Bright lights and a warm breeze welcomed a sold-out show at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles Wednesday night. With the help of the Los Angeles Philharmonic & Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, nine-time Grammy Award winner John Legend provided a moving tribute to the Motown hero Marvin Gaye roughly three decades after his untimely passing. What was expected to be a beautiful tribute to Marvin Gaye himself as well as to his record What’s Going On turned into a musical political platform. Recorded and released in 1971 during a time in American history where Richard Nixon was president, Americans were protesting the Vietnam War and racial tensions were escalating in the streets. Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On emphasized love and political awareness to his listeners. Fast forward four decades later and his platform still resonates more than ever.
All dressed in white, the Los Angeles Philharmonic shone bright with their collection of instruments in front of a cascading luminous backdrop displaying a rainbow of color throughout the performance. Their respectable and incredible talent on stage helped highlight and bring to life the beauty behind each track showcased. Gracing the stage with class and poise, soul singer, Sharon Jones grooved her way on stage with the talented John Legend. Legend made his own political statement by wearing a simple black tee emblazoned with bold letters reading “DON’T SHOOT”, making a nod toward the protests and escalating tension raging in Ferguson, Missouri. After a wave of applause washed and welcomed those on stage spoken-word poet, Marc Bamuthi Joseph joined those on stage and introduced the first half of the performance with his poem, “Love Song For America.” The Dap-Tones assisted Bamuthi with a fitting underscore before Legend and Jones stole the intro spotlight by jumping into Gaye’s “I Heard It Through The Grapevine.” Jones’ smile and rambunctious energy on stage was beauty within itself. The fifty-eight year old performer had beaten bile duct cancer last year.
Between “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Your Precious Love” Legend successfully made it his own performance, but still blended in respect for the road Marvin Gaye paved with that record. Legend’s natural talent on the piano and soulful voice was more than enough to dazzle the audience. Legend showed parading around the stage was not necessary to keep the attention of the several thousands watching. Nevertheless, well into the second half of the tribute concert, the show took a more political turn. Through the performance of spoken word performers of all ages, they took the stage in between songs to answer a prompt presented to them in Marvin Gaye’s own words, “What’s going on?” A prompt that was meant to evoke thought and stimulate that individual. Each poet ranged from fourteen to forty, and spoke in detail as to how relevant Marvin Gaye’s question, “What’s Going On” really was. Poet Chinaka Hodge propelled the audience back to the seventies–a time Gaye could relate to–a time where battle scars from racial tensions were still fresh and Gaye knew the world needed a record filled with love.
It was the two poems performed by four young girls, all under the age of twenty, that brought the crowd to a standing applause. For example, Caitlyn Clark’s words painted a picture of her father, a soldier who had shared memories of the war in Afghanistan with his daughter. The poem portrayed the juxtaposition between first hand accounts of what it is like to be in a war verses how the government and media wants you to think it is. The Los Angeles Philharmonic’s scores complimented each poem as their words spilled out of the Hollywood Bowl and slipped their way into the ears of those willing to listen. Soon after the other three young poets, Zaria Allen, Belissa Escobedo and Rhiannon McGavin took to the stage shedding light on a broken school system our younger generations inhabit.
In order to lift up the mood, the lights of the Hollywood Bowl transcended to a cool blue canopy engulfing the musicians. As if a record needle had just started spinning around Marvin Gaye’s record, John Legend took his place at the black grand piano and with a flip of a music page brought Gaye’s entire classic album What’s Going On? to life. The combination of Legend’s smooth vocals and the Los Angeles Philharmonic graceful sound helped accent Gaye’s track, “Flyin’ High (In The Friendly Sky)”. Each song from the iconic and renowned album was respectably covered all throughout the second act of the show. Audience members held their loved ones closer during “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” as well as grooved and jammed to the beat of “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler).” A brightly lit spotlight found its way to John Legend and the ever so radiant Sharon Jones once again to reprise Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” single. Taken on as a duet, the two channeled the love and emotion depicted by Gaye’s perception of how the world should confront the evils of society. Legend and Jones’ took hold of what Gaye gifted the world and shared it with the audience on this night.
Turning around and looking at the faces in the audience: mothers, fathers, grandparents and young adults, all stared back, wide eyed. Although the night was meant to bring a love and heartfelt reverence to Marvin Gaye’s legacy, Legend also achieved helping bring together what Gaye strived for the most in this record and that was acknowledgement; an acknowledgement to hardships of our brothers and sisters, young and old of all color. What seems to be disheartening is how much What’s Going On still resonates to not only those who lived through the sixties and seventies, but also to the youth who are witnessing the incidents right now in Ferguson, Missouri. Most importantly, if we recognize what truly is going are we going to band together to finally fix it?
-First Act –
Poet: Bamuthi Intro
I Heard it Through The Grapevine
Ain’t No Mountain High Enough
Little Ole Boy, Little Ole Girl
If This World Were Mine
Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing
Your Precious Love
If I Could Build My Whole World Around You
You’re All I Need To Get By
Poet: Chinaka Hodge
What’s Going On
What’s Happening Brother
Flyin’ High (In The Friendly Sky)
Save The Children
Poet: Caitlyn Clark
God Is Love
Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)
Poets: Zaryia Allen, Reannion McGavin, Belissa Esobedo
Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)
What’s Going On (feat. Sharon Jones)
Poet: Bamuthi Outro