A Soul Prophecy: How ‘What’s Going On’ still, sadly, resonates 50 years later

Marvin Gaye's landmark album turns 50 Friday. TheGrio examines song-by-song how it makes more sense now.

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What’s Going On wasn’t an album; it was a prophecy.

On May 21, 1971, Marvin Gaye released his sublime suite of angelic vocals, tribal percussion and sophisticated string arrangements that would “touch the souls of men.” Well, not only did it become a hit for Motown Records — and influence a slew of artists to express the social ills of the country with the knowledge that it could also be profitable — it also revealed bleak proof that history is destined to repeat itself.

In 1971, America had been suffering from the losses of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. A disproportionate amount of African-American men were being sent to fight in the Vietnam War, including Gaye’s younger brother, Frankie. College kids were being shot on campuses, riots were happening all across the nation, and drug addiction was crippling Black communities. If this all sounds similar to you, it should. Fifty years later, America still seems divided.

READ MORE: The legend lives! Motown to release lost Marvin Gaye album from 1972

Gaye’s album was both a diagnosis of slowly-festering viruses plaguing the nation, as well as a plea for all those who yearned to live a more righteous life full of justice and peace to embrace the tenants of Jesus Christ. However, as timely as it was when released, the LP, unfortunately, foresaw so much that’s happening now, it could be considered as equally contemporary as it is classic.

TheGrio will illustrate song-by-song just how much What’s Going On remains applicable in the 21st century.

  1. “What’s Going On”

“Picket lines and picket signs/Don’t punish me with brutality” ring truer now. The video capture of the deaths of George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, Eric Garner and so many others at the hands of white law enforcement show the dangerous, prejudice-tainted roots that make the foundation of American police departments still run deep. And the people are still tasked with having to peacefully protest in the streets to voices their outrage and provoke basic reform.

2. “What’s Happening Brother”

This is the story of a soldier coming home from war, only to find a somber polarity to his reality; so many things have passed him by while so many things he was fighting against overseas are still running rampant domestically. Just ask Army Second Lt. Caron Nazario, who was assaulted by cops in a Virginia gas station while he was in his uniform. The line “Are things really getting better like the newspaper said” hits hard today as we live in a society where Republicans are yelling “fake news,” pushing “alternative facts” and South Carolina Senator Tim Scott tells millions that “America is not a racist country.”

3. “Flyin’ High (In the Friendly Sky)”

“Flyin’ High” discusses the plague that substances like cocaine and heroin had on the Black community during the 1960s and 1970s. “I go to the place where good feeling awaits me/self-destruction in my head” speaks to how people today use prescription drugs, codeine concoctions and drugs laced with fentanyl to mask their mental trauma, depression, bipolar disorder, etc. The deaths of Prince, Juice WRLD and Mac Miller of accidental overdoses are just the tip of the iceberg.

4. “Save The Children”

“Who really cares? Who’s willing to try to save a world that is destined to die?” These lyrics explore another dreadful disease taking its toll on society: Apathy and indifference. The constant dominance of racism and capitalism on society has bred an overarching sense of futility among mankind. This way of thinking has resulted in cyberbullying, the CDC reporting a 60-percent increase of teen suicide since 2007 and a huge disparity in Black youth being incarcerated compared to white youth, according to The Sentencing Project.

READ MORE: Stevie Wonder leaves Motown after nearly 60 years, announces new music

5. “God is Love”

“All He asks of us is we give each other love.” Gaye was reminding everyone that a higher power was in control of everything, and the key to overturning all of the crises going on was to show our fellow humans the same decency, respect and love that they would like in return. Regardless of your religion or lack thereof, random acts of kindness yield positive results, like last April when TheGrio reported a Detroit church giving away laptops to families who needed them for at-home learning or chefs from the same city making free meals to feed homeless shelters last May.

6. “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)”

Gaye’s line “Oil wasted on the oceans and upon our seas” predicted not only the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster or the 2010 Deepwater Horizon incident, but also this February’s Chevron oil spill in San Francisco or February’s oil spill near the coast of Israel reported by Forbes. The lyric “poison is the wind that blows from the north and south and east” is particularly haunting, not only because of the fog that’s clouding China’s skyline, but the airborne coronavirus that’s caused the death of millions all over the planet.

7. “Right On”

Gaye put a damning spotlight on those with all the wealth and privilege in the world, people “born with money to spend” and “for races to win” who sit idly by when the opportunity arises to put a hand out to help someone in need. On the flipside, he praised “those of us who tend the sick and heed the people’s cries” with a “right on.” We’ve all said “right on” to the the nurses, doctors and first responders who have cared for everyone who’s tested positive with COVID-19 over the past year. What’s more, he called out “those of us who simply like to socialize,” which can be applied to the conservative lot in the nation who protested the right to not wear masks or follow stay-at home orders, like those who marched on the Michigan State Capitol last year with weapons just so they could get their hair dyed and go to the gym.

8. “Wholy Holy”

“Jesus left a long time ago, said He would return/He left us a book to believe in/In it we’ve got a lot to learn.” Ever the devout Christian, Gaye pleaded with humanity to embrace the basic instructions before leaving earth. Again, not everyone is religious, but his proclamation of worldwide unity in the lyric “We can rock the world’s foundation, everybody/Together and holy/We’ll holler love, love, love across the nation” was proven to be correct, as souls in every state stood together last summer to protest the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. As theGrio reported, that love extended to countries like Germany, England, Denmark and France, showing how much solidary can go a long way.

9. “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)”

The climax of this brilliant masterpiece spoke to the frustration of the working class and poor in America being denied financial assistance while the government spent billions on defense and war. “Rockets, moonshots, spend it on the have-nots/Money, we make it/Before we see it, you take it” represents the divide and hypocrisy illustrated in the national budget. The U.S. is projected to spend $934 million on military from last October to September 2021, according to The Balance. Meanwhile, several states — even after monetary help via the CARES Act — will be facing 15 to 20 percent budget cuts in education, as reported by NPR.

Lastly, the What’s Going On album also opened the flood gates for artists like Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, The O’Jays, Public Enemy and more to record music that unapologetically exposed the mistreatment of the disenfranchised and critiqued those in power who either caused the mistreatment or turned a blind eye for the name of the almighty dollar. Despite decades of protest music ranging from Prince’s “Sign O’ the Times” to Kendrick Lamar‘s “Alright,” the problems persist.

This begs the question: Would we rather have great music about turmoil that never ends or marginal, disposable music in a utopia?

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