The first time I remember hearing “What’s Going On?” blaring from my dad’s car, the radio dial turned up to its highest volume, I felt like a small piece of Marvin Gaye’s epochal song of protest would always belong to me. Rift with mesmerizing harmonies and a prophetic critique of and message to the world, the iconic song still speaks with amazing relevance — even after nearly 40 years since its release.
It was 1971 in Detroit, more often called Motown — when I was a rambunctious, inquisitive, 11-year-old Black boy, fortunate — no, blessed — to be nestled within the bosom of a protective triad — Black family, Black community and Black church — that collectively and consciously loved, cherished and celebrated Black — loving it and therefore us fiercely and with pride.
In those days, neighborhoods were filled with selected homes owned by Black families whose doors were always open — safe havens for otherwise latchkey kids whose parents worked longer than eight hours a day. I was placed in the capable hands of a no-nonsense woman from Georgia, Mrs. Herbert Lee Hunt. She cared for several kids from the neighborhood, including the children, nieces and nephews of Marvin Gaye and his wife — so, a lot of my time was spent watching the maestro work.
He treated us like we were his very own. We’d hunker down along the rail of his living room where he had a white baby grand piano, white shag carpeting and white leather couches. We’d sing along, sometimes. We’d grow bored quickly and head out to explore other parts of the house.
But, with Mr. Gaye’s voice drifting throughout the rooms, and the sounds of his piano inviting us to return, we couldn’t help but return to sit as his feet. The musical genius often hailed as the “Prince of Soul” would have celebrated his 80th birthday this week on April 2, had a tempestuous relationship between him and his father, not ended so tragically.
Still, his music had healing powers for the Black community in Motown — something we desperately needed in the aftermath of the Detroit Riots of 1967 whose impact still remained into the ’70s and even the ’80s. We needed the prophetic musings he provided in “Mercy, Mercy, Me (The Ecology),” “What’s Happening Brother,” “Save the Children” and “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler.”
But it was his song “What’s Going On?” that provided a channel for all of his sorrow and frustration: the death of his duet partner Tammi Terrell who had died in 1970 after a three-year struggle with a brain tumor. His brother Frankie had returned from Vietnam with horrific stories that often moved Mr. Gaye to tears. Meanwhile, at Motown, he was in a battle with the company in his quest to address social issues in his music.
Young people were sent overseas to war and if they were lucky enough to return, they were changed forever in dark, painful ways. The police were beating up young folks with afros or with long hair, even when they weren’t doing anything wrong. The world seemed in turmoil — then and now.
But for me, sitting on the floor in the presence of Marvin Gaye, everything seemed alright. I miss those days. I miss you, Mr. Gaye.