listen to in passing when tuning the radio or on the overhead speakers at a mall?
In the wake of Ferguson… “wake” isn’t even the right word because it pretends the moment has passed. In light of Ferguson, in its shadow, however you want to put it…please seek out Marvin Gaye.
His 1971 song “What’s Going On” talks about poverty, striking workers, violence in the streets, and a war in its second decade that no one wanted to be a part of in the first place. Whether the quality of Marvin’s musicianship or the quality of our country at the moment, the song is as relevant and compelling today as the day it was recorded.
“What’s Going On” was conceived by Four Tops member Obie Benson. He had witnessed an anti-war protest in which police had senselessly and violently beaten protestors. Al Cleveland wrote the song with Benson, and it was revised by Gaye, who wanted to infuse it with the emotion he felt when exchanging letters with his brother Frankie, a soldier trapped in the Vietnam War.
Once his brother returned home, Marvin reportedly told him, “I didn’t know how to fight before, but now I think I do. I just have to do it my way. I’m not a painter. I’m not a poet. But I can do it with music.”
“What’s Going On” may be about a moment in time, but it captures a struggle that surpasses that moment. It reminds us to each find our own way to fight. It’s a song that does the rarest thing – it recognizes the desperation in its listener, however deeply it’s hidden. It acknowledges that desperation and commiserates with it, and then asks, “What now?”