With his brother, Frankie, back from Vietnam and struggling to find a job; the Earth showing signs of ecological distress; police brutality at a protest in Berkeley, and a boiling point of inequality in black urban neighborhoods, Marvin Gaye wrote a poignant plea that we might organize to address these often-overlooked issues.
Fifty years later, the influence and meaning behind one of R&B’s first seamless concept albums, “What’s Going On,” continues to ring true.
Calling out to a broken country, Gaye searched for reason and hope in a world that felt desperate and senseless. He opened the door musically, culturally and politically for countless musicians over the past five decades to address – with a vulnerable depth and complexity – the injustices of this world.
To honor this momentous record and celebrate Gaye’s life and legacy, Motown/UMe are introducing – exactly 50 years from the album’s original release – a charge of releases that both conserve and reimagine the essence of “What’s Going On.”
Representing the younger generations, soul-stirring R&B virtuoso Jac Ross (Darkchild/Island) has released a cover of “What’s Going On” (view here).
A press release stated, “Ross has quickly made himself known in the R&B scene with his single ‘It’s OK To Be Black’ and has built a buzz around his electric live show and his ability to connect to listeners through his songs. Highly influenced by Gaye and striving to carry on the messages of struggle, perseverance and cultural change, Ross’ cover honors and preserves the track’s original atmosphere while imbuing the weight and emotion of today’s social climate.”
Ross said, “Honestly, I would rank ‘What’s Going On’ as one of the best pieces I’ve ever heard. It holds substance and has charisma all at the same time. To me, the album is a socially conscious project. It’s what Marvin sees, being converted to what he says in real time. Even when we fast forward into the present, this piece of work holds the same impact.
“The project inspired my career in many ways, one of which is simply making a real effort to speak out when the time is right. Another thing I’ve learned from watching Marvin’s career is that you can be versatile. You just simply must pay attention to what the world is telling you in that moment.”
The press release continued, “One of the most influential and successful people in hip-hop for the past several decades, Young Guru is announcing his ‘What’s Going On’ remix to be released in June.
“A Grammy-winning engineer for ‘Everything Is Love’ by The Carters, Young Guru has worked closely with genre-defining artists. With ‘What’s Going On’ as a driving influence for himself as well as the many artists he has worked with, Guru is developing a rendition of the track infused with the genres, grooves and tones that Gaye’s work would go on to inspire.
Guru said, “My goal was to meld the worlds of where I'm from. This record affected my father when it came out, but I also want it to affect my son right now with this remix. And for me, that's the biggest thing – showing reverence – but also showing how it's still effective today and how it still goes with the times today.”
The press release continued, “The recognition also reaches across the Atlantic to Canterbury Crescent in Brixton, U.K., where visual artist Dreph is revealing a 16-foot mural in a cinematic '70s, Black-movie style that pays homage to the 40th anniversary of the 1981 Brixton Uprising. The art represents the musical message of ‘What’s Going On,’ which still held its significance amongst police brutality and racial inequality in 1981 and continues to encourage the social justice movement of today.
“Offering an option to explore the title track itself, Motown/UMe have released a new lyric video for ‘What’s Going On’ featuring the captivating art of animator and director Tim Fox. There are also eight brand-new pseudo-videos released for the remaining tracks on the original record, each animated by a different artist to match the message and atmosphere of the song, delivering a dynamic visual complement to the listening experience.”
View the visual album HERE.
Catch the Apple TV documentary “1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything,” covering the year in music and highlighting the release of “What’s Going On.” Watch the official trailer HERE.
CNN has aired their special “What’s Going On: Marvin Gaye’s Anthem for the Ages” (first aired May 9) hosted by Don Lemon and featuring interviews from artists inspired by Gaye’s masterwork, including Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Maxwell, Sheila E., Spike Lee, Lee Daniels and Capitol Records artist Devon Gilfillian, whose most recent release is a cover of the full “What’s Going On” album. Watch the special on CNN VOD HERE.
Gaye’s “What's Going On” continues to be hailed as one of the greatest albums of all time. It was the first of Gaye's albums to break the Top 10 of Billboard’s top LPs, spawned three No. 1 singles, at the time became Motown's best-selling album, and decades later earned the No. 1 spot on Rolling Stone magazine’s 2020 list of “The 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time.” Gaye continues to hold his place as one of the greatest singers, composers and producers in this half-century.
“ ‘What's Going On’ has proven that its timeless message and sound will continue to change the face of music for years to come.”