CNN did a documentary on one of Marvin Gaye’s iconic songs last weekend – he had three blockbuster songs which transcended age, gender and race. It was the only protest song – if you could call it that – of the three. The other two, ‘Let’s Get It On’ and ‘Sexual Healing’ were love songs.
They also came later, at decent intervals, to define their time. ‘What’s going on’ the first of the ‘trilogy’, came out in 1971 to a tumultuous reception.
Within two weeks, it had sold over two hundred thousand copies and was to top several charts. Yet, it almost did not see the light of day but for the determination of the writer. Berry
Gordy, the boss of Motown Sounds – the recording company where talented Black musicians congregated in the sixties and seventies – felt the music would not cut across and could affect their brand. He was wrong. The song was embraced by all and ended up expanding the Motown horizon instead.
It is hard to believe ‘What’s Going On’ is fifty already. It should make me feel old to say I was part of the generation that welcomed and rocked the song in the seventies.
Instead, it makes me feel priviledged to have witnessed the birth of what has become an anthem for the ages.
Good songs never fade away. We all know that. But this song was special. It had the melody – haunting and enchanting. It had the voice – the silky, velvety and sensuous voice that was uniquely Marvin Gaye’s. It had the words – sensitive, probing and yet non accusatory.
Fifty years on, the words are still very relevant to America where it was produced, and the rest of the world which had embraced it. But back then, because I was young, because I was far removed from the theatre of conflict, I tuned in more to the melody and the voice than the words.
But the words caught up with me in their sensitivity their poignancy, their urgency and their relevance as I became more aware of the world I was growing into. It is hard not to be touched by the opening sentences which paraphrased, said ‘brother, brother, brother, there are too many of you dying’. ‘Mother, mother, mother, there are too many of you crying’. And ‘Father, father, father, we don’t need to escalate’.
These were words that spoke to everyone – those who, as fathers of homes and nations, set the agenda, and those who, as sons and mothers, bear the brunt of the agenda. They were words that asked everybody to take a step back.
CNN, through Don Lemon the anchor of the documentary which commemorated the 50th anniversary of this ageless song, tried to provide the setting by talking to those who either knew Marvin Gaye intimately or were around the scene at the time. The song was partly based on the Vietnam War where several Black youths – like Gaye’s brother and cousin – were drafted to after High School and came back dysfunctional.
Many became depressed and took to drugs. And when Marvin Gaye wrote ‘war is not the answer’ he had the lives of those wasted youths in his sight. The song was also based on police brutalities he witnessed several times in the sixties. So the part that said ‘Don’t punish me with police brutality. Talk to me so you can see’ was addressing the police/ black relationship at the time. He was pleading for understanding.
A typical case of police brutality was one witnessed by Benson – a member of Motown Records and a cowriter of the song – at Berkeley’ People’s Park during an anti-war protest in May 1969 which turned violent. It was to be called Bloody Thursday.
It is a measure of the times and a reflection of Gaye’s sensitivity – he suffered depression occasionally – that the song did not address these issues frontally.
Instead, attempts were made to pass it as a love song with verses like ‘only love can conquer hate’ and ‘we’ve got to find a way to bring some loving here today’. Ironically, what upset Renaldo Benson at the Park into asking ‘what’s happening here?’ which later inspired the song, is still very prevalent in America of today. Fifty years after the song was written, and thirty years after death of Marvin Gaye, American Blacks still can’t breathe.
They are still choked by racial injustice, police brutality, voter suppression, drug abuse and wars. The system in America, and in many parts of the world, is still skewed against people of colour. Indeed, fifty years on, the question ‘what’s going on?’ is still poignant.
And ‘what’s going on’ in our dear country? It is a question bewildered citizens are asking and finding no one to answer. Can’t we see the injustices staring us in the face or are we too blinkered by greed and bigotry to see? The elites, business moguls, politicians and pastors are riding private jets and helicopters when half of the people are wondering where the next meal will come from. They are buying houses in Dubai when their people need just a simple place to lay their heads. Many are displaced from their ancestral homes. These ‘big men’ are stocking ‘get away’ money abroad while putting fire on the thatched roofs of the country.
They are riding bulletproof cars which will offer little protection if the ‘bombs begin to drop’. Are we too ‘far gone’ to see that if we don’t feed the hungry; if we don’t provide jobs for the able; if we don’t harness the energy and vibrancy of youths; if we don’t stop promoting tribal and religious superiority; we would be leading the country into a dark hole from which it might not emerge whole? Can the elite stop the blame game, the buck passing for once and talk within themselves?
I never for example thought I would see the day a house at the Villa – arguably the most secured piece of real estate in the country – would be attacked by ‘robbers’ talk less of the residence of the Chief of Staff. There is a message there for those who have ears to hear. President Buhari talked about small fires becoming big fires when he was campaigning for the presidency. By his action or inaction, he has become a victim of his own admonition.
Like Marvin Gaye’s timeless song, President Buhari needs to find a way to bring some ‘loving into the country today and let love overcome hate; and unity, division. The song ‘What’s going on’ speaks, and will continue to speak, to all of us who are bemused by what is going on around us.