God Is Love
By Sascha Freudenheim

20 March 2001

In January 1971, the song "God Is Love" - from Marvin Gaye's album "What's Going On" - hit number 1 on the Rhythm & Blues chart and number 2 on the Pop chart. More than thirty years later, it's still a moving and plaintive prayer of a song, and its central lyric - repeated three times in the song's brief 1 minute 41 second running time - is quite simple: "And all he asks of us is that we give each other love."

I think it is just as affecting now as it was then. The liner notes to the album will tell you that it was inspired by his brother's return from Viet Nam and some realizations on Marvin's part about the damage that the war was doing - not just to the Vietnamese, but to the Black community in the United States. But the entire album, which has become one of my favorites these days, is a reminder of the beauty that can find its way forward from one man's voice at a moment of emotional crisis.

Of course, in other ways the entire album is a reminder of what we've lost in the last thirty years. Marvin Gaye himself, first of all: dead of a gunshot wound. Then there's the entire concept of approaching an issue like the war, and the destruction it brought to Marvin's community, in the manner he did. There's a monumental musical and lyrical leap from "What's Going On" to the gangsta-style Hip-Hop and Rap of today. Ostensibly, if you take today's Hip-Hop artists seriously, their music is motivated by the same things - by the problems they see in their community with drugs and crime, the abuse they suffer at the hands of the police and (white) society in general, etc. The Hip-Hop reaction to the society around them is much more aggressive and violent - and much more about posturing - than was Marvin Gaye's response in 1971.

Are we, as a society, any better off? In some ways, clearly; Americans as a whole are wealthier in almost every way than we were thirty years ago. There's no Cold War, no sense of Mutual Assured Destruction, the way there was back then; nuclear threats exist, but very differently and much less consciously for most of us. Nor can I condemn Hip-Hop and rap as musical styles - they've brought significant innovation to pop music, and to condemn it merely for its message would be to confuse the medium with the artists behind it.

Nonetheless, when I listen to "What's Going On," I can't help but miss the soft voice and the longing lyrics. And I can't help but miss a message that - even in its naïveté, if you want to call it that - was about love and longing for a better world in the most straightforward of ways.

Copyright 2001, by A.D. Freudenheim - No re-publication without permission, but you may link to this page as desired. You are visiting sascha.com.