What’s Going On? Marvin’s 1971 Lyrics Of Police Brutality and Senseless Violence Still Ring True 50 Years later!

This editorial was inspired by the docu-series, 1971 The Year That Music Changed Everything, I watched last night on Apple TV. What’s Going On was the eleventh studio album by soul singer, songwriter, and producer Marvin Gaye. It was released on May 21, 1971, by the Motown Records subsidiary label Tamla. At the time Black artists weren’t typically creating classic album-length artistic statements on par with The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and Bob Dylan’s “Blonde on Blonde,” then along came Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” a 1971 game-changer that turned 50 on May 21st.

The song “What’s Going On?” by Marvin Gaye is unique among the diverse field of anti-war songs. The message it sends is not overtly critical of war, nor does it display any amount of contempt for those that wage violence in war. Instead it exudes an air of confusion; confusion about why the Vietnam War is being waged at all, and confusion about why there is such open hostility between war protestors and those who attempt to subdue them. Throughout the song, language such as “Picket lines and picket signs/Don’t punish me with brutality”, “Father, father, everybody thinks we’re wrong/Oh, but who are they to judge us/Simply because our hair is long”, “There’s far too many of you dying/You know we’ve got to find a way” stand out, sending a message that is centered very much at home in America. This song is certainly anti-war, as evidenced by the lines, “We don’t need to escalate/You see, war is not the answer/for only love can conquer hate”, which is a direct statement that war is not the way to solve out problems.

50 years later the very words Marvin uttered in 1971 can apply to 2021. He sang about too many people dying in the Vietnam War but can be applied to all the lives we are losing today in the streets of Urban America to senseless gun violence. While his lyrics exuded an air of confusion; confusion about why the Vietnam War is being waged at all, they can as easily exude an air of confusion or why so many Brothers and Sisters are dying in the streets today.

Mother, mother
There’s too many of you crying
Brother, brother, brother
There’s far too many of you dying
You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some lovin’ here today – Ya

50 years later, we are not talking about a war being fought 8,703 miles away in Vietnam, but on Urban Streets all across America. The sad thing is the enemy looks like us and is us, WE ARE KILLING OURSELVES!!! There’s a war going on outside nobody’s safe from. Marvin Gaye’s brother Frankie had returned to the US totally traumatized by his three-year tour of duty while his cousin (also called Marvin) had died in service. Now the violence plaguing our streets is traumatizing our youth who are living with PTSD like the soldiers who came back from war.

The Access Community Health Network (ACHN) explains it like this; Now consider for every person shot, hundreds of people are affected. Families and communities are left having to constantly cope and pick up the pieces. It takes a toll on our mental health, causing everything from anxiety to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

Studies show that gun violence has a lasting effect on our mental health.  Without sufficient support, often including counseling, individuals may develop one or more of the following: 

  • Anxiety: The emotional stress of gun violence will cause overall increased fear, a sense of not being safe and anxiety. Individuals may feel haunted by the event and have recurring nightmares or images. Counseling can address these issues to help the person adjust to their new reality. 
  • Depression: Grief counseling can help a loved one cope with loss, the persistent sadness and mitigate the risk of depression  
  • Substance abuse: Often when people suffer a tragic loss, they increase or begin the use of drugs or alcohol to numb their pain. Unfortunately, this can often lead to addiction.  
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder: Individuals may develop PTSD. Common symptoms include nightmares, flashbacks, severe anxiety, depression, hopelessness, sleeplessness, heightened watchfulness, and increased irritability and aggressive behavior.   

The ACHN goes on to explains the Violence Breeds Violence:

According to the National Center for Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, youth with PTSD are more likely to exhibit impulsive or aggressive behaviors. This puts them at higher risk for making decisions that put them at risk of harm to themselves and others, thus, perpetuating the cycle of trauma and violence to themselves, their friends and family, and their communities overall. 

Which makes Marvin’s 1971 lyrics so prophetic 50 years later. Like Marvin said on Save The Children, Children today really suffer tomorrow. To end the senseless gun violence we must first understand its effects and make sure to put programs in place to help those who are affected by it. You cannot arrest the problem away, it is important for our youth and everyone affected to get the help that they need, so they can heal. So we can all heal. Then and only then can we truly and fully tackle the problem and affects of senseless gun violence. Like Marvin the situation has me scratching my head asking What’s Going On? So I couldn’t just do a traditional celebration of the 50th Anniversary of this monumental musical offering from Marvin without attempting to address What’s Going On today as he did 50 years ago. That’s the only way I could see in truly celebrating our brother Marvin. While we get outraged about Black and Brown people being killed at the hands on law enforcement, we have to be equally if not more outraged when they die at the hands of those who look like them in our communities.

But let’s not forget our brothers and sisters being murdered by law enforcement. Marvin’s lyrics also exude confusion about why there is such open hostility between war protestors and those who attempt to subdue them. In 1971 the were mass protests over the war, and 49 years later there were the same size crowds protesting the killing of Black people at the hands of law enforcement. Black Lives Matter protestors were met with hostility by those who attempted to subdue them. In 1971 Richard Nixon, who escaped impeachment by resigning was in the White House and despised the protestors, in 2020, Donald Trump – the first president to be impeached twice – shared Nixon’s despisement of the protestors and expressed the same hostility toward them.

Father, father
We don’t need to escalate
You see, war is not the answer
For only love can conquer hate
You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some lovin’ here today

Picket lines and picket signs
Don’t punish me with brutality
Talk to me, so you can see
Oh, what’s going on

Last year the anti-war picket signs of 1971 were replaced by ‘Black Lives Matter‘ and ‘Hands Up Don’t Shoot‘ signs, but we are still asking not to be punished with brutality. Since 1971, we’ve come a long way baby, but how far have we really come? 50 years after Marvin sang his anti war anthem, history is repeating itself. We hear from a new generation of activists who were deeply inspired by this iconic album’s music and its messages. This album was a masterpiece. That’s a word that is too often thrown around, but is defined as a creation in any area of the arts that has been given much critical praise, especially one that is considered the greatest work of a person’s career or to a work of outstanding creativity, skill, profundity, or workmanship. It is also something that stands the test of time.

While the fight has shifted a bit in 50 years, we are still fighting for civil rights. Like Marvin sang on the third and final single. Inner City Blues the climactic song of his 1971 landmark album, What’s Going On, “It makes me wanna holler and throw up both my hands.” The song depicted the ghettos and bleak economic situations of inner-city America, and the emotional effects these have on inhabitants, and his lyrics still ring true, 50 years later.

  • It is one thing to celebrate Marvin Gaye’s enduring masterpiece, it’s another to applaud the continued resonance of this classic album’s concerns. We should not be so optimistic for instance,that Gaye’s understated critique of “trigger-happy policing” has stayed relevant 50 year’s later, or that anti-Black violence has been ongoing over the last 50 years that it remains necessary for Black artists and everyday people to approach the task of surviving in America with the same energy, elegance and grace that Gaye conveyed in his timeless work. He might have hoped it would be more occasional,that his efforts might by now appear more dated. Sadly we continue to ask the same question “What’s Going On?”

Comments are closed.