Friday, April 02, 2010

Remembering Marvin Gaye: Patron Saint of the Merging of the Sacred and Secular

Today, April 2, marks the birthday of one my favorite artists, the legendary R&B singer, Marvin Gaye. His death on April 1, 1984 rings out in my childhood memory like watching the NASA Challenger tragedy. If memory serves me correctly, I was in the car with my father when the news broke over the radio waves.

I grew up in a house where Marvin Gaye's music was always being played. Though I knew of his early Motown hits, it was the older Marvin that I came to appreciate.  For instance, when he sang the national anthem at the NBA All-Star Game in 1983:

Of course, this was the not first time that he ever sang the anthem at a public sporting event on television (he also sang for the 1979 Larry Holmes v. Ernie Shavers fight, which was more traditional). Even in his earlier renditions of the song it was definitely Marvin. 

I won't draw this out into some long essay about Marvin Gaye (thought at some point I'd like to and likely will), but I think he was that special kind of artist that truly and some ways completely personified the coexistence of the sacred and secular aspects in African American culture. You can hear the gospel medleys in the classic tunes "Pride and Joy",  "Can I Get a Witness", the passionate pleas for love in "Distant Lover" and "Let's Get it On",  or even the classic "What's Going On", Gaye is keyed right into the prophetic aspects of our expressive culture.  

I think that innate ability--to tap into and embody our emotions, especially during live performances,  is what gave him and so many others, Aretha Franklin, Donny Hathaway, Al Green, Roberta Flack, Patti Labelle, Chaka Khan, and Stevie Wonder (and so many more) the staying power that they have.  They are American Music and American Music is Black Music--the very essence of triumph over tragedy, faith amidst hopelessness, joy that emerges from the pain of oppression.  They make life beautiful for us all through their music.  Marin Gaye was sensual, prophetic, joyful, and had pain that he expressed in his music. I think of him of the patron saint of the sacred and secular. Some may agree or disagree.  Regardless, today I'm going to take a minute to just reflect on the music, the man, and his life.

Thank you Marvin for sharing your gift with us. Your music still lives.

Distant Lover (live):

"What's Going On/What's Happening Brother"

"Let's Get it On" (Live)

Sidebar: My favorite tune growing up in the video age was listening and watching "Sexual Healing" though many so called purists of Gaye's music find this tune to not be among his best.  My feeling is that Marvin Gaye's music is like decide what you like and go with it, no matter how critically acclaimed it may or may not be...if the tune speaks to you then that is all that matters.  Peace.


JD said...

even the language of "sexual healing" explicitly merges sacred and secular. "when the spirit moves you"; "i've been sanctified"--right at the end.

sexual healing is spiritual healing...complete with the laying on of hands lol

let me stop! you're right on with that. i think of donny and "she is my lady." straight hymn.

Christian said...

I could not have said it better myself. Marvin Gaye could sing the phone book and it would be a hit. On The Supremes' Farewell album, they ask him to sing in an impromptu performance. The Supremes and the crowd go crazy.

I guess the I Want You album has most of my favorites on it. "I Wish I Didn't Love You So" is a favorite too (he multi-layers his vocals). Very nice post!

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