What's Going On?

Renaldo Benson, Al Cleveland, and Marvin Gaye, 1971

The original version of the song was inspired by a 1969 event called "Bloody Thursday." What happened on Bloody Thursday?

The song is addressed to "mother" and "father." Who is the intended audience?

What is the purpose of the song? Do the songwriters feel that they're being listened to by older generations?

What different types of violence does the song denounce?

Compare and contrast this song with "War," which was recorded by Edwin Starr the year before "What's Going On" was released. How is the approach to protesting the same injustices different in the two songs?

"What's Going On" recorded by Marvin Gaye on What's Going On, ©1971. Available on Itunes, Spotify, and YouTube.

For more information on Marvin Gaye, visit his official website.

Rights have not been secured to reprint the words for this song. Please consult this online source:


Marvin Gaye

Marvin Gaye.

The song "What's Going On" was initially composed by Renaldo Benson (1936–2005), a member of the popular Motown group the Four Tops. Benson's inspiration came while he was on tour with the group in Berkeley, California, where he witnessed a violent clash between police and antiwar protesters, an event that came to be known as "Bloody Thursday." Benson wrote the song with lyricist Al Cleveland (1930–96) and wanted the Four Tops to record it. The group refused the song, however, wishing to avoid controversy. Benson then approached Marvin Gaye, who changed the melody and revised the lyrics. The new version became the title track on Gaye's 1971 album.

Gaye (1939–84) was born in Washington D.C. He started performing with a doo-wop group as a teenager, and then, following an unhappy year in the Air Force, he began to seriously pursue a career in music in 1957. He performed with doo-wop groups in Washington before moving to Detroit and signing with Motown Records in 1960. Over the following decade, Gaye released a string of hits, including the duets "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" and "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing" with Tammi Terrell. Terrell's death from a brain tumor in 1970 had a significant impact on Gaye, and the release of the politically charged album What's Going On the following year marked the start of a new phase in his career.

Gaye insisted on complete creative control over the record, which was a break from convention at Motown and inspired subsequent African American artists, such as Stevie Wonder. It was also one of the first protest albums by an African American artist. Gaye later recalled that the album was inspired by questions he asked himself as he reviewed the state of the world. He felt it was important to speak out despite the objections of Motown founder Berry Gordy, who opposed the project initially, preferring upbeat and positive popular songs. (For more on Gaye and "What's Going On," see "Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology)," in this unit.)

Released at the height of the Vietnam War, "What's Going On" is a call for peace, protesting both the war as well as violent police responses to antiwar protests.

For more on Motown Records, see "I Was Born This Way," "Love Child," and "War," in this unit.



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