What would Marvin Gaye say if he was still alive to see millions of people stand in support of Black Lives Matter? He was only 15 years old when the U.S. Supreme Court handed its ruling on ‘Brown v. the Board of Education’ of Topeka. A little more than a year later, Rosa Parks peacefully protested by refusing to sit at the back of the bus. At 24, he and millions of others watched Martin Luther King, Jr. give his iconic ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.
Gaye, though, wasn’t just an observer. As one of the godfathers of the “Motown Sound”, the son of a church minister and domestic worker carved out a legacy as a civil right activist. While most associate Gaye’s music with sensuality, his 23-year discography is filled with protest songs and tunes linked to the Civil Rights Movement, particularly his iconic, ‘What’s Going On’ LP. Even many of the love songs he performed solo or with Mary Wells, Kim Weston, Tammi Terrell, or Diana Ross had an underlying message of resilience and unity. We also often forget that Gaye was an environmentalist. He was a man who was well ahead of his times.
Gaye’s songs remain as relevant and powerful today as they did thirty-five, forty, and nearly sixty years ago. As he once said:
“You see, war is not the answer
For only love can conquer hate
You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some lovin’ here today.”
In Volume Three of The Artists Speak, ten musicians share their favorite Marvin Gaye songs. The top-20 are listed below with, as always, an accompanying playlist.
Top-20 Marvin Gaye Songs as Chosen by the Artists
1. “What’s Going On”
Black Grapefruit: “It’s an obvious choice because it’s one of the most unforgettable protest/solidarity songs ever. Period.”
Jasmine Dreame Wagner: “What’s Going On was both an anthem for its time and a hit that transcends its era – every decade, a new generation rediscovers the iconic album that ushered in the 1970s. From Gaye’s vocal performance to the song’s production and arrangement, the track’s lyrical compassion is overlaid with elemental exhaustion, rolling in a mid-tempo groove of uneasy celebration as sixties idealism decelerates to match the pace of soldiers returning home from Vietnam. The title song conveys the sustained passion of the marches and sit-ins against the war and against police brutality, and Gaye’s voice – his virtuosic four-octave vocal range, marketed early in his career as the voice of a Black Frank Sinatra – is soft here in comparison to his earlier pop hits. He’s hopeful, weary as he consoles, pleads and bargains for a better world.”
DJ Agile: “It’s crazy to me that a song from a previous civil rights movement almost 50 years ago is still relevant in 2020. Police are still killing unarmed black men at an alarming rate, mothers are still crying, and we still have picket lines and picket signs. ‘Talk to me, so you can see, what’s going on’ was Marvin’s plea to the establishment and to white folks to hear. Forty-nine years later, black people are still asking to be heard and the only difference between Marvin’s era and the modern era is that black people have access to cell phones, can record video and share the type of systematic and cultural racism black people deal with everyday.
“The somber and haunting tones in the melodies of this song always gives me goosebumps and gets me a little misty because no matter what remix of this classic I play as a DJ or when the original comes on the oldies station on the radio or satellite radio, it’s always a reminder that things in our society when it comes to race has changed very little and some would even argue it has gotten worse.”
TIFFY: “I’ve always been captivated by how this song – lyrics, music, style – captures the scope of social injustices that Marvin Gaye narrates throughout this album. It’s such an intense, heavy and layered theme yet presented in an almost elegant manner where you can still feel the full weight of the questions and messages being delivered. It’s profound how much emotion & weight you can feel as he sings ‘What’s Going On’.”
2. “Sexual Healing”
DJ Agile: “For my parents generation, ‘Let’s Get It On’ would be the quintessential romantic/love making anthem, and I get it. The song is direct, to the point, and over one of the most seductive grooves in the history of music. But for me a child of the hip-hop generation, it’s all about ‘Sexual Healing’.
