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By Mark Anthony Neal, PhD.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010.


For most of the 1960s Marvin Gaye was the crown prince of the Motown label. Blessed with Hollywood good looks and one of the greatest voices that pop music had ever witnessed, Gaye seemed poised to have the kind of cross-over success that was once promised for the likes of Nat King Cole and Sam Cooke. But right on the cusp of such success—Gaye’s recording “I Heard Through the Grapevine” was Motown’s best selling single ever at the time of its release in 1968, for example—Gaye switched up and decided to give voice the social malaise found in urban America, the state sanctioned destruction of the environment and the rising dissension against American involvement in the Vietnam War.

The product of this moment was What’s Going On (1971), a recording that was at the center of the efforts by Blacks in America to “speak truth to power” musically, both in support of and in response to, the literal efforts of many in America to bring the struggle for racial, gender, and economic equality to the streets. With What’s Going On Gaye joined artists like Freda Payne (“Bring the Boys Home”), Nina Simone (“Young, Gifted and Black” & “Mississppi Goddamn”), Eugene McDaniels (Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse), Edwin Starr (“War”) and John Lee Hooker (“I Don’t Want to Go to Vietnam”) in speaking out about America’s social conditions. The power of Gaye’s recording is still echoed in the phrase “makes me wanna holla” from his brilliant tome “Inner City Blues”.

Just as quickly as Gaye transformed himself into a protest poet, he changed the game again, making himself into the quintessential “love man” with the recording Let’s Get It On (1973). For all intents Gaye had traveled from “protest” to “climax” as so much of Let’s Get It On was about the spiritual pursuit of sex. This would become a common theme for much of Gaye’s music for the rest of is life, though arguably Gaye’s ability to highlight the complex relationship between sexuality and spirituality had political connotations during an era when the very idea black sexuality was still “dirty” in the minds of many.

By the end of the 1970s, Gaye had largely retreated from the public eye, in large part due to a bitter divorce from Anna Gordy Gaye (duly documented on the recording Here, My Dear), troubles with the IRS (refusing to pay his taxes as a another form of protest), and the emergence of artists like Teddy Pendergrass and Rick James to challenge his “love man” throne.

Gaye found relief in Ostend, Belgium and it is there in the early 1980s that Gaye began to plot his comeback to the American music scene. No longer with Motown, Gaye singed with CBS Records (SONY) in 1982 and collaborated with Gordon Banks on the track “Sexual Healing” which would trumpet Gaye’s return to the top of the pop charts and earn the veteran soul singer his first Grammy Awards in 1983.

In was in the context Gaye’s return to the limelight that he was asked to perform the National Anthem at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game at the Los Angeles Forum. Like the “Stubborn Kind of Fella” that Gaye had embodied for much of his life, Gaye came strolling on court to a drum beat that Banks had programmed only the day before. Reminiscent of the back-beat that was featured on “Sexual Healing.”

Gaye’s version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” elicited celebratory catcalls and halfway through the song the audience of over 17,000 were tapping their feet and clapping their hands in affirmation. It could have been any ole Sunday at any ole church in Black America, but instead it was on national television, moments before the tip-off of the yearly showcase of what was increasing becoming not only America’s sport, but the sport of the world.

Often referred to as a “sacred’ song, Francis Scott Key’s composition is rarely performed beyond the parameters intended by the composer. The song, which was granted national anthem status in 1931, has for more than 70 years been seen by some as emblematic of the best that American democracy has to offer to the world—think about it’s connection to those immigrants desiring citizenship—and by others as little more than a soundtrack of American imperialism. Thus when artists perform distinctly personal versions of the song it often represents both a sense of belonging and protest. Such was the case when guitarist Jose Feliciano performed a “controversial” rendition of the song prior to a 1968 World Series game at Detroit’s Tiger Stadium.

No doubt Feliciano's version of the song (Motown was based in Detroit in the late 1960s) resonated within Gaye when he stepped on to center court at the Forum that day. Gaye’s performance suggested that African-Americans had the right to “African-Americanize” the song, in part, because of the price they paid for American Democracy, both in the States and abroad. But Gaye’s version also, as Todd Boyd, author of Young, Black, Rich and Famous: The Rise of the NBA, The Hip Hop Invasion and the Transformation of American Culture, told the Los Angeles Times, “was an indication that the NBA was prepared to embrace the popular culture of America, with African-Americans at the center of it.”

Arguably, Gaye’s performance that day—one of his last appearances on national television before his murder a year later—was a prescient view into the future of American culture, which has been fundamentally transformed in the years since, because of the profound influence of black urban culture on everything from music to advertising.

Dr. Mark Anthony Neal is the author of several books on music and popular culture, including the forthcoming Looking for Leroy, which will be published in 2011 by New York University Press, and The TNI-Mixtape which will be available on-line for free download later this year. Neal is a Professor of African and African-American Studies at Duke University.

He blogs at New Black Man


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