09/30/2014 12:14 pm ET Updated Nov 30, 2014

Makes Me Wanna Holler (Or, When the Music Is the Message)

I had the opportunity recently to attend, with my wife and some close friends, a John Legend concert special dedicated to the music of the ever-soulful Marvin Gaye. I'm no music critic, but as a decades-long fan of Marvin Gaye, John Legend was simply phenomenal.

In addition to the musical tribute, Legend added an element of social consciousness to the performance as well, by integrating performances by young spoken word artists. In the aftermath of the Ferguson, Missouri tragedy, the messages of Marvin Gaye's music, the youthful spoken word poets, and the shooting demise of young Michael Brown yielded a powerful mix of music and message about social justice. And a gut-wrenching reminder of how far our society must go.

For me -- and the 60th birthday I just celebrated -- the evening was largely nostalgic and inspiring. But there was a sadness as well, as I began to reflect on my generation's experience of music and message: Gaye, Hendrix, Santana, War, Richie Havens, Joni Mitchell. My generation raged about injustice, and racism, and poverty -- and pledged to "fix it" when we got around to being in charge. A sampling of lyrics from Marvin Gaye's "Inner City Blues/Make Me Wanna Holler":

"Rockets, Moonshots...
Spend it on - The Have-nots...."

Four decades later and our nation spends billions and billions on B-1 bombers and satellite missile systems, but we can barely scrape together, in relative terms, two federal nickels to fight poverty.

With respect to community violence, Marvin Gaye tells it plainly in "What's Going On":

"Mother, Mother,
There's too many of you cryin'
Brother, Brother, Brother
There's far too many of you dyin'..."

Forty years later, and African-Amercan male homicide rates in urban communities are still 15-fold higher than in white males.

Prescient of the Ferguson, Missouri events, and from the very same "What's Going On" tune:

"Picket lines, and picket signs,
Don't punish me with brutality
Talk to me, so you can see
What's Goin' On...."

And again from "Inner City Blues/Makes Me Wanna Holler":

"Crime is increasing
Trigger-happy policing
Panic is spreading
God knows where we're heading...."

Marvin Gaye issues a plea for dialogue, and conversation, and listening -- particularly for the voices of those who are not heard or recognized: the marginalized, the poor, and the struggling among us. The message to law enforcement and policymakers: more caring, less Kevlar. Today's young spoken word and musical artists are echoing the same message, and as a civic leader carrying some burden of responsibility for today's sentiments of disengagement and disenfranchisement, shame on my generation for not doing much better -- even 40 years later. Study after study reveals that financial inequality has grown worse in recent decades.

Perhaps, in the absence of some great generational crisis being dropped in our lap, we grew too safe and comfy in the zones we inhabit. My parents' generation weathered the Great Depression, defeated Nazi Germany, and ushered in the civil rights movement. My generation frets over whether or not to purchase the newest iPhone.

Even as an enduring optimist, I am troubled that the ability, capacity, and resolve of my generation to address poverty, hopelessness, and inequality in our nation will simply fall short. In which case we have a decision to make from one of two options: fight like hell now, or build the capacity of the generations who follow to do better than we did. Or do both.

A more contemporary musical artist, Seal, suggests that in order to restore hope and optimism -- in order to "survive" -- we have to get a little "crazy." But he also asserts how discomforting this approach can be:

"In a world full of people
Only some want to fly
In a sky full of people
Only some want to fly
Isn't that crazy..."

John Legend's musical tribute to Marvin Gaye was a thoroughly entertaining evening, but also brought me inspiration and discomfort in equal measure. Short memo to my generational counterparts on efforts to combat poverty and inequality: whatever we are doing is simply not enough. Might be time, as Seal suggests, to get "crazy" with new strategies.

I believe the young spoken word artists, and the generation they represent, are telling us something quite timely and very real. My generation needs to hear it -- and act on it.