Published on September 4th, 2020 | by Nina Pulley
What’s Going On: The Spirituality of Marvin Gaye
What’s Going On, the Marvin Gaye classic released in 1971, still serves as an anthem for us today. Timelessly relevant in its critique of brutality and call to unity, the single and album have energized generations as it approaches its fiftieth anniversary. Released just following the fall of the Civil Rights Movement, it poignantly reflected sentiments of many African American communities at the time. It served as an important soundtrack and musical outlet for what people were feeling and thinking and perhaps felt couldn’t get proper media attention for. It was this ability to echo the sentiments of an entire generation that made Gaye the artist that we know him to be today, and I postulate that it was thanks to his spirituality, equal parts troubled and blissful.
Many of us know Marvin Gaye, or at least know of him. But who was he? Onstage, he was a charming crooner, high falsettos and crisp dress making him a Motown stalwart and chart topper. In his fame, he came off cool, collected, and reflective. Yet, the real Gaye was far from perfect: two divorces, infidelities, strangled relationships with parents and cocaine addiction all came to be a part of his persona, a sort of shadow of the man loved the world over.
Yet, there was a shining spirit lying underneath, perhaps polished by affliction. As many know, he had a religious upbringing not without turmoil. Several accounts tell his father to have been a puzzling man: a Pentecostal preacher with a penchant for strict religious observance, cross-dressing, infidelity, and beating his children. Gaye described living with his him as “…with a king, a very peculiar, changeable, cruel, and all powerful king.” His experience with Gaye Sr. was fertile ground for later musical success, thanks to the encouragement of his mother, but also for relational dysfunction. Yet, despite his battles, he was still able to express his spiritual strivings and create an album that spoke truth through his experiences, adding depth and complexity to the man we all knew as “The Prince of Soul.”
Nowhere more in his career did his spirituality shine than in What’s Going On. Impacted by the death of his singing partner Tammi Terrell and the gruesomeness of the Kent State shootings, Marvin felt singing crooners and romantic lullabies seemed out-of-touch and disingenuous. Facing a crisis as an artist, he decided to use his creative talent and his spiritual background to craft an album that spoke to the times they were living in: full of police brutality, needless war, and the larger issue of the human condition and interpersonal lack of love in everyday living. He felt compelled to share not only from an artistic standpoint, but from a personal one, and his affect and commitment to the well being of others shone through in his songwriting and in the few performances of the songs on the album that exist today.
In the headlining song, What’s Going On — posed as a statement rather than a question — a striking element is its use of familial language to bring the concept to life. The relational sentiments draw the listener in, and create a sense of shared identity, regardless of the listener. “Mother, mother… Brother, brother…” are words that echo throughout the album, calling on the listeners not as a community in conflict but a family in need of reconciliation. This approach — a narrative technique used with heart — is seen throughout, and with this technique seen in “What’s Happening, Brother?” and “Save the Children,” Marvin frames these issues as all of our responsibilities to work on.
One may think that his spirituality was deeply felt within the terms or framework of the family, extending to his relationship to others. All of this was anchored by an understanding of a central guide: in “God Is Love,” the familial “language” is extended, as he begins the opening lines:
Oh don’t go and talk about my father
God is my friend
Jesus is my friend
He made this world for us to live in, and gave us everything
And all he asks of us is we give each other love
The lyrics of God Is Love have a uniquely “soul” feel, but even the instrumentation and lyrical style mirror an upbringing in the Black church. The familiarity with which he refers to God and Jesus indicates a rooting in the African American Christian background, but he infuses it with a uniquely personal and non-religious feel. Personal and emotional, almost like the blues tunes of the early 20th century, Gaye’s storytelling is honest and unfettered, and because of the continuity in emotive affect in African American music, his style hearkens back even to the character of Negro spirituals, in that it was simply delivered but deeply and richly emoted.
In the second song, the choral interlude guides us into an all-understanding feeling of melancholy and hope in the beginning of “What’s Happening, Brother?” Wrapped up into the human voice are a transcendent and ethereal quality rarely achieved in other albums since. In the song, he discusses the personal, every day, minute troubles that plague him, and in doing so echoes the sentiments of the community. Describing low wages, unemployment, war and social discrimination all in one verse, he carries on conversationally as if he’s running up a tab. The song is composed as a conversation carried as he runs into a brother on the street.
The language of brother and sister, while not coined by Gaye, are used expertly, reflecting the cultural feeling of the time. We can imagine that the struggles Marvin had were especially painful because he clung so strongly to this understanding despite his harrowing family situation. This is arguably what made the album — and the artist — so impactful. Marvin’s delivery was not only his feelings toward the world, but perhaps at his own struggles. What is known for sure is that in this album, he was able to give voice to all of it, and that heartfelt sentiment resonated with the country, on both personal and political levels. The truth is, at least according to Marvin, that we do have brothers and sisters in our community. We can come together. We all too often need to remember that and marshal our strength when we need it.
- Ritz, David. Divided Soul. London: Music Sales, 2011, p.12.
- Ritz, David. Divided Soul. London: Music Sales, 2011, p. 13.
- Ritz, David. Divided Soul. London: Music Sales, 2011, p. 84.
- “Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On.” Genius, January 17, 1971. https://genius.com/Marvin-gaye-whats-going-on-lyrics.
- “Marvin Gaye – God Is Love.” Genius, May 21, 1971. https://genius.com/Marvin-gaye-god-is-love-lyrics.
- “45 Things You Need to Know about Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’ | CBC Music.” CBCnews. CBC/Radio Canada, March 13, 2019. https://www.cbc.ca/music/read/45-things-you-need-to-know-about-marvin-gaye-s-what-s-going-on-1.5054267.
- “45 Things You Need to Know about Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’ | CBC Music.” CBCnews.
- Ritz, David. Divided Soul. London: Music Sales, 2011, p. xiii.
- Ritz, David. Divided Soul. London: Music Sales, 2011, p. 333.
Nina Pulley is a graduate of Oberlin College with a degree in Africana Studies, an avid artist, and thinker. In song, writing, and protest, she eschews limits in exchange for possibilities. She believes the gospel message is the most radical of them all.