THE SOULS OF PROTEST AND RESISTANCE
James Brown in concert in Boston on April 5, 1968. (Bob Dean/Boston Globe) Marvin Gaye performing at the Royal Albert Hall, London, UK 25 January 1980. (Photo by David Corio/Redferns)
How James Brown, Marvin Gaye and Kendrick Lamar led the way
by Dr. Tamara Hill
The social and political status quo in society are conveyed by Black musical artists who advance their activism through their performances whether they are on social media platforms such as Instagram and YouTube or on networks like BET and VH1. Notwithstanding, the fact that during a specific era, artists may have also utilized props, distinct clothing, body language and hairstyles to emphasize their lyrics of protest to their audiences. Thus, they employed their celebrity and artistic talent to convey what mattered to them in their art, which was respect and equality. To illustrate this point, there were African American artists in the 1960's that lent their talent to bring awareness to the political activism and civil unrest that was occurring at the time. There was Nina Simone whose song "Blacklash Blues" (1967) was about the Civil Rights Movement, Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come" (1964) was about the hope that change was indeed coming while supporting the Civil Rights Movement and the Staple's Singers' "Long Walk to D.C." (1968) which commemorated the 1963 March on Washington. These songs further substantiated how African Americans were forging their identities and implementing their cultural work against racism and inequality by adding these songs to the mainstream of American music. Even though the musical landscape has transformed as an entity, Black artists performing songs about protest and resistance have been expanded to include police brutality, mass incarceration, war, AIDS and a continual demand for equality that has never ceased.
Accordingly, James Brown, aka "the Godfather of Soul," Marvin Gaye, known as the 'Prince of Soul" of Motown Records and Kendrick Lamar (who was named after Eddie Kendricks from the Temptations) have enormously influenced the musical landscape by conveying messages that are politically conscious, resistant to discrimination and racism while providing an introspective look at the civil unrest and injustices that continue to occur in America. Despite the fact that Brown, Gaye and Lamar's songs were produced and performed during specific times in history, their ideas of protest and resistance are universal and timeless, connected to their art in the forms of "Say it Loud-I'm Black and I'm Proud (1968), "What's Going On?" (1971), "DNA" (2017) and "Alright" (2015).
James Brown performed, "Say It Loud-I'm Black and Proud (1968) in Boston, Massachusetts at the Boston Garden on April 5, 1968 which was the day after Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated. Sorrowfully, Dr. King who was the leader of the Civil Rights Movement was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968, which was the day before Brown's Boston Garden concert. Musical scholars have affirmed that when Brown performed this specific song along with several others, it was the night that he saved Boston from burning down in response to King's assassination. Whereas, Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On?" (1971) performed at the Kennedy Center in concert in May 1972, reflected the entire album's theme coming from the title song's Vietnam vet who has returned home to find that racial injustice, poverty and hatred that had not only continued but worsened during his absence.
Motown historians have noted that Barry Gordy, founder of Motown Records, strongly opposed the song and its release because it was a stark departure from Gaye's sultry and soulful ballads that made him famous. Kendrick Lamar was not even alive when James Brown and Marvin Gaye made their ground-breaking statements, but 52 years later, he proudly invoked their spirit. His song "Alright" performed at the BET Music Awards Show in 2015 with graffiti-strewn police cars, Black men in orange jumpsuits and lyrics that spoke to the struggle of African Americans being possibly murdered by the police and the trauma of fighting for their lives in a society riddled with injustice and inequality. Additionally, Lamar's song "Alright" (2015) espouses that there is hope for Black people as a race despite the societal ills of mass incarceration, police brutality and the crime that encompasses many Black neighborhoods in the inner city. In contrast, as an example, Lamar's "DNA" (2017) boldly declares that despite African Americans' racial composition, this specific element will not determine their destinies regardless of the limitations and stereotypes they are subjected to in society.
Consequently, Brown, Gaye and Lamar can each be credited with promoting activism by their performances in the continuous fight against racial inequality, injustice, war, poverty, the absence of respect and the dehumanizing perception that is placed upon African Americans. To that end, not only have Brown, Gaye and Lamar acted as social agents through their music but it is incumbent upon this current generation of performers to be much more overt with their social activism to continue the conversation that was originated by their predecessors who utilized their careers, celebrity and/or financial status to contest racism, discrimination, war and other societal ills that are embedded in the fabric of this country.