“The mere fact that Marvin Gaye made the Roland TR-808 drum machine sexy is mind blowing. The 808 is a staple in hip-hop music since it’s invention. That deep-booming bass sound, crisp claps, snares and other worldly percussion sounds lured hip-hop music-markers in like a moth to a flame. These sounds were always put together over the most aggressive beats, LL Cool J’s ‘Rock The Bells’ for example. But Marvin had used those same sounds in the sexiest of ways and basically helped usher in the modern R&B sound. It is no wonder ‘Sexual Healing’ has been sampled by so many hip hop and R&B songs because it was the best of both worlds for both genres. Don’t get me started on the pre chorus!”
Marcel Borrack: “It’s one of those songs that I’ve spent a lifetime with. I remember when it came out, and it was just a great pop song. Then a few years later as a teenager, I was mortified if it came on the radio in the car with my mum and dad. Later again, I was just obsessed with it’s iconic drum programming and these days it’s a blueprint for lean and tight production. I love it!”
Sam the Astronaut: “One of the most – if not the most – famous 808 drum beats of all time. This song is just a production wonderland for us to learn and inspire from. From the synths to the vocal production. It’s gold.”
Toni Sauna: “(It) is a monster of a special request, no giver stands a chance when faced with the power of this submission soundtrack.”
3. “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)”
Black Grapefruit: “For fuck sake! The bassline! PERFECT!”
JonoJosh: “This song just grooves from beginning to end. The smooth falsetto and important message hits in the sweet spot. Marvin proved once again that his music is timeless.”
Keffa: “This is a song that can resonate with the working middle class of society, the 99%, especially with all that’s been going on.”
Wagner: “This song, its intensity, is climactic – of the era, of the record, of Gaye’s career – and from the first bars, when the sustained minor chords ring out over the backbeat percussion of the bongos and the bass, the energy builds. Gaye’s voice floats above the band, a distant atmosphere. After he sings, “Made me want to holler, throw up my hands”, his voice opens up – and the lyric, as I’m listening to it now, feels like an early premonition of “hands up, don’t shoot”. I think of the protest chant, the cry for justice after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. I think of youth activist Joshua Williams, still in prison.
“Gaye scats as the band takes over, and he lets the band lead, then cries out, calls out over a classical piano as it skitters across a breakdown before the end. The evolving textures of this song have taught me so much about the evolution of the blues: two chords, a pulsing beat, an invoice of wrongs made legible, a litany that becomes more of a prayer than a complaint.”
4. “I Heard It Through The Grapevine”
TIFFY: ” A simply timeless and haunting performance.”
Wagner: “It’s important to say that I can’t properly talk about Marvin Gaye’s music, or Black music in America, without acknowledging my whiteness. Although I’m white, Black music, Motown music, and particularly, Marvin Gaye’s music, formed the soundtrack to my childhood. My mother grew up in Detroit at the height of Motown’s popularity and played her stacks of Motown records at home. When we were in the car, the radio dial was tuned to the Oldies station. But the first time I heard Marvin Gaye’s iconic 60s hit, “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” in a real way – the kind of hearing that was listening – I was in my elementary school cafeteria.
“I feel like I could say more about the song itself, about Gaye’s incredible abilities. My favorite songs of his were the songs that challenged racism, police brutality, that called for economic and environmental justice. Marvin Gaye is one of our greatest songwriters and performers. The world is a better place because it had him, and because it still has his music.”
5. “Let Get It On”
TIFFY: “This one can be comical at times, but at its core the confidence in delivery, of being open and vulnerable in love is forever inspiring.”
6. “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” (with Tammi Terrell)
TIFFY: “One of the first Marvin Gaye songs I heard as a kid and just immediately became hooked on this era of Marvin Gaye’s songs and Motown’s catalog. It sparked my love for all pop music and its compositional styles, especially learning from the Funk Brothers who comprise the rhythm section on this recording plus countless other Motown hits.”
