Marvin Gaye's What's Going On album was released 43 years ago, but its music felt modern Wednesday night at the Hollywood Bowl when performed in its entirety by John Legend, who was accompanied by Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, the Los Angeles Philharmonic orchestra, and a number of riveting guest poets.
When released in 1971, What's Going On made a political statement about the Vietnam War and race relations in the U.S. On Wednesday, Legend and his guests addressed war, education, hate crimes, and controversial police-related deaths of African American teen males.
Before performing What's Going On during the second half of the concert, Legend acknowledged Marvin Gaye Jr., who was in attendance, and praised his father's historic album. "It was more than just a piece of music," Legend said. "It was a landmark of social commentary." Legend said he would honor Gaye's legacy with new voices. "In that spirit, tonight, you're going to meet some young artists. We've asked them to respond to Marvin Gaye's music in a contemporary context."
Below, see examples of the contemporary context that Legend was referring to:
1. Legend's fashion statement. When Legend returned to the stage for Act 2, the What's Going On segment, he set the tone for the rest of the night without saying a word. Underneath his white blazer, he wore a black T-shirt with a bold, printed message: "Don't Shoot." It was clearly a reference to the recent death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was fatally shot by a Ferguson, Missouri police officer on August 9, sparking an uprising in the community and a national public debate.
2. Three-part harmony. A trio of teen girls — Belissa Escobedo, Rhiannon McGavin, and Zariya Allen — offered a chilling piece during Legend's rendition of "Mercy, Mercy Me." Speaking in unison and individually, they made the point that "the greatest lessons are the ones you don't remember learning." They argued that To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye, and works by Maya Angelou are banned in schools, while hate-crime literature and guns are easily accessible. Their powerful words and delivery drew great support on social media.
3. War is not the answer.When performing "Save the Children," Legend was joined by another young lady, who in a powerful spoken-word piece compared her father's time in the military in Afghanistan to the horrors on America's own city streets. She also accused CNN and Fox of being uncaring and desensitized, saying, "They imagine themselves to be somewhere where the gun shots are less loud."
4. What's still going on?The title track of Gaye's famous album was the first song of Act 2. As Legend sat at the piano and sang, the lyrics felt just as relevant in 2014: "Don't punish me with brutality/Talk to me/So you can see/Oh, what's going on."
5. The master of ceremonies. Spoken-word artist Marc Bamuthi Joseph served as the night's host, opening the show and easing the major transitions with his prose that helped make the correlation between Gaye's music and current events. When closing Act 1, he told the audience to stay tuned for Act 2, "the future in the key of Marvin's philosophy."
6. A new dynamic duo. Legend selected Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings to join him for Act 1, a segment that focused on Gaye's classics with duet partner Tammi Terrell. After opening the night with a moving spoken-word monologue from Joseph as the music for "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" played underneath, Legend emerged, and was later joined by Jones. Their dynamic, energetic chemistry was authentic, especially when singing "You're All I Need to Get By" and "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing."