Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” has long been recognized as one of pop’s most thoughtful and compelling protest songs. Now the song, released 50 years ago this March, will be elevated even further: In Michigan, Governor Gretchen Whitmer has officially proclaimed January 20th as What’s Going On Day in her state.
In tandem with the news, the Motown Museum, based in Detroit, will soon launch a series of virtual celebrations and signature events tied to Gaye and his legacy. Due to Covid-19, the museum is currently closed until at least January 31.
“Having this tribute on the calendar provides us with an important moment — one where we can come together as a unified state to pause, reflect, and appreciate the need for ideas, perspective, love, and understanding. These are values that mean more today than ever before,” says Whitmer, who has been the target of pro-Trump extremists. “Through the recognition of What’s Going On Day, we hope to bring awareness to Marvin Gaye’s profound words as his timeless music remains in our hearts and minds and continues inspiring generations to come.”
The announcement is the latest sign example of how Gaye’s song continues to reverberate, especially amid the Black Lives Matter movement. From the start, “What’s Going On” was a comment on police brutality, inspired by the moment when Four Tops singer Renaldo “Obie” Benson watched on TV as club-wielding cops let loose at a protest in Berkeley, California. Benson and Motown lyric writer Al Cleveland began writing a song based on those events, and Gaye, who was in search of more ambitious and socially conscious material, soon joined in, co-writing and producing the track.
Although Motown head Berry Gordy had concerns about releasing the song, worrying that protest songs would quickly be dated, “What’s Going On” hit No. 1 on the R&B charts (and No. 2 on the pop charts). It soon became the title track of Gaye’s acclaimed album, which topped the RS 500 Greatest Albums Albums of All Time list last fall.
Tuesdat, January 19th, was already named a Day of Racial Healing in Michigan: “If we all dedicate ourselves to the principles of truth, racial healing, and transformation, we can bring about the necessary changes in thinking, behavior, and systems that will reduce the harmful effects of racial biases and propel this great country forward as a unified force,” reads the state’s official proclamation. The celebration is part of the National Day of Racial Healing established in 2017.