From One Love to Redemption Song
Today, Bob Marley continues to mesmerise, though he has been dead for decades. But an interesting part of the Marley mystique is his religion. Most people know him as a Rastafarian. However, it seems there was something else.
Robert Nesta Marley was born in Nine Miles, St Ann, in 1945. Transcending the humility of his rural beginnings, he became a million-selling recording artiste whose pleas for brotherhood, justice and peace commanded worldwide attention.
Few have attained the level of fame Marley did in his short time on this earth. Marley's 'world stage' was a true one; as a performer whose sensibilities were thoroughly enmeshed in the developing world - his world - Marley addressed poverty, racism, and the loss of cultural identity. In other words, he sang about issues that mattered to people just like him.
Bob Marley died in 1981 of cancer at age 36. He had just been awarded Jamaica's third-highest civil honour, the Order of Merit.
A New York funeral service at which Abuna Yesehaq of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church presided drew a large congregation of mourners, including his mother, Cedella. In Jamaica, the funeral procession carrying him to a hillside mausoleum at Nine Miles stretched more than 50 miles. His lyrics are now being studied by students and professors in universities all over the world. And his 1984 album, Legend, is still one of the all-time top-sellers.
Who would have thought that all this could have come out of Trench Town?
At an early age, Marley would have been immersed in the revival forms of Christianity practised by those who rejected the authority of the mainstream churches. Trench Town, immortalised in Trench Town Rock, and No Woman No Cry, was Bob's first home in Kingston. In communities like Trench Town, God was never far away. The people believed in worship, and Sundays would always see them at their places of worship.
It is from these beginnings that the young Bob Marley got his early sense of religion. Indeed, it is likely that One Love, the Song of the Millennium, sprang from a chorus he would have heard sung in his early environment. This song, completely free of Rastafarian ideology, had purely Christian references: "Let's get together to join this Holy Armageddon, So when the Man come, there'll be no more doom" - One Love.
But the environment changed and the country changed, and the Rastafarian movement that had begun in 1938, attracting marginalised young men and women, enveloped Marley who, in his mid-20s, became its most ardent supporter. The movement took its name from Ras Tafari, or Prince Tafari Makonnen, who became Haile Selassie I.
Despised as outcasts, Rastafarians became artisans, sculptors and singers. Calling marijuana the wisdom weed, they defend its use as a sacrament. They were ardent students of the Bible, especially the Old Testament, and they identified Selassie as God.
But Selassie, a practising member of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, visited Jamaica in 1966 and, much to the dismay of the Rastafarians, told them that he was not God.
To underscore the point, Selassie sent Abuna Yesehaq to work with the Rastafarians and establish the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Jamaica. On arrival, Abuna made nutrition one of his first concerns. The Rastafarian diet was short on protein for most 'bunned' pork, and many would eat no meat at all. The Abuna found a solution. Pork was cheap and plentiful. Why not baptise it and rename it, as is done in baptismal rites?
The new name was 'Arnold'. This was captured in a popular song by the Ethiopians called 'No Baptism', in which the resistance of the Rastafarians to Christian baptism and to pork was clearly evident. "Them bless pork and call it Arnold ... Iyah no want no baptism," the song declared.
At the height of his Rastafarianism, Marley sometimes had some harsh lyrics that seemed to attack the Church. Here are examples from three songs:
Talking Blues: "I feel like bombing a church, 'cause I know that the preacher is lying."
Babylon System: "Building church and university, Deceiving the people continuously, Graduating thieves and murderers, Sucking the blood of the sufferers."
One Drop: "You fi give us the teachings of His Majesty, We no want no Devil philosophy."
But what he was attacking was the deceit and oppression of the class system that consigned so many to poverty.
It was the 1974 album, Natty Dread, that seemed to mark Bob's move to the Rastafarian sect. By this time, he had grown the dreadlocks that are the badge of the Rastas who found biblical authority for their locks in the Nazarene vow from the Old Testament, a vow that Gideon and Sampson took. A song on this album was So Jah Seh, a simple, powerful statement of conviction wrapped in both the Christian and Rastafarian persuasions that attended Marley's life.
But it was more Rastafarian than Christian. Note the defiance and the use of the title Jah.
"So Jah say: Not one o' my seed shall sit on the sidewalk and beg your bread - so Jah say."
But the album went further, with songs like Revolution, Dem Belly Full But We Hungry and Talking Blues. The last began: "Cold ground was my bed last night, and rock was my pillow too," which immediately struck a chord throughout Jamaica. Both rich and poor began to sit up and take notice - the rich in concern, the poor in hope.
When Emperor Haile Selassie died in August 1975, Marley quickly released Jah Lives, a statement reassuring the Rastas of Selassie's deity and immortality, despite his death. But the song, Jamming, released in 1977, showed a bit of ambivalence; it appeals both to 'the Lord' and to 'Jah' - or did he think that Selassie, Jah, was the Lord. And who exactly is the 'Jah' that "sitteth in Mount Zion and rules all creation"?
Whatever the impetus, by 1980, three years later, Marley was converted and baptised by Abuna Yesehaq as a Christian in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, taking the baptismal name of Berhane Selassie (Light of the Trinity) and being known to his close friends as 'Joseph'. The Abuna says Marley cried copiously and without restraint at his baptism. The next year (1981), Marley died in Miami, on his way home to Jamaica.
Interestingly, it would seem that many of the biblical lyrics found in the early Marley songs were from the Old Testament. But it was the New Testament that featured in his final days.
The song Marley released just before his death was Redemption Song. Was Marley seeking redemption? Redemption is a central concept in Christian theology. It is the action of saving or being saved from sin, error, or evil.
It is a song of a great artiste looking back at his life, at the road he had travelled, at the recognition finally of who he is. It was sung with no accompaniment except his own guitar. It has nothing at all to do with Rastafarianism. Not a word about Jah. Instead it speaks of triumph over slavery, of Christian principles, of redemption and of strength by the hand of the Almighty. He goes further and says these songs of freedom were all he ever had. And he invites the world to come and sing with him his simple redemption song.
"Old pirates, yes, they rob I
Sold I to the merchant ships
Minutes after they took I
From the bottomless pit.
But my hand was made strong
By the hand of the Almighty.
We forward in this generation triumphantly.
Won't you help me sing
These songs of freedom?
They're all I ever had -
- Ewart Walters is an author and journalist. His latest book, 'We Come From Jamaica: The National Movement 1937-1962', was published last year to critical acclaim and is available in bookstores and pharmacies in Jamaica.