Black History Month is an annual celebration of achievements by African Americans and a time to recognise their central role within U.S. and global history. Motown has always played a key role in the civil rights movement and African American history. In 1963, the famous “I Have A Dream” speech was delivered by Martin Luther King, Jr, as 125,000 people marched in Detroit in the “Walk to Freedom”. This was recorded on the Gordy label and was released onto “The Great March to Freedom” album. As we celebrate the story of Motown and how this movement resonates through the tale of the show, we’re looking back at some influential protest tracks released by Motown artists.
Marvin Gaye – What’s going on
This song transplants the soul of Motown into an existential reactionary song. The lyrics were inspired by stories Marvin’s brother Frankie had told him when he came back from the Vietnam War. This was one of the first Motown songs to make a powerful political statement.
Edwin Starr – War
Also protesting the Vietnam conflict, War was originally released by The Temptations in 1969. The track was re-released the following year as a solo single by Edwin Starr, reaching number 1 in the US Billboard Hot 100. Prior to its release, the label had focused solely on making hit songs but around this time Motown artists such as Marvin Gaye and the Temptations started to release songs with more of a social statement.
Stevie Wonder – You Haven’t Done Nothin’
After the Watergate scandal broke, Stevie wrote this song to express his anger towards the situation. The song features lyrical dissonance and steps away from Stevie’s usual love classics. It also features backing vocals from the Jackson Five.
Marvin Gaye – Mercy, Mercy Me
This song became one of the most poignant anthems of sorrow regarding the environment.
Diana Ross and the Supremes – Reflections
This song was written in a time where America had been involved in the Vietnam War for two years. It’s a song of loss and anger after losing something that you love and can relate to the times of struggle faced by many around the world at the time.