Gaye’s man­date is more vi­tal than ever

The Buffalo News - - WEATHER -

I had a deeply spir­i­tual ex­pe­ri­ence dur­ing last week’s edi­tion of our monthly Gusto Vinyl Happy Hour at the Sports­men’s Tav­ern. And it caught me off-guard.

We – my­self, co-host Anita West, and an en­sem­ble of mu­si­cians from the funk, soul, rock and gospel sec­tors of the lo­cal mu­sic com­mu­nity, as well as a vo­cal and en­thu­si­as­tic crowd of mu­sic lovers – were cel­e­brat­ing the time­less majesty of Mar­vin Gaye’s “What’s Go­ing On” al­bum.

The pre­vi­ous Happy Hour events have been spir­ited af­fairs, and I’ve cared deeply about the al­bums we’ve been un­pack­ing and cel­e­brat­ing. The mu­si­cians per­form­ing mu­sic from those al­bums have been stellar, too. But this one was dif­fer­ent. Be­cause this al­bum is one of those rare col­lec­tions that ac­tu­ally tran­scends it­self. When you lis­ten to “What’s Go­ing On,” you’re hear­ing mu­sic be­ing em­ployed in ser­vice of some­thing that is even greater than mu­sic it­self.

I’m not nec­es­sar­ily re­fer­ring to re­li­gious be­liefs, al­though they are pre­sent in this mu­sic. For me, how­ever, this goes be­yond reli­gion. It’s about what it means to be hu­man. And how we might cling to and fos­ter that hu­man­ity in our­selves and oth­ers dur­ing times when, quite frankly, it of­ten seems like it would be eas­ier to aban­don that hu­man­ity, to hun­ker down, and to hide in our shells.

When Mar­vin Gaye made “What’s Go­ing On,” he did so against the wishes of his boss, Mo­town head Berry Gordy, who also was his brother-in-law. Gordy wanted Gaye – and all his Mo­town artists – to stick to more tri­fling the­matic con­cerns. Re­la­tion­ships, love, los­ing love, find­ing love, and so forth. But Gaye’s so­cial and po­lit­i­cal con­scious­ness had been awak­ened by the events of the day. The war in Viet­nam. Vi­o­lence at home and abroad. In­equal­ity. Racism. A se­ri­ous deficit in our col­lec­tive ca­pac­ity for com­pas­sion, em­pa­thy, de­cency.

I opened the Vinyl Happy Hour gath­er­ing with some of my thoughts on what this al­bum meant at the time of its re­lease in 1971, and what it might mean to us now. “This al­bum is a man­date for us to ask our­selves the ques­tion: How will­ing are we to do what we know is right, de­spite what it might cost us per­son­ally, fi­nan­cially, so­cially?” I ended up opin­ing that “There is power in this mu­sic, and that power is hu­man com­pas­sion.”

Sounds preachy, but it was not meant to be. I’ve been ask­ing my­self these ques­tion of­ten, of late.

These ru­mi­na­tions were still bang­ing around my brain when I awoke on Fri­day morn­ing to the news that a self-pro­claimed white su­prem­a­cist had mur­dered 50 peo­ple as they gath­ered to wor­ship at two mosques in New Zealand.

Hate is on the march. Per­haps that’s as it ever was. Re­gard­less, we’re see­ing far too much of it.

Gaye’s man­date is more im­por­tant than ever. Yes, it’s in­cred­i­bly ide­al­is­tic and hip­pie-dippy to be­lieve that mu­sic can change the world. But it is equally un­de­ni­able that it can in­deed change each of us in­di­vid­u­ally. I’ve seen it and ex­pe­ri­enced it too many times to be­lieve other­wise.

I’d urge you to spend some time with “What’s Go­ing On,” and to se­ri­ously con­tem­plate the ques­tions it poses. And to ask your­self if you are will­ing to fully en­gage in a com­pas­sion­ate way of life.

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