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Until the release of What's Going On, Marvin Gaye's best-known songs focused on love and relationships. But in 1971, influenced by letters from his brother, who was serving in the Vietnam War, Gaye decided to make an album that reflected America through the eyes of a vet returning home. Many black neighborhoods were still in ruin after the riots of 1968, and raised fists, the hippie movement, the women's movement and urban poverty were boiling together on the streets of America. The war raged on.
"When Marvin Gaye made this record, everybody's brother could have gone to war," soul singer John Legend says. "Everybody, themselves, could have gone to war, so they personally felt connected."
What's Going On was showcased in a 1972 concert at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Gaye's hometown of Washington, D.C. Thursday night, the Kennedy Center is commemorating that performance by re-creating the concert with the help of Legend and other artists.
"I start to realize my vocal limitations when I think about trying to do justice to Marvin Gaye's incredible voice," Legend says, laughing. "I imagine we'll be somewhat faithful [to the original arrangement]. We don't want to 2012 remix it."
In fact, that's exactly the challenge the Kennedy Center gave me, a journalist who moonlights as a music producer. As part of its Marvin Gaye tribute, the Center asked me to create a remix that would flip Marvin's music for my generation, using the original multitrack recordings of the song "What's Going On."
When I first got my hands on the raw material, I had to take a moment and let it all sink in. Here I was with the purest version of the song, which only a handful of people had ever heard. Before I let anyone else in on Marvin's magic, I wanted to get to know the science of the music. I loaded up the tracks, pretty much playing conductor on my computer. I soloed Marvin's voice and then brought in the instruments one by one. As I unpacked each instrument, I was floored by not only by the simplicity of the song, but the rawness, too. Marvin knew very well how to make a polished Motown hit — he'd been doing it for years. But that's not what he wanted with this record.
I didn't want to veer too far away from the structure of Marvin's original, so I wrote down an outline: a four-bar intro, a pair of 12-bar verses and so on. From there, I kept tweaking the beat and working on my own verse for the remix. I rounded up younger artists, too, who could write their own new verses. But I had to set a few ground rules for the young musicians, out of respect for Marvin: Stick to the core storytelling ideals of "What's Going On," find your own voice within it and make it relevant to your generation.
Evan Childress, 22, wrote a rap for the remix. He was inspired by the way the original album surfaced issues across the spectrum of American life. Childress wrote his verse about everything from pollution to a lack of resources in his hometown of Richmond, Calif.
"In addition to thinking about the Trayvon Martin case," says 18-year-old Rayana Godfrey, one of the singers on the remix, "I was thinking about my cousin, who was shot and killed last year." Godfrey is from Vallejo, Calif., while the other singer on the remix, Skylar Bryant, is from Oakland.
We all felt Marvin's spirit at different times working on this remix. His lesser-known songs on the What's Going On album, like "Inner City Blues," focused on problems in America's ghettos — problems that still "make me wanna holler" decades after the album's release.
"Everything he said on that whole album is still relevant — like spot on — today," Godfrey says. "And that's kinda creepy. So I was wondering, like, was this man a prophet? Not like a prophet of God, but a prophet of the time."
Today's soul and R&B singers often sound more like pornographers than prophets. I feel like such an old man when I say that, but I guess most younger people have just accepted all the hypersexed and shallow music embedded in our everyday lives. And the sad truth is, a lot of today's music doesn't feed the soul of those facing hardships the way it did in Marvin's day.
Working on this remix, I was reassured of music's power: the power to ignite or soothe the rage of a single mom who's lost her job. Every song on What's Going On exhibits a reverence for that power. And even if there aren't enough musicians these days producing albums that will help Americans cope, we can always reach back into the vault.
Brandon McFarland is a producer at Turnstyle News; his "What's Going On" remix and story were produced at Youth Radio in Oakland, Calif. You can watch a short documentary and learn more about the project at the Turnstyle News website.