Though Gaye produced a great volume of music in the seven years following “Dancing in the Street,” the Vietnam War and its aftermath altered his creative channels. More specifically, the Kent State murders prompted him to write one of his signature songs. The song came to be known as “What’s Going On,” and his first album of the 1970s adopted the same name.
The event now known as the Kent State shootings began as a student protest against Vietnam War expansion on the campus of Kent State University on May 4, 1970 in Kent, Ohio. After members of the National Guard attempted to disperse the crowd by spraying tear gas, the protest turned from anti-war to anti-intolerance. The Guardsmen opened fire on the campus, resulting in the death of four students and the injuring of nine co-eds.
Gaye felt disillusioned by the incident and those who appeared desensitized to its impact. He said,
My phone would ring, and it’d be Motown wanting me to start working, and I’d say, ‘Have you seen the paper today? Have you read about these kids who were killed at Kent State?’ The murders at Kent State made me sick. I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t stop crying. The notion of singing three-minute songs about the moon and June didn’t interest me. Neither did instant message songs. (Ritz, Divided 140)
He coped with his feeling of despair by turning to his ever-present therapy—music. He wanted to create a song that awakened people to see the societal decay that had began to ravage his internal well-being. Something that would literally make people look at the current news and wonder, “What’s going on?”
To capture his sentiments, Gaye, along with Al Cleveland and Renaldo “Obie” Benson crafted “What’s Going On.”
“Picket lines and picket signs/Don’t punish me with brutality/Talk to me, so you can see/Oh, what’s going on.” The source of this frustration, the Vietnam War, is also referenced in the song. Organized assembly is a founding principle of America. In the past few months, protests nationwide, but especially in Ferguson, Missouri, have been met with harsh police treatment. Protesting is not a form of ruckus; it is a means of showing that a collective body feels mistreated by its respective sovereignty.
He sang, “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.” Many conflicts occur due to communication barriers. These words implore people to first approach a situation with positively rather make physical attacks the first option.
The song also speaks of the astounding casualties from the war, stating, “Brother, brother, brother/There’s far too many of you dying.” Due to poor communication skills, many youth lose their lives. These deaths are caused by various reasons. Unsubstantiated wars have been an ongoing cause of death. The love of capitalism has placed a price tag on humanity.
The tune also points out the strangulation of self-expression. Gaye wrote, “Father, father,/everybody thinks we’re wrong/Oh, but who are they to judge us/Simply because our hair is long/Oh, you know we’ve got to find a way/To bring some understanding here today.” Confinement is a struggle of the human race. Gaye suggests that we not stigmatize people for their individual decisions that do not harm other people.
Gaye was ecstatic about the results and contacted Motown President Berry Gordy about the song. Though conflicting stories exists as to whether Gordy tried to block the album’s release, it is confirmed that Gordy thought the song would be career suicide for Gaye.
In 2011, Gordy told the Wall Street Journal, “I said, ‘Even though something is true, Marvin, why should you and Motown be the ones to say it?’ Marvin said, ‘Who else but us?’ Of course, Marvin was right.” After much insistence on Gaye’s part, the single was released.
Much to Gordy’s surprise, the single became wildly successful. At that point, he became comfortable with Gaye creating an album around the entire concept. Despite the label head’s doubts, he summed up the single and album’s success accurately: “I loved Marvin, and I think of ‘What’s Going On’ as one of Motown’s most prestigious singles and albums. I thought those records would ruin him. Instead, they made him an icon.”
Ritz, David. Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye. New York, New York: Da Capo Press, 2002. Print.