Bob Marley as national hero
There is no superlative adequate to describe Bob Marley's genius and artistry. There is an ineffability about his artistic greatness and prophetic appeal. A couple of days after his 70th birthday, one of the greatest artistes of all times commands attention from this columnist. History would not absolve me if I did otherwise.
Marley does not need my endorsement. No less a media giant than the BBC, from the homeland of his former colonisers, dubbed his song One Love the anthem of the millennium. I did not say century. I said millennium. Time magazine, America's leading newsweekly, chose his album Exodus as the best album of the 20th century. The New York Times, regarded as the world's most prestigious newspaper, called Marley "the most influential artist of the latter half of the 20th century".
The commodification of Bob Marley and the exploitation of his name to simply promote Brand Jamaica, I must 'blood'. Marley is being exploited by people whose values radically clash with his own. If they took the time to listen beyond One Love they would see that Marley 'cramp and paralyse' their idolatrous attachment to things and possessions. There has been a systematic campaign to de-radicalise Marley, to drain his lyrics of their revolutionary impact and to sanitise him as a good boy serving the interests and values of capitalism.
It is safe to lionise Marley now, for we are over the radical '60s and '70s. It is safe to cull those lovey-dovey parts of Marley and to market that to the world in Brand Jamaica promotion, diluting the radical, anti-Establishment message in Burnin and Lootin, Them Belly Full (But We Hungry), Heathen, Concrete Jungle, Rebel Music, Small Axe, Stiff-Necked Fools, Crazy Baldhead, Jump Nyabinghi and, of course, Rat Race.
In the height of the Cold War in the 1970s as the forces of capitalism, represented by the United States, and those of communism, represented by the Soviet Union, were fighting for the power for they knew not the hour, Marley represented that Third Way - that deeply nationalistic, non-aligned spirit that spoke against those isms and schisms.
Our intellectuals here in the 1970s had arrayed themselves largely in the Soviet Marxist camp. Rejecting their foreign ideology, Bob said defiantly, "Give us the teachings of His Majesty; we no want no devil philosophy," a clear reference to communism. (But he also said in Rat Race, 'Rasta no work for no CIA'.) Which brings up a deep source of Bob's influence, which is not given much attention in the scholarly literature: The influence of the Bible on Bob. Of course, we all know that Bob was influenced by Rastafari, which was heavily influenced by Bible.
A most fascinating scholarly book was published in 2013, which explores the deep influence of the Bible on Bob. Titled The Bible and Bob Marley: Half the Story Has Never Been Told, it is written by a
theologian - Dean MacNeil - who has worked in the music industry for decades. The book notes that of the 400 books written on Bob Marley up to then (yes, it has been that many!) not one had dealt specifically with the Bible and Bob Marley, though other scholars had done work on the religion of Bob Dylan, the Beatles and U2.
MacNeil does an excellent job of quoting Bob's lyrics and showing allusions to scriptural passages. The book is absolutely fascinating. And no Marley scholar should be without it. Most of Bob's lyrics come from the Bible's Wisdom literature - the Psalms and the Proverbs, mostly the former. The theologian also goes into Revelation and the Pauline corpus to analyse Bob's message.
Many secularists have no interest in exploring the biblical influences on Bob, preferring to see the Bible as mostly having a negative influence and being a brake on development and progressive thought. So they fail to take seriously how this book has aided revolutionary causes, choosing only to focus on how 'the white man' and 'oppressors' have 'used the Bible to hold back black people and progress'.
Those who knew Bob best, though, had no doubt about how seriously he took the Bible and how it shaped his world view.
Stephen Davis, in his book Bob Marley, says: "Bob would often consult and quote from the weathered Bible he carried with him." The Bible and Bob Marley quotes Vivien Goldman, who toured with The Wailers, as observing, "Bob never went anywhere without his old King James Bible. Personalised with photos of Haile Selassie, it would lie open beside him, a ribbon marking the place as he played his guitar by candlelight in whatever city he found himself. He had a way of isolating himself with the book, withdrawing from the other laughing musicians on the tour bus to ponder a particular passage, then challenging his bredren to debate it vigorously as if they were playing soccer."
In Small Axe, Bob does his creative adaptation of Psalm 52:1, changing "mighty man" to "evil men:
"Why boasteth thyself, oh evil men
Playing smart and not being clever
I say you're working iniquity to achieve vanity
But the goodness of Jah Jah idureth for Iver."
Small Axe resonates with courage, hope and defiance in the face of exploitation. It expresses hope of good over evil. It rejects learned helplessness. (Of course, it was partially aimed at the Big Three record companies Marley felt were not dispensing justice - Dynamic, Federal and Studio One). The small axe did, indeed, outstrip the then Big Three and strode the world stage without them!
Talking about songs of hope and inspiration, here's another of my favourites, Rastaman Live Up:
"Rastaman live up, bongo man don't give up
Keep your culture, don't be afraid of the vulture"
Stand up for what you believe, no matter the cost, no matter what Babylon says. Don't bow. Today, too many are bowing, giving in for just material gain and vanity. Bob says, don't sell out your principles. These are strange values today, uptown and downtown. Both have sold out to Babylon. This is a nihilistic, dog-eat-dog era. Disgracefully, we have moved in the music from Bob to Bop (Gully)! It's a decadence that I have deplored and despised publicly for decades.
When I want to get on a spiritual high, I go to Bob's music. I remember preparing for theological lectures and immersing myself in Marley music to build a vibes. Whenever I need a spiritual lift, I reach for Marley music. (And I am an ardent early Wailers, slow-beat fan, too!)
There is a spiritual force, an inexpressible spiritual energy that exudes from Marley's music that is absolutely mystical. My own musical idol, Rocksteady King Alton Ellis, is quoted in Chris Salewicz's book Bob Marley: The Untold Story as saying: "Bob's sound was always different. It mesmerised me from then. His music always has a sense of direction. Not even just the words I am talking about sound, the melody that him sing, the feel of the rhythm. Always ... different." In a galaxy of his own.
Bob Marley was a secular prophet whose vision of justice, liberation and redemption was similar to the biblical prophets. For most Jamaicans, his sexual promiscuity, marital infidelity and ganja smoking would not make him a candidate for the next national hero. But Bob in the popular culture and among spiritually aware progressives is already a national hero. He needs no accreditation from the Babylonian state to declare him so.
I wish our youth would play Rat Race every day to get their goals right. And to those holding down poor people, I recommend Guiltiness.
"Guiltiness rest on your conscience, oh yeah"
The Gong cannot die! Long live the Gong!