Hands Up Don’t Shoot: Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin On

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by admin on December 1, 2016

The past few years have been tough. Mass shootings and videos of policemen shooting and killing African American men have sparked controversy over gun laws in the U.S. In September, Keith Lamont Scott was fatally shot by police in Charlotte. Scott was hit several times outside his home, after exiting backward from his vehicle. The police video does not clearly show if he was armed. His death caused tremendous outrage on the streets that lead to a tear gas protest in the streets. Over the years, we have heard the names of Trayvon Martin, Alton Sterling, Terrence Crutcher, Walter Scott, Philando Castile and many more. Race in this country is a touchy subject: sometimes race becomes a trigger for police brutality, because people who look different seem scary. An initial fear sets in, compelling the police to behave a certain way, bringing out an unjust outcome.

Music has always provided a way for humans to express themselves, to create art and communicate to the world what goes on in the heart. But music has been especially important and influential for addressing social problems in our world. And the most relevant to our time is the fight for racial equality, justice, and peace. Marvin Gaye was known as the “Prince of Motown” and used his music to convey the problems of his time. He emphasized the problem of inequality, challenging America’s racial tensions, and informing people of the broken social structures that have ruined cities. His music is revolutionary, igniting change by turning black culture into mainstream pop culture.

His album What’s Goin On explores issues of poverty, racial discrimination, politics, drugs and their relationship to the environment. It was very well received and became known as an important evolutionary step in soul music.

Gaye was born in Washington D.C. and grew up singing in the church choir. He joined a band called the Moonglows, and his career took off in the 60s when he moved to Motown Records. During his career, the violence and political unrest over the Vietnam War escalated, and he saw communities being torn apart. There was an increase of crime, drug use, racism, and poverty in the inner cities. In 1971, instead of collapsing into deep depression from ongoing issues, Gaye released What’s Goin On with the intention to lift people up, to call for understanding across races, generations, and people. His vision was to help others hear and understand what was going through his mind. Listening to the album breaks my heart, especially “Inner City Blues.” Take a look at the lyrics, and don’t tell me it doesn’t reflect what is currently happening today.

“Bills pile up sky high/Send that boy off to die”

“The way they do my life/This ain’t livin’, this ain’t livin’”

“Trigger happy policing/Panic is spreading”

These lyrics linger because it rings true for those of us who have been in those situations, who are going through those situations now, or know someone who has. While hearing Gaye sing these words, I can picture all of the names, the names of the people who lost their lives too soon.

Over the course of the Black Lives Matter movement, political statements have been made in many forms. Music can be a political statement. Lyrics appeal to the oppressed, but also appeal to the compassionate, the ones who believe in turning problems around. Music is something that binds and strengthens people together by creating a sense of shared identity, the idea “we are all in this together.” Music with political messages brings attention to these issues in a medium that crosses all boundaries.

Those in the public eye, whether from the past or in the present, are able to provoke strong emotions to inspire change. Gaye set the tone in the early 1970s by creating Motown’s foundation for protest music. Protest anthems are so powerful: they allow you to visualize images, feel sensations that inspire you to do something. This type of music wakes people up from their first-world complaints and comfortable lifestyles to see an urgent issue at hand—racial prejudice. We are left to our own thoughts, and are invited to consider what kind of world we live in, and what kind of culture we display and the one we want.

The deaths of black Americans continue to increase, and the resurgence of Gaye’s music makes me question where America stands today. Have our racial views improved at all after all this time? Has prejudice stayed the same or perhaps, grown worse?

Does this not make you want to throw up both of your hands, and make you want to holler?


By Sarah Chao


Works Cited

“Marvin Gaye: Classic Motown.” Classic Motown. UNIVERSAL MUSIC ENTERPRISES, n.d. Web. 07 Oct. 2016.

Mcquaid, Ian. “A Musical History of Black Lives Matter.” ID RSS. I-D, 18 July 2016. Web. 07 Oct. 2016.

“The Music.” The Story Behind the Album. JOHN F. KENNEDY CENTER FOR THE PERFORMING ARTS, n.d. Web. 07 Oct. 2016.

Anna Lee Skinner December 6, 2016 at 6:09 pm

I’ve grown up with Marvin Gaye constantly playing around the house, so this article hit home for me. I thought it was brilliant how you started off with addressing current issues and then went back to talk about how Gaye’s music relates. I liked the details you included about him and his life. You managed to add levity to a heavy topic, but without being disrespectful and that’s always impressive. Well done!!

Christian T Smith December 6, 2016 at 4:45 pm

This album is, to me, one of the most multidimensional and influential works put out to date and I think that you did a very good job of writing about it that way. I had been feeling that this album was quite applicable to current issues for a while and wasn’t able to articulate quite how, and I think that you did an excellent job of doing so. I think your title was engaging and really set a tone with the album that brought me back more to the didactic traits of the tracks than the melodic ones.

Kailey Hackett December 6, 2016 at 10:31 am

I think that this article is so relevant in today and with all the shootings and problems with police brutality in our society. It was interesting to me that this is not just a recent problem and stuff like this has been going on for as long as anyone can remember. I have heard of Marvin Gaye, but was so interested to see how much his work has really appealed to people facing these problems and how the lyrics touched just about every type of person they possibly could have. It amazes me that these lyrics are still true today and it is sad that we haven’t made changes to try and fix this by now. I thought this article was really fascinating and I definitely learned a lot about things I was totally unfamiliar with before now.

Lea Gilbert December 4, 2016 at 5:10 pm

It was very interesting to read that because of all of the recent shootings and tensions about racial issues, that there was a resurgence in Marvin Gaye’s music. It truly shows that music is timeless and can be relevant decades (or even centuries) later. The fact that his music is relevant today though is a sad realization. Marvin Gaye wanted people to join together in a time of unrest and stand with each other. The fact that people are back to listening to his music, means his dream wasn’t realized and we are back to repeating history. His music still sends the same messages though, so maybe this time it won’t just be preaching to the choir but reaching those who were previously apathetic.

Emma Berg December 4, 2016 at 11:36 am

I thought this was a really interesting and relevant topic that you related well with problems we face as a society today. Also, I like how you related it to Gayes upbringing and the problems he saw at the time he wrote this music. I felt this line of the article was really interesting and important to add to the conversation “Lyrics appeal to the oppressed, but also appeal to the compassionate, the ones who believe in turning problems around.” I like how you highlight that this music doesn’t just appeal to the people facing these issues but also those who see these issues and want to help. Overall, I really enjoyed this article!

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