Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” Lyrics Meaning

“What’s Going On” is a very powerful political song performed by the late American singer Marvin Gaye. The lyrics of the song are inspired by violence and police brutality in America. One of the song’s writers, singer and songwriter Renaldo “Obie” Benson of the Four Tops was inspired to come up with this song when he witnessed violence and police brutality while in Berkeley, California. On May 15, 1969, Benson had just arrived with the tour bus of the Four Tops in Berkeley and saw a group of anti-war activists protesting against the Vietnam War. Benson was shocked to his core to witness the sheer amount of violence and police brutality marring the protest. That unfortunate incident was later known as “Bloody Thursday“.

What’s Happening Here?

Absolutely saddened by the shocking things he was witnessing at the protest, Benson said he asked himself a number of questions, one of which was “What’s happening here?”

Later, during a meeting Benson had with his songwriter friend Al Cleveland, he brought up the topic of “Bloody Thursday”. Cleveland later went on to compose a song based on the concerns of Benson about “Bloody Thursday”.

After the completion of the song, Benson approached the members of his group (the Four Tops) and discussed recording the song with them, but they told him they were not interested in recording it. And why? Because it was a “protest song”. Benson tried defending the song by telling the other members of the group that it wasn’t a protest song but rather one that was about “love and understanding” and that he wasn’t trying to protest but just wanted to know “what’s going on”.

Marvin Gaye comes into the Picture

After the Four Tops refused recording the song, Benson gave it to singer Marvin Gaye, who went to modify the song in the following two major ways:

  • Add some new lyrics to the song.
  • Write an entirely new melody.

Since the song was untitled when it was given to Gaye, he also gave it the title, “What’s Going On”. While Gaye was working on the song, he was inspired by the numerous social problems that were then going on in the United States. One such social ills was the Watts riots of 1965, which took place in Los Angeles and left as many as 34 people dead and 1,032 others injured. In addition to that, Gaye was inspired to write the lyrics of the song by conversations he had with his brother Frankie Gaye regarding Frankie’s tenure in the Vietnam War as well as the tragic death of his cousin in that same war.

According to Gaye, he just couldn’t go on singing love songs when the world was exploding around him.

“Don’t punish me with brutality”

Facts about “What’s Going On”

“What’s Going On” was written by songwriters Renaldo “Obie” Benson, Marvin Gaye, and Al Cleveland. Aside co-writing it, Gaye also produced it.

The song was released on January 21st, 1971 as the first single from Gaye’s eleventh studio album of the same name (“What’s Going On“).

In 2003, Rolling Stone placed the album at number six on their list of “500 Greatest Albums of All Time”.

The song is one of the most famous protest songs of all time.

No official music video was ever produced for the song.

Gaye initially wanted it to be recorded by the Motown R&B The Originals, but Benson suggested that Gaye sing the song.

The song’s background vocals were sung by Gaye along with American football players Mel Farr and Lem Barney.

“What’s Going On” peaked at number 2 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 and number 1 on the U.S. Billboard R&B/Soul Singles.

In 2004, Rolling Stone placed the song at number 4 on its list of the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time”. In 2010, the song was placed at the same position on the same list.

Did “What’s Going On” win a Grammy Award?

Till date, the song is yet to be the recipient of a Grammy. However, in 1972, it was nominated for a Grammy Award for “Best Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist” but lost to “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” by Paul & Linda McCartney.

Which singers have covered “What’s Going On”?

Since it came out in the early 1970s, it has been covered by many artists. The following musicians are just a handful of them:

  • Cyndi Lauper in 1987. Lauper’s version of the song peaked at number 57 in Britain and number 12 in the United States (the Hot 100).
  • Artists Against AIDS Worldwide (made up of such artists as Britney Spears, Destiny’s Child, Nelly Furtado, Christina Aguilera, Jennifer Lopez and Marvin Gaye’s daughter Nona). Their version peaked at number 6 in Britain. it also entered the Hot 100. On this very important chart, it reached number 27.

Below is Cyndi Lauper’s official music video for “What’s Going On”:

6 Responses

  1. Raj says:

    well,Grammy awards are decided by racists. They dissed Weeknd this year after his phenomenal performance in Super Bowl. I didn’t watch it for the first time in over 35 years. I have had it with these racist mofos.

  2. Anonymous says:

    This song applies to what’s going on now. Why are the mothers crying and our brothers are being killed!

  3. CSS123 says:

    Born in the sixties and teenage years in the 70’s. I listen to Gaye, The Marquees, Barry White, Wonder, Temptations, Commodores, and many more.
    In the 80’s when AIDS hit home personally and Reagan didn’t didn’t want to recognize it. That’s when I started researching. Hour upon hours researching till this day. No wonder I’m a liberal.
    What’s the old saying, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”
    I’m in my 50’s now, and it feel like the early 70’s. The hate, racist, fascist and injustice that’ is present today is a war between the good and bad and white verses minority. The ones who can’t see this are victims being raised by they’re prior generations. It’s fear that they will lose the white race. White supremacy and white privileged is more alive now than 50 years ago. I’m white, but I was raised by a loving mother and father. We were poor and lived in the country. Most of my friends were black growing up. My parents would treat my friends like family. Yes, they were talked about and called names. As I was. My mother always held her head high. Told me to do the same. We weren’t doing wrong, the ones that judged us were wrong. I’m sadden, by the way cops are targeting minority and the brutality that stalks them. The last 5 years with the prior administration did more damage than good. And still causing people to suffer. It makes me sick.
    To me, we got lucky and voted for a new administration.
    Marvin Gaye words never leave me, “ War is not the answer, for only love can conquer hate.”
    RIP-
    Marvin Gaye
    And my Brother ❤️

  4. Thom Martin-Wilke says:

    Wow, just Wow, I was born in the late 40, lived thru the 50’s , into the 60’s, thru the 70’s, then the 80’s and 9-‘s and now here we are in 2021. But there are times when some folks behave as if it was 1621. ! was raised that there is no correct race, religion, nationality or even a person’s orientation. We were taught to love everyone until they gave us a reason not to. We were taught to always tell the truth, therefore we needn’t try to remember who we told what, if anyone could not handle an honest answer then they shouldn’t have asked a stupid question, but to think before you spoke because you can apologize until hell freezes over but the hurtful damage is done.
    We were also taught that regardless of your skin color, the language you spoke or who you loved, if you are cut, your blood runs red.
    I am constantly shocked when the world takes two steps forward, only to take three backwards. For the last 6 or 7 or more years America has taken one or two steps forward and 50 or 60 backward.
    This song applies to the world today just as much if not worse than it did when originally written.
    In some case the majority should not rule nor is the customer always right.
    If you don’t happen to like something, Oh well, T. S. Elliott, but don’t think that everyone should follow you like a herd of lemming. You may not know where you are going.
    Yes, Black life’s Matter, so do Yellow, Red, Brown, and White, all life’s mater.
    Treat your neighbor the way you expect to be treated until they give you a real reason not to.
    Before you go et all self righteous and uppity, go look in a mirror, if it doesn’t shatter, look, look again, and perhaps if again, and look, Honey, you ain’t all that.
    Before you criticize, ridicule or find fault with someone else, try walking a mile in their shoes, they could possibly be having more problems than you.

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