I just want to ask a question
Who really cares?
—Marvin Gaye, “Save the Children”
Motown songwriter Al Cleveland wrote and composed “What’s Going On” after listening to Four Tops member Renaldo “Obie” Benson recount a story about police brutality he’d witnessed at an antiwar protest in People’s Park, during what we know now as Bloody Thursday. When Benson took the finished song to the rest of the Tops, they turned it down, having little interest in what they viewed as a protest song. “I’m not protesting,” Benson pushed back. “I genuinely want to know what’s going on.”
And this is how the song fell into Marvin Gaye’s lap. Marvin Gaye, who by the end of the 1960s had felt depression’s long arms around his shoulders in the face of international success. Marvin Gaye, who had drowned out the rattle of his failing marriage and his IRS troubles with cocaine. Marvin Gaye, who’d watched his singing partner, Tammi Terrell, collapse onstage and then slowly deteriorate due to brain cancer. Marvin Gaye, who held a handgun to his head in a Detroit apartment because he’d spent his whole life haunted by both wanting and wanting out. The key, in all of this, is that Marvin Gaye watched the Watts riots in 1965 and wondered how in the hell anyone black could sing love songs while the world was on fire. He read letters that his brother Frankie sent from Vietnam, detailing the violence that was being experienced there.
What I’m saying is that Marvin knew then what many of us know now: If we are armed with the right things, the question can be a form of resistance, depending on the person doing the asking. He revised the song’s melody, leaned into the disgust and disillusionment he felt with his country, and went to battle with Motown to get it released.
What’s Going On is, more than anything, an album with few solutions. We are a world obsessed with proof of work, demanding results at every turn, even when we have little hope to tie ourselves to. I always appreciate What’s Going On as an album that asks first and holds no optimism that the answers will be what it’s looking for. Even the album’s most optimistic song, “God Is Love,” feels like it’s banking on a shaky hand at a poker table, trying to convince everyone of something it isn’t certain of itself.
And I know, friends, that the expression of uncertainty itself is not beautiful. But last night I, too, watched the map start red and stay red while sitting on a couch alone, far away from anyone who could share my heavy cloud with their heavy cloud. I, too, forced myself to sleep and woke up in the same country — one with sharper teeth, yes, but the same country still. The virtuous thing would be to inspire everyone I love to chase after the work, to crawl out of the darkness with new eyes, as Marvin did through his entire career but particularly in the early ’70s. When students laid bloody on the ground at Kent State, killed by the Ohio National Guard. When Camden burned, when Wilmington burned, when Augusta burned. When the prisoners at Attica fought back.
It does make sense, in this current American moment, to say that I am still here fighting and holding my people close, and I hope you are, too. The problem with that is that it does not account for fear, or for the various privileges we have that keep us from feeling the same fears as some of the people we love most. It’s easy for me to visualize the work and take to it — “the work” as labor, and also “the work” as holding up the people who are not being held up by anyone else, and hoping that folks might be able to do the same for me. The thing about the idea of questioning as resistance, especially when you are asking questions that the country keeps answering for you, is that those questions all spiral into the same darkness when they’re done. What’s Going On ends with “Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler),” the album’s most harrowing song. More than any other song on the album, it is certain of itself, certain of the world outside. Bored with the album’s questioning, it offers a firm, resonating statement: “This ain’t livin’ / This ain’t livin’ / No, no baby, this ain’t livin’.”
A thing that I love about What’s Going On is that it’s an album that faces its people. It makes room for everyone else, as its commercial success would indicate, but it is deeply in conversation with a specific set of people, and it asks everyone else to either come along and learn or move out of the way. A thing I’ve gotten bored with, in my own work, is informing white people of their whiteness, or telling white people how to feel about their whiteness — and, in turn, being told by white people how they feel about being white. There is social capital in that, of course, but it does nothing for the preserving and uplifting of a people. It does nothing to activate and empower bodies, to put ourselves between each other and whatever it is that’s coming. The times are too urgent for me to consider things that do not do this. I once had a friend tell me that when he says “my people,” he means marginalized folks and those who are down with marginalized folks, and that is what I believe. With that in mind, when I tell myself to get back to work, I am doing it facing my people. I am doing it and still rolling out a wide welcome mat, asking the marginalized and hurting, and anyone invested in the marginalized and hurting, to join, to perhaps learn, to perhaps take to the fight in their own way, but definitely to show up. I haven’t got time for anything else. The people who demanded their country back for the last eight years imagine that it is once again theirs, and I have time for fear, and I have time for grief, and I have time for anxiety. But, even in the face of all those things, I do not have time to be undone.
Yesterday afternoon, before I knew anything of what the nation had in store, I talked on the phone for an hour with a friend, despite neither of us being “phone people.” I am, in many cases, the person who will click you to voicemail and then send an immediate “What’s up?” text. Still, I talked with my friend for an hour, and we never mentioned the election. We simply caught up: rambled about our shared art projects, laid blueprints for far-reaching visions, discussed ways we could be better to and for our respective communities. It is in moments like this that the idea of building a world of my own with only a way in and no way out seems most appealing. Our bubbles are, in some ways, what led to so many people being surprised at this country’s often unsurprising machine. But they are also the best ways for us to keep each other close when the machine opens its jaws just a bit wider than they were the night before. I think of Marvin Gaye most when I consider how to balance all these needs — to balance a lack of optimism against a need for optimism as fuel. I think, as Marvin perhaps knew, that the key is to rethink where the fuel is carrying you. What’s Going On, more than most protest albums of its time, is the one that can stretch across generations with relevance. Sure, some of the politics are not as refined as they would be in 2016. Yet there is work that tackles the environment, faith, poverty, and social responsibility to ourselves and to the generation after ours. All this from a man who wanted to die, but who still managed to look at the wreckage outside and see something worse off than he was. Something not entirely worth saving, maybe, but something worth at least having a conversation with.
The story goes that Marvin would run into the studio and tell Smokey Robinson that God himself was writing the album, not him. I’m sure Marvin believed this, the way we all believe whatever we must to carry ourselves into (and out of) the work. It took Marvin stepping back from the love song for an album of protest music to entirely reinvent sex within the soul-music canon. There’s a funny bit of joy in that, for me. Fight and make love, even if the fight hasn’t ended. Even if the fight is right outside your window, clashing with the shadows. Even if the fight is loud, and hungry, and reckless in its swallowing. Even if you are only making love to yourself. Even if you are making love to yourself in the glow of a TV screen and touching nothing but the TV remote. Even if the love you are making is the kind of love with no exit. Perhaps especially then.
This ain’t livin’. No, no baby, this ain’t livin’. But I think we’ll make a way. Despite.