7. “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)”
TIFFY: “The calling of environmental issues in this song is moving, which at that point Marvin Gaye was ahead of his time for doing so.”
Wagner: “The opening riff – the chimes – were what first grabbed me. Glassy percussion laid over the beat, like a childhood toybox swinging open in a closet above a nightclub. The chimes sound almost like metal on glass, a sound I hear as brittle nostalgia for the candy tones of jangling guitars that had already begun a slow fade from pop’s sonic palette the end of the previous decade. And when Gaye sings, “Oh mercy, mercy me, oh things aren’t what they used to be”, I’m led to believe that the groove will lock and the lyrics sway into a memory of past love, a childhood sweetheart, maybe.
“But Gaye leads the listener to deeper places: wind, ocean, earth. “Poison is the wind that blows from the north and south and east”. “Oil wasted on the ocean and upon our seas, fish full of mercury”. “Radiation underground and in the sky”. He leads us through a ruined land, a natural world that’s almost gone. This is airline terminal departure music. Tapping on the glass window music. Goodbye music. The first time I paid attention to the lyrics of this song, my ideas for what soul music was, what political music could be, forever changed.”
8. “Got To Give It Up”
JonoJosh: “This song is just one of the best grooves in music to date. It’s fantastic. Other artists have tried to recreate this groove, but honesty Marvin did it best.”
The Lagoons: “(It) is too groovy of a jam to not make you want to dance. It’s always been a favorite of ours and the groove itself has been an inspiration to so many other songs. We always joke around that this would be our walk up song if we were professional athletes.”
9. “Distant Lover”
10. “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)”
JonoJosh: “Sometimes you need a song that just makes you feel good from beginning to end. This song brings you into a piece of love and I love it. It cuts through all the complications of metaphor and goes straight to the heart.”
11. “I Want You”
Toni Sauna: “I put this song on and don’t have to say a got damn thing. Just stand there and make the ‘come here’ gesture.”
12. “Trouble Man”
13. “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing” (with Tammi Terrell)
The Lagoons: “(It) has that classic Motown feel and chord progression that has influenced so many songs since. The duet between Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell is also just a perfect vocal blend that makes this love song so easy to listen to.”
14. “Midnight Lady”
Keffa: “‘Midnight Lady’ is one of my favourites because I can relate to the lyrics. I’ve experienced what he’s saying. I’ve lived it.”
15. “Turn On Some Music”
Keffa: “It’s something I’d dance and vibe to by myself or at a party.”
16. “You Are Everything” (with Diana Ross)
Borrack: “I love the Motown take on the Philadelphia sound. It’s icy cold intro, Diana thawing out the first verse, and then pure sunlight from Marvin’s amazing effortless performance.”
17. If I Should Die Tonight”
Borrack: “This song gives me shivers! The first time I heard it and every time since. For my money, it’s unparalleled in it’s captivating raw emotional performance.
18. “You Sure Love to Ball”
19. “You’re All I Need To Get By” (with Tammi Terrell)
20. “It Takes Two” (with Kim Weston)
Participating Artists & Bands:
Black Grapefruit – Originally formed in 2013, Black Grapefruit is the experimental-pop project of Randa Smith and Brian Dekker, who currently call New York City home. After a brief hiatus and reuniting in 2018, the duo have released a handful of records, including 2020’s Waist EP and last year their debut full-length, Fade/Forget.
Deep cut: “If This World Were Mine”
DJ Agile – A multi-award winning producer and artist with a style as diverse as the city he represents, DJ Agile has become a staple of the Toronto music scene with his combination of hip-hop, soul, Afrobeats, house, rock, pop, and nu soul. The five-time Juno Award & MuchMusic Video Award nominee has worked alongside NaS, Method Man, Melanie Fiona, Dwele, Kardinal Offishall, and more.
His new single, “Conversation” feat. JRDN, is an upbeat, hip-hop track bringing in elements of pop, R&B, and neo soul.
