Marvin Gaye’s powerful rallying cry ‘What’s Going On’ continues to resonate nearly 50 years later, as Motown Records releases a new music video for the timeless anthem, directed by Savanah Leaf.
As part of Motown’s ongoing 60th anniversary celebrations, the video made its premiere today at the 2019 Congressional Black Caucus Annual Legislative Conference (CBC ALC) following the panel discussion ‘What’s Going On’ to ‘Let’s Get Going’: Building a Social Movement through the Arts in Washington, DC.
Leaf pairs Gaye’s timely protest anthem with the societal issues of today, addressing everything from Flint’s water crisis, school shootings, universal healthcare and police brutality.
“Who really cares, to save a world in despair?” Gaye asks in the archival footage that begins the visual.
Shot over the course of four days in Detroit and Flint, Michigan, Leaf stressed the importance of the video connecting with the birthplace of Motown while remaining true to the original message of the song.
“We wanted a place that resonates with the song and the history of Motown, while also remaining relevant to the socio-political issues in the music video,” Leaf said.
“It was very important for us to find real people that resonated with the stories, rather than casting actors.”
The visual features numerous community members along with Flint mayor Karen Weaver, local activist Ariana Hawk (who appeared on the cover of TIME during the height of the crisis) and Steve Smith, who worked as one of the recording engineers on ‘What’s Going On’ at Motown.
Leaf, whose many credits include helming music videos for Common and Gary Clark Jr, was recruited by Motown president Ethiopia Habtemariam, who has led the label since 2011.
The emerging filmmaker was also a part of the panel discussion in DC and explained her motivation to create a new visual for Gaye’s enduring song.
“This is a historic song for an important moment in history, and what’s beautiful is that its message is timeless and universal,” Leaf said. “It’s about human emotions, human relationships and a coming together. My hope is that our music video will remind people to continue asking the question Marvin Gaye asked in 1971.”
‘What’s Going On’ is the first video from Universal Music Group’s ‘Never Made’ project, a series that creates compelling content for songs that never had an accompanying music video.
Written by Motown songwriter Al Cleveland, Gaye and Four Tops member Renaldo “Obie” Benson, ‘What’s Going On’ was a response the tumultuous upheaval that plagued the 60s such as the 1965 Watts riots and “Bloody Thursday,” the violent 1969 conflict over People’s Park in Berkeley, California, which Benson observed first-hand.
Produced by Gaye, the single was released on 20 January 1971 and quickly reached No.2 on the Billboard Hot 100.
The only live performance by Marvin Gaye of his 1971 album What’s Going On is to receive its first standalone release on 18 October and can be pre-ordered here.