Traditionally, African Americans, who were formerly enslaved in this country, utilized music as an instrument of empowerment, communication and a means to secretly plan their escape to freedom. Kenyatta D. Berry provides the historical perspective of African Americans and their musical traditions when he reaffirms:"Singing as a form of communication is deeply rooted in the African American culture. It began with the African slaves who were kidnapped and shipped across the Atlantic during the Middle Passage. Slaves from different countries, tribes and cultures used singing as a way to communicate during the voyage. They were able to look for kin, countrymen and women through song. According to a White shipmate who made four voyages to Africa between 1760 and 1770. "They frequently sing, the men and woman answering another, but what is the subject of their songs cannot say." Although they could not understand what the Africans were saying the crew did pick up on the sorrowful tone of their songs. Music was a way for slaves to express their feelings whether it was sorrow, joy, inspiration or hope. Songs were passed down from generation to generation throughout slavery. "Utilizing music to communicate was especially true in the antebellum South because slaves would sing Black spirituals that were encoded with covert messages that included the time, date of departure and the location of various stops on the Underground Railroad. Moreover, this was the only method they could use to convey information about escaping to freedom without arousing suspicion from their plantation masters. As Black music and or Negro spirituals transitioned from slavery and they celebrated its eradication along with the Emancipation Proclamation, Black people then applied their poetry to melodies while utilizing the genres of Jazz, Hip-Hop and R & B to protest against inequality, violence, racism and discrimination. They galvanized their voices through songs that exposed their hurt, anger, pride and empowerment.
Along those same lines of African Americans emboldening their voices for Black pride and equality, R&B legend James Brown was a voice that refused to be silent about the status of himself and his fellow Black people who were subjected to the remnants of Jim Crow and discrimination he witnessed as boy growing up in Augusta, Georgia. James Brown is and was famously known in the world and the music industry as the "Godfather of Soul, "Soul Brother Number 1" and "the Hardest Working Man in Show Business." He not only expanded the parameters of Soul music but at the same time was a staunch activist for the rights of African Americans and Black pride. As biographer R.J. Smith notes, "Brown learned his hard-headed ways in a 1950's music business that was a rough twine of Mafia hegemony and outta-sight profits. He believed in the redemptive power of hard work as others believed in the blood of the lamb. A true believer in the do-it-yourself ethos of the American Dream, he didn't see why race should be a barrier to getting the good things in life." As a young man, Brown did not have the best of childhoods growing up in the bowels of racism and discrimination in his aunt's brothel in Augusta. However, it was there that he was heavily influenced by Jazz and R&B and the musical acts that traveled through town that he was able to see as a young boy.
As a teenager, Brown turned to crime, and at age 16, he was sentenced to eight to sixteen years in prison for multiple car thefts. However, he only served four years in prison and declared that he when he was released, "he would only sing for the Lord." After prison, he formed a Gospel group in Toccoa, Georgia with an ex-prison buddy Johnny Terry called the Swanees. By the 1950's, his career had catapulted, and he was the lead singer of the Famous Flames that was founded by Bobby Byrd. After having some local success, James Brown and the Famous Flames were known for their hit records such as "Please, Please, Please" (1958) and "Try Me" (1958). Equally as important, as the group continued to be successful and make chart-topping hits, they eventually became known as the James Brown Band or the James Brown Orchestra.
By the 1960's, Brown was at the peak of his musical career and so was the outcry for African Americans to be treated equally and for the walls of injustice and racism to be eliminated. Brown was no different in his resistance to social injustice from his fellow African Americans because he had grown weary of the racism that he had experienced as child, as a Black man in America, and finally, as a Black artist in the music industry. Jason Hollander, in an interview with James McBride, author of Kill 'Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul, establishes, "James Brown really wanted peace from the burden of racism, the burden of race that he was forced to carry on his shoulders. I think most people want that." Understandably, most African Americans do not to want carry the "burden of race." However the 1960's were a turbulent and disconcerting time for African Americans because of the civil unrest that was coming full circle. It was then in that atmosphere that Brown released his historic song, "Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud," in August of 1968, just four months after Dr. King's assassination. Gregory Lewis, a staff Writer for the Sun Florida Sun-Sentinel in his article, "Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud," recounted:
"'Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud' became a song Black people embraced into the fall of 1968, a song of Black pride. The words urged Black people to stand up for themselves in the midst of the "black is beautiful" movement that was spreading from urban cities to rural America." "That song came out at the height of the black power movement," said Christopher Strain, a history professor at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. "It was the quintessential Black power song. It stood for Black empowerment and self-reliance. The political climate in which he wrote the song couldn't have been more timely. Brown's poignant words gave meaning to what Black people had not been given an opportunity to voice in such an empathic and way.
"Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud," initially written as an anthem by James Brown reflective of the racism and discrimination that African Americans were enduring at that time, whether it was horrible living conditions, denial to institutions of higher learning or simply that their children were being separated in public schools. The musical accompaniment was later added by his bandleader Alfred "Pee Wee" Ellis. African Americans were more than exhausted from "Whites Only" fountains, sitting on the back of the bus, being mistreated and the mass lynchings that were taking place across the country. The first lyrics in his song vehemently declare:Uh, with your bad selfIf you truly analyze what Brown is proclaiming in his anthem, he is telling the world that African Americans do not want nor need a handout but demand to be treated equally and that "we demands a chance to do things for ourself,"
Say it louder (I'm Black and I'm proud)
Say it louder (I'm Black and I'm proud)
Some people say we got a lot of malice
Some say it's a lotta nerve
But I say we won't quit moving
Until we get what we deserve
We've been 'buked and we've been scorned
We've been treated bad, talked about
As sure as you're born
But just as sure as it take two eyes to make a pair, huh
Brother, we can't quit until we get our share
Furthermore, he is also informing African Americans to be proud of their heritage and resist what the "White man" is saying or doing despite the misconceptions about them that have continued to flourish since slavery. For many years, African Americans have been stereotyped as being lazy and having no desire to work and earn the "American Dream," but this notion goes against Brown's rallying cry and resistant lyrics in the song because he is speaking to the ideology of Black empowerment and self-reliance. R.J. Smith conveys, "Brown was black, and loud, and proud, and successful, and in-your-face unrepentant at a time when just being quietly and submissively black could get you overnight jail time. This is the one area where Brown's arrogance worked for the good: he demanded his part of the American Pie."
The summer of 1968 was exceptionally hot and not just from the usual scalding temperatures expected during that season. While the physical temperature was unseasonably warm, Black people were outraged and "broiling" about the assassination of Dr. King. Therefore, they took to streets in Cleveland, Detroit and the Watt's neighborhood in L.A. to set the world on fire and riot in protest in the Spring of 1968 as a response to King's untimely murder in April of that same year. From their perspective, they had just witnessed the death of their fearless civil rights leader for equal rights who continually thrusted the idea of non-violence into a racist Jim Crow society, but who was murdered in the most vicious way possible. Other urban cities such as Washington D.C., New Jersey and Chicago soon erupted in sporadic violence in response to the fallen Dr. King who was a symbol of freedom to African Americans and who had been taken away too soon. Taken from the website, Soulmusic.com., following the assassination of Dr. King, in his own words, Brown details how he developed his response to the riots by creating an anthem:
"Brown witnessed such derision as he saw people fighting in Los Angeles, and thought to himself, "We've lost our pride." Returning to his hotel room, he jotted down on a napkin what would become the five-word anthem of the Black Lives Matter movement: "I'm black and I'm proud." In his autobiography, Brown reflected, "It was necessary to teach pride then, and I think the song did a lot of good for a lot of people. "People called 'Black and Proud' militant and angry - maybe because of the line about dying on your feet instead of living on your knees. But really, if you listen to it, it sounds like a children's song." He continued, "That's why I had children in it, so children who heard it could grow up feeling pride... The song cost me a lot of my crossover audience. The racial makeup at my concerts was mostly black after that. I don't regret it, though, even if it was misunderstood." Music historians have emphasized that Brown used children when his "anthem" was fully produced into a song in August of 1968 because there were young people who would absorb society's norms and ills, and therefore, they needed to learn to have pride in themselves at an early age."
James Brown in concert in Boston on April 5, 1968. (Bob Dean/Boston Globe) The date, August 5, 1968 is paramount to Brown's career. As a response to Dr. King's murder, major urban cities across the country erupted in rage, mistrust and hurt and Boston, Massachusetts was not immune.
Conversely, Dr. King's death created a fragile situation for Brown because he was scheduled to perform the night of August 5th,, exactly one night after the Civil Rights leader had been slain. The mayor of Boston at that time, Kevin White, was extremely apprehensive about allowing Brown to come to the city and perform as scheduled because he feared that Bostonians would continue to destroy it by rioting and burning everything down in response to King's death.
