Whats (Really) Goin On: Marvin Gaye and the Complexity of Struggle

Words by Oliver Walter, with art by Theo Verden

It’s an impressive album from perhaps the most enduring artist to come out of the turmoil of the 1960s and 70s, and its social message has been strikingly on point since it hit the airwaves. Marvin Gaye’s Whats Goin On is as wide as it is deep, teaching us critically important lessons about resistance and cooperation. Much has been written about the album’s political and social awareness before, but it has a unique applicability now when young generations are increasingly upset with the long-established channels of addressing issues like economic inequality, war, and of course, the climate emergency. Released in 1971, Gaye sought to articulate the struggle and hardship facing a country – and world – that was besieged by seemingly insurmountable issues ranging from urban poverty and social strife to environmental decline to the carnage of the Vietnam War. Where we find ourselves now is perhaps the closest we have been to the lows of the time, and calls for a revisiting of Whats Goin On’s message.

The 1960s had been very kind to Gaye’s fortunes; he had released several platinum records and had the prospect of numerous upcoming Hollywood film contracts. At the same time, however, America was singing a very different tune. The public faced urban unrest and unfounded struggles for racial justice amidst an escalating war thousands of miles away in Vietnam that was increasingly questioned with each returning body bag. Gaye felt that it was his obligation as an influential cultural figure to exact the change that politicians seemed unable, and clearly unwilling, to themselves. His producers, however, saw the prospect of a politically charged album as a commercial failure that risked sinking Gaye’s career and public image. He had been the hitmaker for Motown Records, and the soul and R&B label was weary of becoming a mouthpiece for the burgeoning civil rights movement. Nonetheless, Gaye finally received his producer’s blessing, after which the album was recorded in two short weeks. Gaye’s instincts were proven right and the album spawned three top 10 hits: “What’s Going On,” “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology),” and “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler).” These singles would forever change the perception of the role of music in public activism and political thought alike.

As with everything in Whats Goin On seems to be a melting pot of different influences, “Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology)” is no different. Gaye’s frustration with industrialized society’s treatment of the environment came from a belief that capitalist greed “had torn followers from Jesus.” The track itself is peppered with sermon-like lyrics where Gaye’s fears and hopes about the environment are hammered home so impactfully.

The greatest single to come out of the album was its namesake, “Whats Goin On.” Originally envisioned by one of Gaye’s close musical collaborators in San Francisco in 1968 at the sight of young people being attacked by police, the track is asking a question as much as it is an expression of some hopelessness at what was – and continues – to happen in America. 

The album had clearly struck a meaningful chord in America. It was more than an emotional plea asking “Whats Goin On,” but also a revolutionary statement piece that indicted those in power and exposed both the breadth of struggle and, critically, the linkages between all of the crises which Gaye highlights. These linkages had the effect of uniting the previously separated struggles for environmental action, racial justice, and peace in Vietnam. The album’s ability to unify these struggles is where so much of its enduring strength lies, as well as its most important lesson; identifying linkages establishes a new and expanded consciousness of struggle. Indeed, with each track mixed together, Gaye effortlessly leaps from a quiet jazz track mourning the deaths of African Americans in Vietnam amidst increasing calls for racial justice at home to an upbeat R&B track lamenting the destruction of the environment.

For Gaye, too, the album was a personal search for justice and peace in his own life. He didn’t see the album’s content as particularly radical or extreme, but instead as a way to both help humanity and “help me as well…it’s given me a certain amount of peace.” Peace is, after all, the commodity of activists and revolutionaries, and Gaye shows us that perhaps it can only come from the understanding born from an expanded consciousness that reveals the linkages of our own lives and their connections with the lives of people near and far. 

The scale of this album shows us that, unfortunately, little has changed since the tumult of the 1970s; racism still pervades our institutions of justice and politics, the environment is facing an existential crisis that is being woefully ignored, and political violence is on the rise. Gaye showed a fragmented society that each of our own struggles are linked, so it is now time to bring that message into today to bring peace, if not to our communities, then at least to ourselves. 

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