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On his 80th birthday, Marvin Gaye gets commemorative stamp

Portrait by Kadir Nelson represents the ‘What’s Going On’ era

Don’t be surprised if you hear Marvin Gaye songs blaring in your local post office Tuesday. A commemorative stamp of the Motown star is being released just in time for his birthday on April 2. He would have been 80. The “Prince of Soul” Forever Postage Stamp is to be part of the U.S. Postal Service’s 2019 Music Icons collection and will be unveiled at a first-day-of-issue dedication at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles.

Many of Gaye’s fans have known about the stamp since the Postal Service announcement in November. What’s less well-known are all the steps needed to make it to happen. The process took several years and involved many people.

For Carla M. Johnson, who has been advocating for Gaye’s stamp for about six years, April 2 will be extra special.

“I love Marvin because he’s a genius,” she said. “He deserves a stamp just like Ray Charles, Jimi Hendrix or Janis Joplin.” Johnson, a native of Charlotte, North Carolina, was in her early teens when the legendary singer died. Although she never met him, the now 48-year-old superfan says his lyrics about issues in inner cities, substance abuse and mental health are as relevant now as they were when he was alive. She pushed for the stamp to preserve and honor Gaye’s legacy.

“He is just as important and deserving as other artists of having the government honor him. I wanted to show that you can pursue a goal and make it happen,” Johnson said.

“I love Marvin because he’s a genius. He deserves a stamp just like Ray Charles, Jimi Hendrix or Janis Joplin.” — Carla M. Johnson.

According to Johnson, there have been three attempts to get the singer’s portrait on a stamp. Johnson took her shot in 2014 when she established the nonprofit Unity in the Community and launched her Marvin Gaye USPS Stamp Initiative. Through Unity in the Community, Johnson sent letters to the Postal Service, collected signatures online from fans around the world and hosted events in Detroit; Washington, D.C.; and Memphis, Tennessee. Johnson said the other two campaigns were led by the Motown Alumni Association in 2006 and Ron Brewington, national vice president of the Motown Alumni Association, in 2003.

When the Postal Service announced the stamp had been approved, Johnson saw it as a collective effort and win. The stamps will be sold in panes of 16 and won’t be sold individually.

“Everybody played a role. We were the ones who brought it back out. We played an intricate role in making this happen. We made our voices heard,” she said. But she wondered why it took so long.

Maureen P. Marion, manager of Northeast area corporate communications for the Postal Service, said people should expect the stamp approval process to take years. The Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee, which works with but is not a part of the Postal Service, reviews applications and selects the designs and portraits that become stamps.

“It usually takes several years for multiple reasons. The committee receives around 30,000 requests per year,” she said. Once it likes an idea for a stamp, the committee has to talk to families and estates to determine whether it can get the rights to print and which images they can use.

The stamp selection criteria are extensive. Primarily, the Postal Service is looking to honor people who have made extraordinary and enduring contributions to American society, history, culture or the environment. Anyone wanting to submit a petition has to do so in writing, by U.S. mail.

One of the last steps in the stamp portrait process is the artwork. Kadir Nelson, the artist who designed Gaye’s stamp portrait, said it’s “classic Marvin Gaye.” It was drawn from a picture taken around the time he created the album What’s Going On. The stamp pane features a brief biography and an image of a record poking out of the sleeve.

“I’m grateful to all the people who petitioned for the stamp and to the Gaye family for inviting me to do the artwork for the stamp and to the Postal Service for bringing me on board,” said Nelson. Besides being a fan of the Motown music icon, Nelson, 44, has been creating portraits and drawings of Gaye since 2001. He’ll attend Tuesday’s dedication ceremony in Los Angeles.

The Postal Service’s Music Icons series was launched in 2013 and has honored a pantheon of musical greats, including Elvis Presley, John Lennon and Sarah Vaughan.

Eryn Mathewson is the editorial coordinator for the Rhoden Fellows program. She enjoys coaching young journalists, writing and producing podcasts. When she's not working, she's probably running or watching "bad" TV.