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Heard on CultureShift

Motown’s Little-Known Political Hits Started Before Marvin Gaye

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Image credit: Flickr user nvivo.es, 5gig / Creative Commons

Motown’s mission to be ‘The Sound of Young America’ was itself a political act, says a musicologist. Listen to to a playlist of the label’s political protest songs.

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Motown’s political legacy is often connected to the 1971 release of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” But the label’s past with politics and music goes back years beforehand. 

Cash flow was hard, hits were hard. [Motown] would do anything to make it [the business] work. It was an experiment in real-time,” says Mark Clague, a University of Michigan Musicology Professor.

 ”We often talk about Motown as the ‘Sound of Young America’ and that itself is political. It’s envisioning a post-Civil Rights youth, comfortable with racial relationships.” — Mark Clague

Clague has extensively studied the label’s history and says that Motown’s political legacy is intentional. 

One of those things [that Berry Gordy did] was to make music relevant, to make it connect to people’s real experience,” Clague continues.

In his research, Clague says he was surprised to find a lot of early Motown songs, especially from artists before they became famous and from lesser-known artists from the label. One of those groups, The Validers, which was a white doo-wop ensemble, recorded a song with encouragement from Gordy to make a real statement that teens and young adults could relate to.

Clague says, that The Validers “quoted one of the [Vietnam] draft notices. That song really resonated and drove their early career.”

Listen: Musicologist Mark Clague on Motown’s political instincts. 


Motown’s political hits, from The Valadiers to Martha Reeves.

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Amanda LeClaire, Host, CultureShift

Amanda LeClaire is host of CultureShift. She spent a few years in the southwest for Arizona Public Media.

amanda.leclaire@wdet.org Follow @amandalee_lec

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