What’s Going On: War- Iraq and Afghanistan

June 27, 2010

In order to achieve real action, you must yourself be a living part of Africa and of her thought; you must be an element of that popular energy which is entirely called forth for the freeing, the progress, and the happiness of Africa. There is no place outside that firth for the artist or for the intellectual who is not himself concerned with and completely at one with the people in the great battle of Africa ad of suffering humanity.

-Sekou Toure, President Guinea

In 1971, Marvin Gaye articulated what was on the minds of most people in America with his landmark single and album What’s Going On. What’s Going On, the first Marvin Gaye album credited as produced solely by Marvin Gaye, is a unified concept album consisting of nine songs, most of which lead into the next. In worldwide critics/artists and public surveys, it has been voted as one of the landmark recordings in pop music history and is considered to be one of the greatest albums ever made. In 2003, the album was ranked number 6 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.

The Album: What’s Going On

The content of What’s Going On was that of a politically charged and deeply personal Motown album, and was notable for including elements of jazz and classical music instrumentation and arrangements. The album is told from the point of view of a Vietnam War veteran returning to the country he had been fighting for, and seeing nothing but injustice, suffering and hatred.

What’s Going On was among the first soul albums to place heavy emphasis on political and social concerns such as environmentalism, political corruption, drug abuse, life in the black ghettos, and the Vietnam War, in which Gaye’s brother, Frankie Gaye, had served for three years for the U.S. Army.

Marvin Gaye in His Own Voice

In an interview for Rolling Stone magazine, Marvin Gaye discussed what had shaped his view on more socially conscious themes in music and the conception of his eleventh full-length, non-duets studio album:

In 1969 or 1970, I began to re-evaluate my whole concept of what I wanted my music to say… I was very much affected by letters my brother was sending me from Vietnam, as well as the social situation here at home. I realized that I had to put my own fantasies behind me if I wanted to write songs that would reach the souls of people. I wanted them to take a look at what was happening in the world.

Revisiting What’s Going On

Now, thirty-nine years, after its release, we revisit this album and its social commentary on America and the world as a lens to measure what America’s and the world looks like now.  To be sure, Marvin Gaye was interested in radically improving the human condition by having people evaluate what was really going on, not what they were being told by the newspaper or the government: “We’ve got to find a way/ To bring some lovin’ here today… war is not the answer. Put another way, Marvin Gaye was concern with what the world was becoming, and thus wanted to empower ordinary people to take control over their lives and change the world.

The Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan

Today as in 1971 war continues unabated and is a central concern to Americans and the world. The title track of the album, What’s Going On, asked the people of America to question the legitimacy of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Gaye reminds us that the Iraq and Afghanistan, like Vietnam, are exacting a heavy toll on mothers, whose sons are dying in Iraq and Afghanistan: Mother, mother/ There’s too many of you crying/ Brother, brother, brother/ There’s far too many of you dying.”

Marvin then turns his attention and advice to fathers: “Father, father/ You see, war is not the answer/ For only love can conquer hate.” His appeal to fathers is recognition of the more aggressive orientation nature of men (their male character), and thus their greater inclination to chose war to arbitrate conflict and disagreement. Echoing Martin Luther King, Gaye asserts, “You see, war is not the answer.” In his last speech, I’ve Been to the Mountaintop King’s advised: “It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world: it’s nonviolence or nonexistence; that is where we are today.” The answer Gaye points out is through the struggle to bring love in the world: You know we’ve got to find a way/ To bring some lovin’ here today.”

War Marvin implies reflects hate and hate begets hate. Therefore, a language and manner reminiscent of Martin Luther King, he states, “For only love can conquer hate,” therefore, You know we’ve got to find a way/ To bring some lovin’ here today. Hence, the lesson Gaye want us to take away today is that demonizing and promoting hatred of our adversaries, and using the language of war, will continue the escalation of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, making war seemingly the only sensible option.

Gaye validates and promotes anti-war protest as a way of speaking another truth. This protest voice of opposition to the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars are important in speaking truth to power and to an understanding outside of the need for war. Protest against the established power structure however can invite brutality: “Picket lines and picket signs/ Don’t punish me with brutality/ Talk to me, so you can see/ what’s going on.”

Recognizing who control the power centers, Marvin addresses the males, raising the question who are they (male powerbrokers) to judge ordinary people, the protesters of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, because they are different: “Father, father, everybody thinks we’re wrong/ but who are they to judge us/ Simply because our hair is long.” Marvin is using long hair both literally and as a metaphor for those who are different. This is a very point to note given the resurgence of the intolerant rightwing in American society. Noting this, Marvin again underscores the necessity of talking to each other, with active listening on the part of those who control the levers of war, in order to come to some understanding and to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

What’s going on? The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have replaced the wars in Vietnam.


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