As a youngster growing up in Detroit in the 60’s and 70’s, I grew up during the Motown-era.  The city’s music scene was rocking and the artists were simply your neighbors.

To wit, the Lawrence Payton, a member of the Four Tops, was my next door neighbor.  Around the corner was Paul Williams of the Temptations, and a couple of blocks down the street was the legendary Aretha Franklin.  In fact, I was Ms. Franklin’s paper boy.

And further east on Outer Drive, going towards Livernois, was Marvin Gaye.

Speaking of Gaye, I’ve been thinking  about him recently.  It’s been 50 years since the legendary tune, “What’s Going On” was released.  Written in his home on Monica Street, it was released by Motown on May 21, 1971.

The song was written as  testament to the turbulent times, not just in the city, but across the country.

For example, during the 60’s, events such as the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy all occurred over a five-year period.

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, yeah

Now, throw in the ’67 riots in Detroit, Los Angeles and Newark, coupled with Vietnam, and you now have a picture deeply rooted in pain   during times when   the country was facing upheaval and societal challenges.

With this backdrop, Gaye wrote the legendary anthem of its day, “What’s Going On”.

After writing the lyrics, he was able to recruit members of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Detroit Lions and other members of the city’s legendary musical scene to perform background vocals with soulful, powerful musical tracks underneath.

Many believe Gaye was writing about the times and, in particular, the personal angst and pain he felt from his brother serving overseas, only to come back to the states to an unappreciated populace for serving his country.

Many other Blacks felt the same way.

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

What makes “What’s Going On” stand the test of time and a legendary song?

The words are deeply personal and powerful.  They were a reflection of the times and represented a generation’s, if not more, worth of anguish and pain.  To many, it was an accurate depiction of the experiences of confronting Blacks for many decades.

Now, fast forward to 2021 and look at the events of the past several months and beyond  .

Many people are challenged, hurting and assessing what’s going on in their own personal lives.  With the social and political instability today coupled with the pandemic, many are frustrated with the lack of progress and uncertainty of today’s America.

Where America is an ideal based on hope, many have felt hopeless and feel as though the American Dream is beyond their reach.

While the years have changed, many still feel a sense of oppression.

What took place during the 60’s and 70’s is still, many believe, taking place today.

In other words, “…the more things change, the more they stay the same…”

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

I believe this is why this song has withstood the test of time.

The fundamental issues today are the same as they were back then.  People are being judged for their beliefs while common decency and respect for one another have dissipated.

Quite frankly, many simply don’t listen to each other with an open mind and thus, the lack of trust and understanding continues to perpetuate and permeate.

Mother, mother
Everybody thinks we’re wrong
Oh, but who are they to judge us
Simply ’cause our hair is long
Oh, you know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some understanding here today

I believe Marvin Gaye’s words represent an anthem for the ages.  He felt the pain internally and was able to express it in his words and music.

If we can only take his frustration and turn it into an opportunity to deal with each other’s insecurities, prejudices and stereotypes, maybe, just maybe, we will stop asking “What’s Going On?”

Picket lines and picket signs
Don’t punish me with brutality
Come on talk to me
So you can see
What’s going on (What’s going on)
Yeah, what’s going on (What’s going on)
Tell me what’s going on (What’s going on)
I’ll tell you, what’s going on (What’s going on)

That young kid living in Detroit had his “wide eyes open” listening to a song because “it was a jam”, and now has grown in  to a mature person who ” closes his eyes “, at times, and  simply  asks the same question, “What’s Going On?”

Source:   Musixmatch
Songwriters: Gaye Marvin P / Benson Renaldo Obie / Cleveland Alfred W.

Mark S. Lee is Founder, President & CEO, The LEE Group and can be heard “In the Conference Room”, Sundays, 11 am, on 910am. He hosts the “Small Talk with Mark S. Lee” podcasts at leegroupinnovation.com.