Nonetheless, as cited by the article "Say It Loud!: James Brown and Black Freedom," there was a former councilman, named Tom Atkins, who presented the mayor with a different scenario if Brown was not allowed to perform, "Former councilman Tom Atkins remembered advising Mayor White: "If word gets out in the Black community, particularly the part of the community who would have been at the concert - young Black people, young Black men, young Black women - that the city would not let James Brown come to town and perform in the wake King's assassination, all hell would break loose." Accordingly, Mayor White and Councilman Atkins ultimately reached a general consensus that Brown could perform at Boston Garden but "on a smaller scale" for the live concert. While their compromise did not negate their concerns about safety and the riots that were ongoing, they wanted Black Bostonians to have an opportunity to see the "hardest working man in show business" perform live. White and Atkins devised a way where Brown would only perform live in concert at the Boston Garden to a small audience while being broadcasted on national television at the same time. In this way, Bostonians could stay inside and watch him from the comfort and safety of their homes rather than congregating in a public space. Consequently, the end result was amazingly positive, again as noted in the article "Say It Loud!: James Brown and Black Freedom)." "White said it was worth every penny - James Brown did not disappoint. A night of high-energy funk and soul from the charismatic performer provided a cathartic outlet for the raw emotions that rippled throughout the city on April 5. As The Boston Globe reported, "Brown sang and danced and as usual thrilled his audience. But he also talked to them, and for this he is being credited with helping to avert potential disaster." James Brown, as a legendary performer, civil rights and political activist, worked tirelessly throughout his career and had written an anthem that eventually became a principal song for the Civil Rights movement. His lyrics helped motivate Black people to demand equality and to never cease being a voice against injustice and racism. Even though it was King who used the tactics of non-violence to convey what Black people needed and so desperately wanted, which was to be treated equally in this country, it was Brown who "jotted" down a hardline anthem that people have not stopped chanting since the night he performed in Boston.
More importantly, Brown haphazardly "jotted" down some words that are still expressive of the Black Lives Matter movement today. BLM started following the untimely murder of Trayvon Martin, among others. In his own words, when asked about the significance of the song, James Brown vividly recalled: "The song is obsolete now. Really, it was obsolete when I cut it, but it was needed. You shouldn't have to tell people what race they are, and you shouldn't have to teach people they should be proud. . . . But it was necessary to teach pride then, and I think the song did a lot of good for a lot of people. That song scared people, too. Many white people didn't understand it. . . . People called Black and Proud militant and angry - maybe because of the line about dying on your feet instead of living on your knees (Gregory Lewis, SAY IT LOUD, I'M BLACK AND I'M PROUD).
The day that James Brown saved Boston will forever be remembered for how it brought Black people together during a tumultuous time with an anthem which emphasized the need for them to have pride in their skin color and their heritage. Black people wanted all the economic and educational opportunities that were not only their right under the U.S. Constitution but what their ancestors had paid for with their all of their blood, sweat and tears during slavery.
While James Brown has been acknowledged and admired as our "Godfather of Soul," Marvin Gaye has to be one of the smoothest balladeers to emerge from the dynasty of musical dynasty known as Motown. Gaye has been given the title of the "Prince of Soul and the Prince of Motown," in the music industry. He was born Marvin Pentz Gaye in Washington D.C. on April 2, 1939. His father, Marvin Sr. was a preacher and worked part time at the post office, while his mother, Alberta was a domestic worker. His former boyhood home was known as the East Capitol Projects or "Simple City" because the residents believed that "half of it was the country and the other half was the city." From all accounts, the area was impoverished because it lacked running water and electricity and was in need of severe repair, which was peculiar because they had once been Federal styles homes in one of D.C.'s most traditional neighborhoods.
Despite his grim surroundings, Gaye grew up singing Gospel music in the Pentecostal church that he and his family attended. It was in church that his love of music really began to develop and Gaye relished in bringing joy to the congregants and vocalizing the word of God. Gaye describes his experience of singing in the church and some of his quarrelsome relationship with his father:"I loved my father's singing voice, said Marvin. "I loved his preaching voice. I loved everything about his church. He expected me to fulfill what he considered God's dictum-that I sing, preach and carry on in his hallowed tradition. I did feel the call. I was tempted. But the fact that I chose another path ruined our relationship. I rebelled against his authority. I rebelled against all authority."However, Gaye's childhood was not the most memorable because of his father's strict adherence to Hebrew Pentecostalism and both the Old and New Testament teachings.
