Editor’s note: The Root was a media sponsor of this year’s Congressional Black Caucus Annual Legislative Conference event and panel discussion exploring the marriage of art and activism.
When Motown Records came up with the idea to celebrate its 60th anniversary by creating visuals for songs that preceded the music video era, perhaps no other song in the label’s legendary catalog was more prescient and time-appropriate than Marvin Gaye’s 1971 hit single, “What’s Going On.” And there might not be a place on the planet more illustrative of the themes in Gaye’s immortal classic than the city of Flint, Mich.
On Friday, in Washington, D.C., Motown Records and Universal Music Group UMG debuted the first in its series of “Never-Made Music Videos.” Director Savannah Leaf’s reimagining uses Flint as a backdrop for Gaye’s immortal tune that became a protest anthem, a rallying cry and a call to action. While the water crisis plays a prominent role in the video, Leaf manages to remind the audience of the widespread poverty in the majority-black city that fuels crime, police brutality and a struggling education system (According to the Census Bureau, 41.2 percent of Flint residents live below the poverty line, more than three times the national average).
“We were thinking of what kind of message we wanted to send,” explained Leaf, a former professional athlete who competed on the 2012 British Olympic volleyball team. “While the song has such historical importance, a lot of the themes are still relevant today.”
Leaf, a burgeoning filmmaker who was just beginning to merge activism and art, was tapped to direct the video by Motown president Ethiopia Habtemariam, who has led the iconic label since 2014.
“Of course, we had an incredible roster of directors who wanted to make the video,” said Habtemariam. “But when I saw Savannah’s work, I thought she’d be perfect. Plus, (Leaf) being a black woman, an immigrant, also shows that we are willing to take chances.”
Habtemariam explained that Gordy was reluctant to release such a controversial song, noting that the original idea of “What’s Going On” was inspired by a Motown artist who witnessed an act of police brutality during an anti-war protest. The song and the album are essentially told from the perspective of a man who returns from the Vietnam war and sees the injustice, hate and suffering in his own country.
“I feel like Marvin was speaking to me,” Leaf told The Root. “I don’t remember how old I was when I first heard ‘What’s Going On’ but it’s one of those songs that everyone knows worldwide. And I think it’s important for artists to use their voice and share their truth. I’m honored to get the chance to do that.”