Deep cut: “T Plays It Cool”
Jasmine Dreame Wagner – Wagner is a multidisciplinary artist. She is an acclaimed singer-songwriter, poet, author, experimental, and multimedia artist from New York City. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in American Letters & Commentary, Beloit Poetry Journal, BOMB Magazine, Colorado Review, Guernica, Fence, Hyperallergic, Indiana Review, New American Writing, Seattle Review, Sycamore Review, YETI Magazine, and much, much more.
Her new EP, Switchblade Moon, will be released June 26th. It’s available for pre-order on Bandcamp.
Deep cut: “Stubborn Kinda Fellow”
JonoJosh – Also known as JJ Gerber, JonoJosh started as a dancer and choreographer, performing alongside Marianas Trench, Carly Rae Jepsen, and Korean superstars PSY. His first love, though, is in music, specifically contemporary pop and R&B. The Toronto artist’s new single, “Half”, is out now.
Quote: “I love Marvin Gaye because he boldly wrote about every part of his life, and he would make them all groove! He inspires me to write from the heart and make songs that people can dance to. Whether its about love, war, heartbreak, inner city living, partying or just being seen by another human, Marvin was always sharing the black experience with the world.”
KEFFA: The project of Aaron Alem, KEFFA is a singer, rapper, producer, and songwriter based out of Toronto.
Deep cut: “Since I Had You”
The Lagoons: L.A.-raised duo of Joey and Ryan Selan have carved out a fresh genre of indie-pop that breathes life into today’s music scene. Their singles have been featured on numerous Spotify playlists, including New Music Friday; on NPR’s 10 Songs Public Radio Can’t Stop Playing; Netflix’s series Easy; and a BMW ad. The duo’s new album, Midnight Afternoon, drops June 23rd, 2020.
Quote: “Marvin Gaye is one of the greatest songwriters and performers of his generation. He was able to not only create sexy, seductive music with hits like ‘Let’s Get It On’, but he also found a way to incorporate deeper meaning in his lyrics that are still relevant today like ‘What’s Going On’. His legacy continues to live on through the incredible music he created and he definitely is an inspiration to us.”
Marcel Borrack of Minibikes – Melbourne outfit whose music can only be described as a kaleidoscope of various sound. Their new album, Freaky Dreams, is a mix of garage-pop, indie rock, folk-pop, art-rock, and even epic, cinematic pop. They could be considered Arcade Fire’s little sibling. The LP is available on Bandcamp.
Quote: “For me, Marvin Gaye is one of the most emotionally potent things on the planet. His voice has that extra intangible element that is unbelievably rare. He makes me feel the most important things, ask myself the most important questions and he brings people together.”
Deep cut: “Life Is A Gamble”
Sam the Astronaut – The duo of Garrison Johnson and TJ Gibson are concocting their own genre of music, blending synth-pop with contemporary R&B and pop. Their aim is beam listeners up to a place where the dull realities of everyday life are washed away and, even just for a moment, replaced with an irresistible urge to dance. Their sophomore album, Midnight Carlight, is due August 28th, 2020. The title track is available on Bandcamp.
Quote: “Honestly everything on ‘Midnight Love’ could take up this list for us. It’s our favourite Gaye record and one of the first cassettes TJ ever owned. One of the best front to backs out there.”
Deep cut: “Savage In The Sack”
TIFFY – Boston-based, multi-instrumentalist and songwriter who is carving out her own niche within the competitive music world. Her music is a combination of soda-pop pop music and soft punk, yielding an infectious blend of intelligent and often witty songs.
Her double-A side single, featuring “I Don’t Wanna Talk” and “Something For Nothing”, is out now and available on Bandcamp.
Deep cut: “California Soul”
Quote: “Marvin so sexy and direct a real ‘closer’, no vagueness. onfidence to a point where I can play my Gaye selections and his music assists me in closing my sensuality dealings.”
Deep cut: “Sanctified Lady”
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