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March 20, 2015

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Can I Get A Witness?: Marvin Gaye and His Contribution to the African-American Oral Tradition


Music legend Marvin Gaye once said, “An artist must be like a sponge and absorb everything about life, use his senses to pick up and store experiences” (Ritz, Divided 120). Gaye’s sentiment is the very foundation of the oral tradition, an art he perpetuated through out his three-decade music career. To further add texture to a centuries-old custom, Gaye expressed views through the lens of the African-American male. The black American lineage is mounted in a series of conflicts: the familiarity of struggle vs. the quest for liberation, biological glorification vs. stifled mental expressions, and the desire for solace vs. the inescapability of destruction. Gaye’s words bring multiplicity to the custom, and his voice allows the message to have mass appeal.

The oral tradition archives the knowledge of the past. Its influence hedges on how prevalently the information is preserved for younger generations (Vansina 1). Anthropologist Jan Vansina writes of the credibility of the genre in his book Oral Tradition: A Study in Historical Methodology:

In those parts of the world inhabited by peoples without writing, oral tradition forms the main available source for a reconstruction of the past, and even among peoples who have writing, many historical sources, including the most ancient ones, are based on oral traditions. Thus a claim for the practical utility of research on the specific characteristics of oral tradition, and on the methods for examining its trustworthiness, is doubly sustained. (Vansina 1)

The origin of all universal beliefs, whether perceived or factual, stems from verbal conduct. The importance of the oral tradition is especially key to the African-American experience as the strangulation of literacy haunted the race for generations. Prior to the Civil War, every southern American state except Tennessee barred slaves from learning to read (McHenry 2). The 1880 United States Census determined that 70 percent of African-Americans were illiterate, and in 1910, 30 percent of blacks were identified as illiterate (McHenry 4). Since a large portion of black Americans depended solely on the veracity of the spoken word, the oral tradition streghtened its roots in the African-American sector for the increasingly modern generations.

African-American literary scholar Gayl Jones addressed the power the African-American oral tradition in her book Liberating Voices: Oral Traditions in African-American Literature:

When the African American creative writers began to trust the literary possibilities of their own verbal and musical creations and to employ self-inspired techniques, they began to transform the European and European American models and to gain greater artistic sovereignty. Contemporary African American writers often recognize no boundaries.

Jones goes on to state that “oral heritage in both its verbal and musical renderings stay vital in observation, experience, and imagination” (Jones 2).

The black oral tradition emphasizes ethics when expressed through a moral channel. Roughly a century after slaves were freed, African-Americans entered into a new phase of demanding their humanity. The Civil Rights Movement birthed a new standard in African-American oration. According to The Will of a People: A Critical Anthology of Great African American Speeches, edited by Richard W. Leeman and Bernard K. Duffy, the “recognition of the historical and cultural significance of African-American oratory is relatively recent” (Duffy and Leeman 1). During the second half of the twentieth century, Atlanta-born minister Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Northern-bred social activist Malcolm X, later known as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, became the prototypes of modern black oration. King effectively blended “his biblical, Shakespearian, and poetic references” in his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech (Duffy and Leeman 2). Shabazz’s “speeches do not simply reflect the [speaker] and [his] times, however. They also tell us about the issues the speaker confronted and the audience who is addressed” (Duffy and Leeman 2-3).

Marvin Gaye came of age during the Civil Rights Movement. The collision of Eurocentric tradition and an Afrocentric renaissance helped to mold the social conscious of Gaye. Turning twenty-one in 1960, the possibility of a black legally-of-age male being perceived as a man in America was more of a possibility for his generation than any other that preceded him. The decade would shape the fibers of his artistic being.

The brutal assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, John F. Kennedy, and Robert F. Kennedy disseminated Gaye’s hesitations about publicly expressing his beliefs in the advancement of humanity. His final nudging came after examining the destruction the Vietnam War brought stateside despite being fought thousands of miles from America (F. Gaye 67). By the onset of the 1970s, Gaye released an overflow on experiencing strife and stride as an African-American.

Gaye’s response would eventually alter previous stereotypes of the African-American male and further extend the black intellectualism perpetuated by King and Shabazz. He continues the oral tradition of those before him through his music. He then adds depth to the field by telling the story of those who stand beside him. The content of his work exhibits freshly paved political avenues, while its structure harkens back to the Negro spirituals that have sustained his ancestors (Dyson 31).

His work is an attempt at reconciliation, whether they are between races, classes, generations, levels of authority, genders, and spirituality. Gaye maintains the theologically-driven elements of the Civil Rights Movement while embracing the new carnal liberations a revolution brings. The music written and expressed by Marvin Gaye is a bridge that makes the black oral tradition both synonymous to African-Americans and encompassing to the world as a whole.

Duffy, Bernard and Richard W. Leeman. The Will of a People: A Critical Anthology of Great African American Speeches. Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 2012. Print.

Dyson, Michael Eric. Mercy, Mercy Me: The Art, Loves, and Demons of Marvin. New York, New York: Basic Books, 2004. Print.

Gaye, Frankie. Marvin Gaye, My Brother. New York, New York: Hal Leonard Corporation, 2003. Print. Jones, Gayl. Liberating Voices: Oral Traditions in African American Literature. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1991. Print.

McHenry, Elizabeth. Forgotten Readers: Recovering the Lost History of African American Literary Societies. Durham, North     Carolina: Duke University Press, 2002. Print.

Ritz, David. Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye. New York, New York: Da Capo Press, 2002. Print.

Vansina, Jan. Oral Tradition: A Study in Historical Methodology. Piscataway, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 1965. Print.  

One thought on “Can I Get A Witness?: Marvin Gaye and His Contribution to the African-American Oral Tradition

  1. Really enjoyed your post! The mutivocality amongst black artists in every capacity is so intriguing. You are so right that this tradition was pivotal during the Civil Rights era and today! Great post!

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