“What’s Going On” Redux: A Motown Classic Hijacked

In the 1960s, Detroiter Berry Gordy, Jr., parlayed a low-interest $800 loan from his family into Motown, arguably the most successful "independent" recording label of all time in terms of profitability and artistic output. By decade’s end, Motown and its subsidiary labels had become the definitive voice of Detroit’s black culture, crossing over to pop audiences of all races throughout the world. Fortunately, Gordy got started when Detroit had a more favorable entrepreneurial climate than it does today.

Stay Engaged

Receive our weekly emails!

In the 1970s, the public’s taste shifted from pristinely produced pop singles to thematically linked, album-length opuses — and Motown followed suit with dramatically impressive results. Motown artist and Detroit native Marvin Gaye inaugurated this era with the 1971 classic, "What’s Going On" — an album that documented such issues of the period as the Vietnam conflict, civil rights, poverty and pollution.

Many aspects of Gaye’s "What’s Going On" are notable, including the integration of jazz sensibilities and socially conscious lyrics into a predominantly pop and rhythm-and-blues context. But the album also is notable for Gaye’s refusal to call simplistically for governmental solutions to the problems plaguing the world of 1971. While declaring that "war is not the answer," Gaye sought only to raise consciousness of the world’s other problems in order to motivate individuals and communities to seek and work toward viable solutions. The result is a tour-de-force of modern contemporary music — a cry from the heart of a sensitive and brilliant artist at the height of his performing and compositional powers.

This past weekend, the Detroit International Jazz Festival celebrated the Motown legacy on opening night. The label’s surviving musicians — billed as the Funk Brothers — performed alongside Dennis Edwards’ Temptations Revue. The final day of the festival included another visit to "Hitsville U.S.A." The Dirty Dozen Brass Band provided the event’s penultimate performance with selections from their latest release — a song-by-song remake of Gaye’s masterpiece album.

Hailing from New Orleans, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band includes many members who owned homes that were either destroyed by or endured significant water and wind damage from last year’s Hurricane Katrina. Portions of the proceeds from the sale of each copy of "What’s Going On" go to the Tipitina’s Foundation, which provides support and replacement instruments to New Orleans’ professional and student musicians. The Foundation admirably has replaced more than $500,000 worth of instruments since its inception.

The group’s version of "What’s Going On" showcases the band’s impeccable instrumental prowess and new lyrics intended to contemporize Gaye’s original themes. Unfortunately, many of the urban problems outlined by Gaye in 1971 remain prevalent today; but, unlike Gaye, guest vocalist Chuck D raps new lyrics that reflect equally unfortunately our current era’s prevalent attitude that government should fix everything first.

According to a press release by record label Shout! Factory, the band "unanimously concluded that they needed an outlet for the overwhelming feelings of loss for their beautiful city and community, and frustration with the government’s response to the disaster, or lack thereof." This attitude is reflected in the last verse of the title track, rapped by Chuck D: "No child left behind / What? You think we all blind? / Well even the blind coulda seen the / Aftermath of Katrina." The group’s saxophonist exclaimed in a recent interview with this writer: "Like the government response to Katrina? C’mon! It was a joke."

This exclamation presents an interesting contrast to the personal responsibility assumed by the Detroit International Jazz Festival organizers. The Festival was rescued from financial oblivion earlier this year when Carhartt clothing heir and jazz aficionado Gretchen Valade established a $10 million endowment to continue the festival in perpetuity. Like Berry Gordy and Marvin Gaye, Valade didn’t wait for government agencies to provide money or solutions — all three people recognized opportunities borne of potential and very real crises, and subsequently used their respective assets and talents to identify and solve problems.

Similarly, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band supports the Tipitina’s Foundation and its efforts to assist New Orleans’ musicians in need. It’s a shame that the group and its guest lyricist overlook the benefits of first implementing individual and community initiatives. Instead, they have transformed a Motown classic catalog of social ills into a broken record of government solutions.


Bruce Edward Walker is science editor at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.