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Marvin Gaye's "Whats Going On" was inspired by police brutality against (white) hippies

by Cheryl E Preston 2 years ago in history

Obie Benson of The Four Tops witnessed a shocking event that led to this anthem for peace being written.

Marvin Gaye

"Hippies" come in all shapes, sizes and colors but most times the word conjures up images of white males in the 1960's with long hair, wearing bell bottoms and getting high. This story is specifically related to Caucasian hippie's who were abused by the police in the early 1970's. I emphasize this because there is a point to be made. Please note I am not deflecting from the Black Lives Matter movement, even though all lives do matter. I am expounding upon the fact that police brutality has always been an issue. Americans are thankful for the law enforcement officers who do their job well, but still these stories of bad cops persist.


There are some people in this nation who will always believe that any blacks who are manhandled and even murdered by the police have done something to "ask for it". Reading about the injustices done to non blacks at the hands of law enforcement may perhaps open a few eyes to the truth. Having said that the focus of this article is the events that led to Marvin Gaye recording his most widely known song. "What's going on" is considered by some to be a masterpiece which is very relevant today, close to 50 years after it's release. This song is known as an anthem against the Vietnam war, and while that is true there is a deeper meaning behind it.

In 1969, the R&B group The Four Tops were on their tour bus and just arriving in San Franciso for a concert. According to one of the group members, Renaldo "Obie" Benson, the police were attacking a group of hippies who were not breaking the law. Benson expounds upon the incident in the 2001 book, "What’s Going On: Marvin Gaye and the Last Days of The Motown Sound". Here is a quote that he gave to music writer Ben Edmonds.

"The police was beatin’ on them, but they weren’t bothering anybody. I saw this, and started wondering what the f**k was going on. What is happening here? One question leads to another. Why are they sending kids so far away from their families overseas? Why are they attacking their own children in the streets here?"

The last line is very telling as it indicates that Benson was referring to white on white crime. He could not understand why white police officers were beating young white people who had done nothing more than gather in a vacant urban lot known as The People's Park. One might argue that perhaps Benson saw black on black crime, but keep in my he said "Why are they attacking their own children." Also,during this time period hippies were overwhelmingly white and there probably was not a large African American presence on the police force.

Benson was so troubled by the incident that he began composing a song, but the other members of The Four Tops were not interested in a protest song. He next went to Marvin Gaye who was more than willing because of horror stories his brother had told him about the Vietnam war. Together with AL Cleveland they came up with the recording that we know and love today. When presented to Motown founder Berry Gordy, however, his initial response was that "What's going on" was the worst song he had ever heard. Gordy needed new music from Gaye so the recording was released at Hitsville USA, the home of Motown in Detroit prior to moving to California.

Al Cleveland

"What's going on" has been used by many people over the years for various causes. Although it was written because of police brutality and the Vietnam war, it's meaning holds true today for what is going on in our nation. In closing I would like to make two points related to the current protests and unrest in America that could bridge the gap between blacks and whites. When you hear the term "Black Lives Matters" it does not indicate that other lives do not. This phrase is not a rallying cry for African Americans to over throw the American government as some have been saying. These three words come from the pain of mothers crying because their sons are dying, just as Gaye sang in the song.

Obie Benson

The second point is that all the rioting and looting do not help matters but only perpetuate stereotypes. This violence also causes some non blacks to harden their hearts and only focus on the crime that is being committed. All Americans should loosen up a little and try to see things from the point of view of others. it's easy to withdraw into our own pain, especially when it is still raw. I recently read a Facebook response to a post where a woman was saying that all police were bad and would not back down. I found out later that her husband had been beaten by police officers for no reason.

These issues are real and true and shape people's views. What happened to this woman's spouse, the scene that Obie Benson witnessed, and current events in American should cause us all to ask "What's going on." We need to reflect on the lyrics and decide our part in making things better because: As long as the earth remains there will be good cops and bad cops. There will be racism, intolerance and misunderstanding. No one can force others to see their point of view or feel their pain, but those who choose can attempt to bridge the gaps and coexist with those who are different. Marvin Gaye, Obie Benson, and Al Cleveland created a masterpiece that we still sing today. Benson and Gaye have passed on and Cleveland is a minister. Their joint collaboration will probably be the song of choice for as long as injustice is in the land.


Cheryl E Preston

Cheryl is a poet, freelance writer, published author and former Newspaper columnist. She has degrees in Psycology and Biblical studies. She enjoys sharing natural cures, and Nostalgia related info. Tips are greatly appreciated.

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