Marvin Gaye
Soul singer and songwriter Marvin Gaye at Golden West Studios in 1973 in Los Angeles, California (Photo by Jim Britt/Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images)

While many African Americans had serious reservations about the Vietnam War (1966-1973), Black artists produced songs inspired by activism.

The controversial war divided Americans politically, socially and culturally and cost more than $120 billion, contributed to widespread inflation during the time the U.S. participated in it, and severely heightened the Cold War tensions with the Soviet Union, according to a HistoryHit article. The torn feelings and tragic outcomes are in the numbers: more than 503,000 U.S. military personnel deserted between 1966 and 1973, and according to the American War Library, 7,262 Blacks lost their lives fighting in Vietnam. 

Music served a form of protest.

C.R. Gibbs, a District historian, said the songs played an important part of the Black consciousness towards the war.

“The songs educated Blacks about the war,” Gibbs, 73, said. “Even brothers in the barracks were listening to the songs and really taking them in. They were listening for the message.”

Below are a few songs Black artists produced that reflect the emotions behind the conflict, and, due to their catchy popularity at the time, influenced African American opinions on the war.

‘War’ by Edwin Starr

Released in 1979, “War” by Edwin Starr emerged as one of the most popular anti-war tunes during that era. The Temptations originally recorded it in 1969, but Motown officials opted for Starr’s version for mass distribution because they didn’t want to offend the group’s following among moderate Americans. The Starr version reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1970 and is recognized by music scholars as one of the most popular protest songs ever recorded. 

“War” was one of 161 songs on the no-play list issued by Clear Channel following the events of September 11, 2001. 

Starr earned a Grammy nomination in 1971 for the song in the “Best R&B Male Vocal.” In 1999, Starr’s recording of the song received induction into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

‘Bring the Boys Home’ by Freda Payne

“Bring the Boys Home” released in 1971 by rhythm and blues singer Freda Payne became public at a time when American boys’ remains came back to the U.S. in body bags from Vietnam. Payne reportedly thought up the song when she found out that a higher-than-normal number of soldiers returning in body bags were African American, with the average age at 20 years old.

Payne’s song received a lot of air time nationally but was eventually banned by the American Forces Network, saying it benefitted the enemy.

Billboard’s May 22 issue of 1971 named it the best new record of the week. By July 10, 1971, the single reached number four on the Billboard soul singles chart. “Bring the Boys Home” spent 13 weeks on the Hot 100, peaking at No. 12.

‘What’s Going On’ by Marvin Gaye

The song, “What’s Going On” got into the hands of Gaye in 1970 after considerable discussion among Motown executives and artists. Gaye tweaked the song by adding a new melody and making other revisions. Gaye’s version was inspired by his concern for the unrest in the country, starting with the Watt’s uprising in 1965. The Vietnam War became a focus in the song due to Gaye’s conversations about the conflict with his brother, Frankie, who served in the military.

“What’s Going On” was nominated for two Grammy Awards in 1972 including Best Male R&B Vocal Performance and Best Arrangement Accompanying Vocalists. In 2004 and 2010, “What’s Going On” was ranked fourth on the Rolling Stone list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time,” making it the highest Gaye song on the list. The song is included in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll list.

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