Likewise, Gaye recalled the severe beatings he suffered for the slightest infraction from his father and that music would be the only thing that offered him the solace that he could not find elsewhere. Scholars have emphasized that his mother did her best to encourage his singing despite the cruel and abusive beatings from his father because otherwise, Gaye was seriously contemplating committing suicide as a young boy. It has also been noted by one of his sisters that the Marvin Sr. beat young Gaye well into his teenage years. By the time Gaye became a teenager and had been put out multiple times by Marvin Sr., he enlisted in the Air Force at age 16 after dropping out of high school in the 11th grade. Gaye did not care for authority and failed to complete many of the tasks that were required of him in the military. As noted on the MarvinGaye.net webpage, "My discharge was honorable," he said, "although it plainly stated, 'Marvin Gaye cannot adjust to regimentation and authority.'" By 1957, he was 18 years old and back at home in D.C.
After these traumatic incidents occurred in Gaye's life, he continued with his interest in music and started singing Doo Wop. He was eventually recruited to be a member of the Harvey and the Moonglows in 1958. They had experienced some success with the songs "Sincerely" and "The Ten Commandments" before Gaye joined the group. But Doo Wop was part of a period that was nostalgic in music but did not last very long. Fuqua, as a founding member of the group was paying attention to the shift in the trend. Consequently, it was he that decided to take only one member of the group to Detroit, Michigan where music mogul, Berry Gordy, had formed the newly created Motown label. According to Motown history, Marvin was that member and Gaye proclaimed, "I decided that, come hell or high water," he said, "I was going to make it as a pop singer." (MarvinGaye.net)
Upon arriving at Motown, and creating an identity for himself, Marvin decided to "add an e" to his name right before he turned 21. He was excited to be at Motown Records and thought it would be the idyllic place where could develop his love for music. However, Gaye initially only worked as a drummer and backup singer for a while at Motown. It was during the many studio sessions where Gaye and his wife Anna, who was Gordy's sister, developed ambitious plans for his career. The couple was determined that he would be an R&B star and to make music that was comparable to the likes of Nat King Cole and other well-known crooners of the period. With that notion in mind, Gaye cut his first album titled The Soulful Moods of Marvin Gaye, and his first single called, "Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide," (1961) both of which were commercial flops per industry standards.
Afterwards, he discovered that he needed to work on his craft, stage performance and find a voice which was uniquely his own in order to reach the masses. Gaye did not have commercial success until 1963 with the songs "A Stubborn Kind of Fellow," "Ain't That Peculiar," "Pride and Joy," and most notably "You're All I Need to Get By," "If This World Were Mine" and Ain't No Mountain High Enough" with the late Tammi Terrell, who passed away in 1970 from a brain tumor at the age of 24. Nonetheless, it was the fact that Terrell "collapsed" on stage in his arms as they were performing in Virginia that emotionally disturbed Gaye and caused him to withdraw from music and become a recluse from the public eye for a period of time. Her passing deeply hurt Gaye. It is often believed that even the thing which brought him so much joy, which was making music, could not overpower his looming depression and pain in reaction to her death.
Subsequently, Gaye eventually decided to take some time away and reflect on his life, career, his community and the societal ills plagued it. In contrast, music historians assert that Gaye did not return to Motown until much later, following Terrell's death. In 1971, his marriage to Anna Gordy was irretrievably broken, the Vietnam war was raging and his own brother, Frankie, had become victim to its aftermath when he returned home. This period of civil unrest is also important to highlight because the riots, including those in Watts in 1965 had just happened years before and were responsible for the destruction in multiple urban cities (including Gaye's) which were still heavy on his mind and heart.
From Gaye's perspective, nothing was as it should be and it why his song "What's Going On?" is and was so significant in popular culture and Black music. Gaye was inspired to write the song after talking to his friend, Renaldo "Obie" Benson who witnessed the police brutality and "Bloody Thursday," that took place in People's Park (Berkeley, CA, 1969) in protest against the war. Renaldo was a member of Motown's Four Tops and it was possible that his group could have turned his experience into a prospective song but the idea was scrapped by his fellow members. They had no interest in singing about the ills of society, especially those involving police brutality and violence. Benson and music composer Al Cleveland then presented the nameless song to Gaye who "tweaked" the lyrics and enriched it. He was then able to add his urban flair and smoothness to the melody while answering the initial questions that Benson asked which were, "What is happening here? and What is Going On? Ultimately, Benson convinced Gaye to record the song for himself and the world was grateful for his insight because its relevance and reflective view of society held true 50 years ago as much as it does today.
