By Vernon A. Williams, Gary Crusader
Jay-Z and Beyonce are big enough and bad enough to thumb their artistic noses at the establishment and keep it real. John Legend has been among those who keep his conscience in his music.
Kendrick LaMar is the gold standard of rappers staying on the case consistently. In his album entitled “Damn,” he boldly took on the establishment, from the propaganda-laden FOX TV news to the white nationalist administration in the White House today. His courage and artistic prowess earned an unprecedented Pulitzer Award.
Let’s take a Black Music Month Moment to reflect on the conscience of soul music. There is a rich history of Black music conveying the essence of the Black cause. From Billie Holiday, to Nina Simone, to James Brown, to Public Enemy – some of the boldest and most articulate pronouncements of Black rage came through our music.
Motown achieved renown by purposely producing harmless harmonies that appealed to vast demographics. It was, after all, the self-proclaimed “Music of Young America” – not of Black America, founder and guru Berry Gordy, Jr. boasted.
It was a brilliant and lucrative strategy. The crossover appeal eventually got Motown artists played on white stations that rejected most prominent African American recording artists of the 60s. Who could resist “My Girl,” “Dancing in the Street,” “Baby Love,” “Tracks of My Tears” and the endless string of memorable, innocuous classics.
By the end of the 60s and beginning of the 70s there was dramatic change in the streets of the nation. Music was a medium for the message of rejecting the status quo. That was a proposition that did not appeal to Gordy – who was much more interested in the bottom line than making a statement. Eventually he discovered reality.
Stevie Wonder feuded with Motown hierarchy when Gordy tried to box him into the style of the early career Little Stevie Wonder genre. So contentious was the discussion that Stevie refused to go into the studio and record.
Stevie took off for New York where he wrote music in solitude, unwilling to budge from his demand for more creative freedom. Eventually, Gordy was convinced that he could not risk losing the performer referred to as “The 8th Wonder of the World” and “The Genius,” so he relented and told Stevie to do his thing. The results are historic.
The first album under this new artistic freedom was “Innervisions” which earned Stevie Wonder his first Grammy Award, for Best Album, in 1974. “Living for the City” eloquently spoke to the challenges on the streets for Black youths. “Higher Ground” lyrically revealed the hypocrisy gripping American society with upbeat hope. The haunting “Jesus Children of America” pricked the nation’s conscience.
The following year, Wonder repeated the honor with the classic, “Fulfillingness’ First Finale” with the raucous callout to politicians, “You Haven’t Done Nothing” (backup vocals by the Jackson 5). In 1977 he recorded what some critics call one of the best in the history of the recording industry, “Songs in the Key of Life.” Yes, he again won best album at the Grammy Awards!
In 1978, REO Speedwagon won the ‘best album’ Grammy. The first acknowledgment given during their acceptance was the jokingly serious comment: “We first want to thank Stevie Wonder for not recording an album this year.” The audience roared knowingly.
The next example of courage in recording was Motown icon Marvin Gaye. Distraught following the death of his close sister/friend Tammi Terrell, Gaye was depressed. He became even more saddened when his brother Frank returned from Vietnam with horror stories about the war.
A salve for Marvin’s sorrow came when Renaldo “Obie” Benson – a singer in the Four Tops – returned to Detroit from San Francisco where war protestors and police brutality in 1969 inspired, “What’s Going On.” With Al Cleveland, Benson pitched it to his group but the Tops wanted no parts of such a starkly real protest song. Then he offered it to Joan Baez but she declined.
Frustrated but determined, Benson took the tune to Marvin Gaye who liked it right off. He suggested that the Originals, a Motown quartet, should record it. Benson was not feeling it. He told Gaye that either he record it, or he would keep it for himself.
Marvin felt the vibe of the tune and agreed, providing he could put his personal touch on the melody and lyrics. They agreed. When Berry Gordy Jr. heard the title song lyrics, he asked Marvin, “Why do you want to ruin your career.” The two debated. Gaye prevailed. Released in January 1971, the song was a megahit, selling over two million copies.
“What’s Going On” topped Detroit’s Metro Times list of the 100 Greatest Detroit Songs of All Time and in 2004, Rolling Stone magazine ranked it the fourth-greatest song of all time; in its updated 2011 list, the song remained at that position.
It is in the Top 100 of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s list of the “500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.” “What’s Going On” is 14th on the VH-1 100 Greatest Rock Songs. Consider the musical loss if the artist or label had bowed to convention and refused to make this classic.
The song still begs the question of whether art imitates life or life imitates art? In the case of Motown Records, the answer is clearly, both.
CIRCLE CITY CONNECTION by Vernon A. Williams is a series of essays on myriad topics that include social issues, human interest, entertainment and profiles of difference-makers who are forging change in a constantly evolving society. Williams is a 40-year veteran journalist based in Indianapolis, IN – commonly referred to as The Circle City. Send comments or questions to: [email protected].