For art enthusiasts and aficionados, a question often put forward by life but whose answering is creatively postponed by all is: do you separate the art from the artist?
In other words, we are being asked if we believe that the beauty that emanates from a work of art is representative of the temperament and character of the artist.
Are they as morally good as their works are beautiful? Implicit in this question is the judgement of who they are.
In many ways than one, this is a question that can be asked about Marvin Gaye’s legacy. But in answering, we will find out that “good” and “beautiful” were not easy to define in Gaye’s world.
He seemed like a haunted man who still managed to churn out hits; and lived as best as a dysfunctional family and superstar status could afford him.
The legendary musician was born Marvin Pentz Gay Jr in 1939 to a church minister father and a domestic worker mother. The second of four kids between his parents, Gaye was a church singer starting from around four.
In Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye, a 1991 biography about the singer, author David Ritz noted that Gaye’s growing up consisted of his father’s “brutal whippings” for wrongdoings.
Ritz also records that Gaye thought of life with his father as “living with a king, a very peculiar, changeable, cruel, and all-powerful king”. From the onset, we get the picture that the senior Marvin was a man who demanded respect and made sure he got it.
Ritz tells the story on page 13 as Gaye had narrated: “If it wasn’t for Mother, who was always there to console me and praise me for my singing, I think I would have been one of those child suicide cases you read about in the papers”.
Gaye’s story is that of a man molded by violence and this characterised his relationship between himself, others and particularly, Marvin Sr.
Gaye can be seen as a man who had constantly been running away from the volatility of his childhood and not just an acrimonious relationship with his father.
When he became famous, the singer added an “e” to his last name Gay because of questions of his sexuality and jokes kids had made of him while he was a boy.
It was also known that his father was a crossdresser, a fact that escalated the comically misplaced homophobic taunts of Gaye.
He also dropped out of school and joined the US Air Force as a teenager only to change his mind later and feign mental illness to avoid doing menial tasks.
By 23, success had come for Gaye. Although he was in a group, his solo tune, Stubborn Kind of Fellow, reached number 8 on US R&B charts. This would mark the beginning of two decades of building and cementing his globally recognisable image as a sex symbol.
Gaye had been thrust into the limelight from an abusive upbringing. But in one or two aspects, the situations were similar and seemed like an unadulterated continuum.
If life under Marvin Sr was hapless and mournful, becoming a superstar made Gaye happy and triumphant. His fame, to him, seemed like a man who had wrestled and overcome his childhood; a deserving winner.
The other aspect Gaye found out was that the world of fame did not hold much in meaning as he would have loved. Indeed, fame and popularity were not that different from his childhood: you are brutally punished by expectations and responsibilities so much so sometimes you need to go into exile in Europe.
Drug and alcohol dependency was the way for Gaye to cope. And it would seem the emotional and physical abuse that Marvin Sr. showed him, Gaye learned.
According to his former wife Janis Hunter, Gaye once forced her to have sex with a couple while he looked and cheered on. She did not like it but he did.
He’d later tell her: “To watch purity turn to perversity is a fascinating thing. You were once my angel. But now you have fallen. And yes, I do admit, it is exciting to watch you fall”.
Gaye went on to win two Grammys and a host of other recognitions all the while torturing the mother of his kids and snorting as much cocaine as he could find.
He was not a happy man because we know he attempted suicide at least, three times.
He was not groomed for the glitz and glamour and by all accounts of his life, Gaye did not have the love and affection that would have kept him grounded in the chaos.
His last album, Midnight Love, is, by all means, a testament to his genius. But the situation within which he produced that album is the more defining theme of Gaye’s life.
For Gaye, the moments of life – the nasty, brutish, beautiful and pure – were essentially coming from the same source: him and his clamour for self-determination.
In all of this, Gaye’s relationship with his father deteriorated. Some said his father was jealous of his son’s success and others thought the son felt he could now hit back like a man when daddy struck.
Some also said that Gaye’s Christian preacher father did not like the kind of songs he sang.
Whatever it is, a misunderstanding over a misplaced insurance policy was all it took for Marvin Sr. to shoot and kill his son with a gun that he had bought his father. A day before Gaye turned 45.
His brother Frankie said Gaye told him while dying: “I got what I wanted… I couldn’t do it myself, so I had him do it… it’s good, I ran my race, there’s no more left in me”.
If his parting words are something to go by, it explains the enigma that was Marvin Gaye. Maybe without the madness of the artists, we would not have had the magic of his art.