After the Dance

What do you do when you discover the art that has inspired you most is rooted in harm?

I grew up on the Black music of the 1970s and 1980s in my grandparents’ house. They were so nostalgic about the beautifully diverse music that they enjoyed in their youth, providing much of my introduction to the artists that I still love to this day. As a little girl, I was delighted by listening to all of the flavors of the different genres that were crafted from the rambunctious energy of the post-Vietnam war nation. Through the smoothness of the instrumental arrangements and lyrics, these records turned me into an old soul with a deep appreciation for the sounds of the past at a young age. 

As I grew up, I was able to forge my own musical tastes based upon the wide musical knowledge gifted to me by my grandparents. My song choices provided me with a beautiful soundtrack for the different moments of my life. I learned to be a hopeless romantic from the dreamy funk music of Earth, Wind, and Fire. As a writer, I resonated deeply with the poetic descriptiveness of Stevie Wonder’s soul anthems. I even spent many a night pretending to be Donna Summer belting “Hot Stuff” like a diva in my bedroom. These musicians and many others maintained a sacred spot in my music catalogue. They coexisted alongside alternative rock, rap and even indie tracks as my taste matured with my teenage years.

Like every other teen, I spent my teenage years searching for the pieces of my personality. The summer before my senior year of high school, I wanted my tastes to reflect my perceived maturity. Initially, I filled this space with the sultriness of ‘90s R&B. Though I enjoyed the music, it didn’t feel the same as the old soul. During a summer visit to my grandparents, I accidentally stumbled upon a musical goldmine in the form of an almost-perfect vinyl of Marvin Gaye’s albumI Want You. I was initially drawn to the cover art on the record, which depicted a smoky juke joint populated by hypnotized dancers, but the music entranced me. I Want You provided a perfect soundtrack to my adolescent drama.

I Want You is a musical masterpiece. Released in 1976 after the commercial success of his album Let’s Get It On, the album is a heavy ode to the complexities of love and lust. It is a manically passionate piece that conveys these themes through the arrangement of instruments and lyrics. The songs are secretive, yet suggestive, with evocations of a fiery courtship. Every note within the songs has an intention, all the way down to the smallest cymbal. When I listened to this album, I could feel Gaye’s deep longing even in the solely instrumental songs. I Want You became an important staple in my musical rotation because of the melodic euphoria that it induced. I cherished the album and it stuck as one of my all-time favorites. 

Last year while absently scrolling on Facebook, a Button Poetry video on my feed caught my eye. It was a performance by Denver-based slam poet Suzi Q. Smith of her spoken word piece “Mustangs,” which opens with Smith singing the opening lyrics to Gaye’s bedroom anthem Let’s Get It On. Smith opens the poem with a line that stopped me dead in my tracks and sent me on a tailspin of rediscovery. 

“Janis Hunter was a 17-year-old high school student when 34-year-old Marvin Gaye crooned her open,” she breathed effortlessly, pausing to sit in the weight of her words. Smith utilizes her poem to explain the sexualization that teenage girls are subjected to at the hands of adult men, accurately pinning several music legends as abusers. 

Immediately after listening to “Mustangs,” I made a beeline to Gaye’s Wikipedia page. Reading the section about his turbulent personal life, I was unsettled to find out that Gaye’s second wife Janis Hunter-Gaye was a minor with a troubled past when they met in Gaye’s mid-thirties. She gave birth to their first child at 18 and married Gaye at 21, divorcing him before her thirtieth birthday. During her marriage, Hunter-Gaye was subjected to mental and physical abuse stemming from Gaye’s addiction and mental health issues, but her suffering is ignored when Gaye’s life story is told. Hunter-Gaye served as the muse for I Want You with Marvin pouring his licentious views of a then-19-year-old Hunter-Gaye into every single track on the album. 

It sickened me to find out that I had spent years listening to the album, blissfully unaware of the existence of Hunter-Gaye. Her story had been ripped from her hands and laid out on a piece of pressed vinyl for the world to hear without giving a second thought to the woman that gave Gaye his twisted inspiration. It is often said that you are not truly dead until someone utters your name for the last time.

In the musical world, Janis Hunter-Gaye was never granted life because her name was never brought to the table. Instead, because of her husband, she is a ghost shrouded in the anonymity of being a “muse.” 

What does it say about our society when teenage girls that were groomed by famous men are not given space to heal as women? Why are male legacies more important than these women’s hopes, dreams and truths? When we let men get away with raining destruction over young women’s lives, how can we expect girls to know how to create relationships that aren’t built upon abuse of power? These women have had their voices stolen, as well as dismissed as “cash grabs” as opposed to genuine tales of survival. These questions will remain unanswered until we begin to hold patriarchal institutions and the men that wield them for nefarious acts against women accountable. We must boycott their behaviors of the past for a future where women are able to tell their stories without reproach.

“I Want You” has exited my usual rotation of old soul classics. There is no more passion in an album derived from another woman’s pain. Hunter-Gaye is only one of the countless young girls that are forever memorialized in the art created by the famous men that took advantage of them. So, I’ve done away with Marvin. I moved to uplift Janis’ voice instead. Since he was never held accountable for his treatment of her, I’ve decided to hold space for her by not interacting with a direct piece of her soul bared by her abuser. I just bought a copy of her autobiography to understand her more than this world has tried to. This article is for Janis and others who were silenced under the stardom of another. I uplift their voices instead. 

Header image by Phoebe Nerem