Nearly 50 years after its release, Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” continues to speak to the challenges we face as a society and serve as a call to action – a point poignantly illustrated by a new video, directed by Savanah Leaf and presented by Motown Records as part of the label’s 60th anniversary celebration. Leaf pairs the classic song with scenes that examine the devastating impact that unresolved issues are having on life for some of America’s most vulnerable citizens. Watch the video now below.
“What’s Going On” is the first video from Universal Music Group’s “Never Made” project, a series that creates compelling content for songs that never had an accompanying music video. It was screened today at the 2019 Congressional Black Caucus Annual Legislative Conference (CBC ALC) following the panel discussion “What’s Going On” to “Let’s Get Going”: Building a Social Movement through the Arts. The Root gave the video its online premiere thereafter.
Shot over the course of four days in Detroit and Flint, Michigan, the video features many community members. Savanah Leaf, whose directorial credits include the award-winning short film The Ayes Have It and music videos for Common and Gary Clark Jr., explains, “We wanted a place that resonates with the song and the history of Motown, while also remaining relevant to the sociopolitical issues in the music video. It was very important for us to find real people that resonated with the stories, rather than casting actors.”
Flint mayor Karen Weaver and pivotal activists involved in the Flint water crisis – including Ariana Hawk, who was featured on the cover of TIME with her young son at the height of the crisis – can be seen in the video. Steve Smith, who also has deep roots in the community and worked for Motown as one of the recording engineers on “What’s Going On,” also makes an appearance. Gun violence, the shortcomings of the American healthcare system, police shootings and other topics are also addressed by the video.
Leaf notes, “This is a historic song for an important moment in history, and what’s beautiful is that its message is timeless and universal. It’s about human emotions, human relationships and a coming together. My hope is that our music video will remind people to continue asking the question Marvin Gaye asked in 1971.”
“What’s Going On” was written by Motown songwriter Al Cleveland, Gaye and Four Tops member Renaldo “Obie” Benson. Events such as the 1965 Watts riots and “Bloody Thursday” – the violent 1969 conflict over People’s Park in Berkeley, CA, which Benson had observed firsthand – led the men to question the turn society had taken. Produced by Gaye, and arranged by David Van De Pitte, the single was released on January 20, 1971 by the Motown subsidiary Tamla. “What’s Going On” became Gaye’s seventh No. 1 (of a career 13) on the Hot Soul Singles chart (since renamed Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs) and quickly reached No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Rolling Stone has hailed “What’s Going On” as one of the Greatest Songs of All Time and it is included in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s list of 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll. Over the decades, the song has been recorded by musicians to benefit such causes as Live Aid Armenia, Music Relief ’94, Artists Against AIDS Worldwide and the American Red Cross’ September 11 fund.
Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-MI) hosted the panel discussion at the CBC ALC. It was moderated by Panama Jackson, Sr. Editor, The Root. Panelists included: Ethiopia Habtemariam, President, Motown Records; director Savanah Leaf; Dr. Karen Weaver, Mayor of Flint, MI; Benny Napolean, Sheriff, Wayne County, MI and Motown recording artist BJ The Chicago Kid. Together, they examined into the relationship between the arts and activism and the ongoing influence and cultural impact of arts and entertainment.