In spite of Gaye wanting to record the song, Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown Records, who was vacationing in the islands at the time, was reluctant to release it because he suspected that they would lose their conservative audience. Gordy also felt that Gaye's fan-base would be disinterested in him as sex symbol because their former "love crooner" was now all of sudden singing protest songs. As a result, Gordy and Gaye irately disagreed with each other about the song's release and how it could impact Gaye's career and "balladeer" image. However, in the end, Gaye refused to record any more music for Motown records unless "What's Going On?" was released. Gordy finally relented and the song was released in January of 1971. Gaye wanted the world to acknowledge the crime, the war, poverty, massive drug addiction and homelessness that he was witnessing in his in own life but in the midst of it all, he was acknowledging that people needed to try to love and understand one another. By no account was it the traditional love song from Gaye that his audience was used to but one built on resistance and controversy, emphasizing that people needed to accept and understand each other's needs while coming together to end the problems that ravished mankind as a whole. Tom Moon, author of The Story Of Marvin Gaye's 'What's Going On, from NPR 100, dissects the central themes of the song:
The central theme of "What's Going On" and the album of the same name came from Marvin Gaye's own life. When his brother Frankie returned from Vietnam, Gaye noticed that his outlook had changed. He put himself in his brother's shoes and wrote a song that stands among the most tuneful works of consciousness-raising in American music.
"What's Going On" looked at the forces shaping American culture at the beginning of the 1970's, that moment when hippie-era idealism crashed into the realities of poverty, of mystifying war, drug abuse and racial misunderstanding. Gaye didn't shout, didn't demand anything. His approach was cautious: "Father, we don't need to escalate." He might have set out to deliver one of those call-to-action sermons he'd heard growing up, but he veiled it in the sweet butterfly anguish of his voice and all kinds of musical seductions.
Not only did the song have emotional appeal but it encompassed all the societal ills with the one question, "what's going on?" Gaye was asking in a loving and prophetic way, 'why was society suffering and nothing is being done to resolve it?'
Thus, Gaye's resistance to not accept the societal ills such as drug addiction, police brutality and the Vietnam war were not only for Black people to rally against but for the government, state officials and world leaders to take notice. For example, as a truth teller, Gaye's "What's Going On?" dealt with the three million people including both American military men, women and Vietnamese veterans who perished in the Vietnam war. Eventually, the Vietnam war ended on April 30, 1975, but not without the deadly aftermath it caused with veterans being strung out on heroin, having severe mental health disorders and suffering from PTSD (Post Traumatic Disorder) when they returned home.
These same societal ills that Gaye sang about almost fifty years ago still exist in 2022 but in the form of Trayvon Martin's murder, Breonna Taylor being murdered in her own home, a prospective war with Russia, AIDS, cancer, tremendous poverty and homelessness and other troubles that we have yet to resolve as a nation. Brian McCollum from the Detroit Free Press avows, "The song with the silky, layered vocals and an emphatic protest message was topical when Gaye cut it in 1970. It was still relevant when a newly freed Nelson Mandela recited its lyrics for a packed Tiger Stadium in 1990. And it resonates in 2020, in the wake of George Floyd's killing by police-the 8 minutes and 46 seconds stark enough to slice their way into a pandemic lockdown."
While it is true that many artists such as Quincy Jones, John Legend, Artist Against AIDS Worldwide and even Donny Hathaway have covered this Gaye classic, it is solely Marvin's voice and defining lyrics that people always seem to hear and respond to because he was a "truth teller" and the way he expressed his resistance through love and patience made it timeless classic. What's more, the song is acknowledged as a commercial and pop culture hit.
Accordingly, Carey O'Dell affirms this notion: "Remarkably, "What's Going On" was recorded in only 10 days. Upon its release, not only was the title track a hit on both the R&B and pop charts, but the album was a commercial success. It sold over two million copies and was on the charts for well over a year. It would become the best-selling album of Gaye's long career. Critically, it was most well-received as well."
Just as the song "critiqued" the America that Gaye knew during the '60s and '70's, it still reverberates with society today because of the racism, poverty, drug addiction, war and oppression that we have not learned to overcome, resolve and love one another as Marvin has asked us to do.
See Part II of this article
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