How do we choose to color yesterday’s obituaries? Black for the young men cut down? Blue for the officers who died on duty?
Who can possibly pour our grief into words?
Suppose he had already done the deed in a Motown recording studio 46 years ago.
We have the evidence on vinyl, a 42-minute confession of an innocent bystander who confessed to urban poverty, discrimination and the deep, open national wound called the Vietnam War.
Rolling Stone magazine ranked it #6 on its list of the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time.”
Let the record show that the singer was conspicuously guilty of innate social awareness and pure musical genius.
His name was Marvin Gaye, and the lament he laid down in 15 near-seamless tracks was What’s Going On.
I first became aware of Marvin Gaye in a high school minority literature class. Our teacher, Dick Berry, like all of us but one in the room, were as white as the winter wheat that dashed our local hills of Pullman, Washington.
One day, Mr. Berry carried in a portable phonograph, looked for the nearest outlet and said, “To even begin to appreciate the black experience, you need to listen to the literature.”
He gingerly placed Marin Gaye’s album on the turntable. The needle hit, and a saxophone’s cry let loose.
The poet, Marvin Gaye, took it from there.
There’s far too many of you crying
Brother, brother, brother
There’s far too many of you dying
You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some lovin’ here today
It was a yearning and a longing for life, the possibility and the hope that death wouldn’t have the final word in our land. I bought the album. Years passed, and wherever my career took me, Marvin Gaye’s voice went with.
Whenever I read and sing his national anthem, I receive a gift of awareness wrapped inside a warning, tied up in a plea:
Picket lines, and picket signs
Don’t punish me with brutality
Therein lies the sad irony of Marvin Gaye, gunned down at home by his father in an act of rage, April Fools Day, 1984.
Talk to me, so you can see
Oh, what’s going on
Out of the ashes of the ’68 Detroit riots, Marvin Gaye didn’t flinch. He floated out his giftedness in public and found a common chord for our confusion. It’s a yearning that resonated with a hunger to give and receive mercy back then—and, I pray, today.