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There's too many of you crying
Marvin Gaye loved his mom, but his mom probably didn't love it when he dropped out of school to join the Air Force at age 17.
"What's Going On" is a protest song about the Vietnam War. It kicks off an entire album narrated by a Vietnam vet who comes back to a changed country and starts wondering, "what's going on?" But the song's lines addressed to mother and father take on even more significance in the context of Gaye's family background.
Years earlier, a scared and conflicted young Marvin Gaye had dropped out of high school and joined the military in order to get away from his abusive father, Rev. Marvin Gaye, Sr. Gaye was honorably discharged in less than a year for "continually absent[ing] himself without permission" (not showing up for class, so to speak), and his departure for the military was the beginning of a decades-long push-and-pull with his father that would end in tragedy. (Source, 17)
His mother, a close friend and support to Gaye throughout his life, was constantly caught in the crossfire—most literally at the end of Gaye's life, when he was shot to death by his father with his mother in the room.
Brother, brother, brother
There's far too many of you dying
Marvin Gaye's brother, Frankie, deeply influenced Gaye's decision to write protest music.
Frankie Gaye was drafted to fight in Vietnam in 1967, after 6,000 U.S. troops were killed in Vietnam in 1966 alone. (For some perspective, some 4,287 U.S. troops were killed in Iraq from 2003 to 2009.)
Although draftees were in the minority among those who fought in Vietnam, many believed they were more likely to be killed than volunteers. Marvin and Frankie exchanged letters during this time, Frankie telling stories of firefights and death while Marvin lamented urban riots and the shootings of anti-war protestors at Kent State University.
His conversations with Frankie when he returned to the states in 1970 moved Marvin deeply. (Source, 53) When he insisted that Motown release and promote this potentially controversial song, Gaye probably had his brother's plight in mind.
War is not the answer
Pop quiz: Who said it first? Clue: It was not Marvin Gaye.
This familiar, almost cliché phrase became so commonplace in the Vietnam era that a lot of people lost track of the fact that it was actually Martin Luther King, Jr. who first used it, in his momentous 1967 anti-war speech.
MLK's contribution to the conversation about war and peace was huge, because he took a stance not just as a long-time pacifist (pacifists are against war, duh), but as a Black man who believed the war was racist, and an issue that Blacks should take up in their struggles. He called upon Americans to try to understand the point of view of the communist enemy—a radical stance, akin to encouraging a dialogue with terrorists in this era. He talked about the need for a "revolution of values" and called for an immediate plan for withdrawal from Vietnam.
All this happened in April 1967—a year before MLK was assassinated, and almost exactly six years before the official end of the war.
Motown Records was generally known for staying out of politics and trying to please a broad audience of Black and white listeners. But those kings of Detroit pop may have actually had something to do with the widespread familiarity of King's anti-war speech. An offshoot label on Motown known as Black Forum was started in the mid-1960s with the goal of putting out Black political speeches and spoken word albums, to "provide a permanent record of the sound of the struggle" (source, 48-49).
Black Forum released the works of Black Panther leader Stokely Carmichael, the poetry of Langston Hughes and Amiri Baraka, and the keynote speeches from the first-ever banquet for the Congressional Black Caucus. Black Forum's release of "Why I Oppose the War in Vietnam" by Martin Luther King, Jr. won the Grammy award in 1970 for Best Spoken Word Album.
Picket lines and picket signs
Don't punish me with brutality
The late 1960s and early 1970s were jam-packed with crazy news stories about protests and police brutality.
This timeline just mentions a few of the most highly publicized upheavals during this volcanic era. From civil rights protests throughout the rural and urban South to a series of upheavals on college campuses over issues ranging from wages to women's rights to racism, the spirit of protest was everywhere.
And even the people who were not involved followed the story of the chaotic 1968 Democratic National Convention, when protestors were tear-gassed and arrested en masse by Chicago police in the middle of the city's downtown (although few remember that Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs and Jean Genet were all present at the protest).
Everyone knew about the killings at Kent State and Jackson State in 1970, when anti-war protestors were fatally gunned down by national guardsmen. From the perspective of lots of young rabble-rousers, "don't punish me with brutality" was not hyperbole, but a relevant plea for the times.
Oh, but who are they to judge us
Simply because our hair is long
Two words: hippie hair.
It's easy to find images of hippies that include lots of long hair and regrettable uses of head-bands. But an even juicier part of the hair story in the late 1960s and early 1970s is the story of the Afro.
With the true dawn of the civil rights era, African Americans began to embrace the "natural" or Afro look, a hairstyle that didn't require regular upkeep at a beauty shop—and that didn't imitate or assimilate to the looks of white people. Black Power icon Angela Davis did a lot to promote the style just by wearing it around and being famous. The new look was actually quite controversial because it made a strong statement about African heritage and resistance to white supremacy.
But by the release of "What's Going On," even Michael Jackson was sporting a fro. A young Black pop star with a fro would have been nearly unheard of just a decade earlier.