George Lucas Educational Foundation
Professional Learning

Marvin Gaye, Civil Rights, and My Heart-to-Heart with John Legend

May 1, 2012

Singer Marvin Gaye wrote songs to "touch the souls of men [humans]." Isn't that the same reason teachers become teachers? I've never heard a budding education major say, "I want to be a teacher to make sure my kids pass the test." We become educators to inspire and motivate and to create solid, well rounded humans. I guess we can all reflect on our own classroom and ask, "Am I inspiring? Are my students well rounded? Do they think for themselves, or are they test-takers and memorizers?"

I had a chance to think about these very questions when I traveled to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. earlier this year for the launch the What's Going On . . . Now project. Named after Gaye's 1971 anti-war anthem in which he reflected on the civil rights struggles facing African Americans, this project is a call to action for 21st century America.

Gaye performed the song in 1972 at the newly opened Kennedy Center. Sadly, forty years later, the same issues exist today.

A Call to Action

Nichole Pinkard, founder of the network, is working to empower kids with digital media -- to use it to create and inspire social change as Gaye did with his songs. "All digital media begins with traditional literacies," she said to a crowd of kids, teachers and reporters.

Indeed, the What's Going On . . . Now project, with the help of the Digital Youth Network issued a call to action, inviting all of us to consider "What's Going On . . . Now," and articulate our answers in a digital submission: video, audio, photos, art or sculptures. You can see some of the submissions on the What's Going On . . . Now site.

On May 2 and 3, the Kennedy Center will host a special performance of Gaye's historic 1972 concert where he played his album What's Going On.

Raising Awareness

This campaign definitely had big media support. On the same day the Kennedy Center and the Digital Youth Network launched their What's Going on . . . Now campaign, students from the Ellington High School choir and band were practicing for a show later that night on the Millennium Stage at Kennedy. About a dozen reporters, cameramen, photographers, and me were escorted to the practice room to watch, listen, and wait for a very cool surprise. That surprise was John Legend (surprise!!). Oh, did I fail to mention that Mr. Legend will be performing the Marvin Gaye reenactment concert at Kennedy on May 2 and 3? (Yes, that was on purpose.) Which is why this famous musician strolled into the practice room, took the piano, and performed "What's Going On" with the Ellington students. It was pretty darn groovy.

My Heart-to-Heart with John Legend

After the big surprise, I had a whopping five-minute interview with John Legend that I sneakily stretched to seven minutes with my charm and charisma (laughter). We all know that Mr. Legend has been very outspoken when it comes to data, accountability and testing, which didn't make much sense to me because he's an artist. And the arts are what's being slashed because of data, accountability and testing (scratching my head). Well, I had the chance to ask him personally, one-to-one, mano-a-mano, which was a pretty cool opportunity.

Turns out, he "believes that testing is important, but it shouldn't be a sole determinate on how a school is run." Mr. Legend continued, telling me that he's worked with a few schools around the country that properly prepare students for the test, but also provide art and physical education classes. "[These schools] haven't given up on what makes healthy, well-rounded young people for the sake of doing well on the test. You don't have to choose. You can do both." False funding choices in political debates seem to bother him the most. "We shouldn't have to be choosing between two things that are very essential [arts or testing]. We should be funding all of them."

The Seeds of Social Change

Yes, I had a great experience. I interviewed a famous musician. I was personally escorted around the Kennedy Center. (The red carpets that lined most of the halls reminded me of the movie, The Shining. I kept picturing twin girls at the end of each corridor.) I saw and heard students passionate about music. I spoke to teachers who believe in the arts and witness its saving grace every single day. I watched a cool little campaign flap its wings and lift off of the ground in the name of social change.

Momentum begins with a single step. The What's Going On campaign is a step in the right direction. It's momentum. John Legend sitting in on a high school concert practice is momentum. You, teacher friend, giving a high five to a reluctant learner is momentum. Eating lunch with your class is momentum. They're all equally important.

So, brothers and sisters, when we can, let's add to the momentum. And I guess we should all make a conscious effort to pause every now and again to look around and think -- What's Going On . . . Now.

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  • Diversity
  • Arts
  • Social Studies/History
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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