New York university teaches Marley

Published: Sunday | January 6, 2013 Comments 0
Bob Marley
Bob Marley

Deon Brown, Gleaner Writer

New York:

The life and times of Bob Marley and his influence on post-colonial music is the focus of a course being offered this month at the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, part of New York University's (NYU) Tisch School of Arts in lower Manhattan.

It has long been argued that Marley's music provides a lifetime of learning. That it should now take up residence in a university setting may well be the natural order of things.

Robert Nesta Marley, after all, belongs to a pantheon of international artistes whose art and work contributed to the ideas of the 20th century and have certainly assisted in shaping the 21st.

The course 'Bob Marley & Post-Colonial Music' is being taught by Vivien Goldman, known in NYU circles as the 'punk professor' for her initial offering of a course on punk and other pop music phenomena.

Goldman, a British citizen, author and former journalist, comes to the subject of Bob with an inside knowledge, having worked closely with him for many years and was there when reggae was but a quaint novelty known only overseas to West Indians and hipsters.

Spirit of reggae

As a young university student in Britain, Goldman was attracted to the activism spirit of reggae, and after graduating took a job in the early 1970s at Island Records where she had responsibility for promotions and pushed to get a then unknown Marley and other reggae artistes to mainstream audiences.

She later took a full-time writing position at a music paper where she continued to cover the reggae beat, travelling with Marley, the rising star, watching him in the studio and at home, and writing from inside the movement.

"I was on fire about reggae. Bob was so brilliant. He was a man I was able to get to know and break bread with," Goldman recalled in an interview.  "As a witness to history during this formative period, I was privileged to see these extraordinary culture-changing events."

What she was witnessing up close was this nascent island music's global ascent. She has subsequently written two books on Marley and continues to cover Afro-Caribbean and global music.

The course is a three-week intensive winter programme that is open to anyone with a high-school diploma and offers applicable credits.

Goldman has taught similar unconventional courses at the Clive Davis Institute where she has been an adjunct professor for some seven years.

Previous topics covered include Reggae Music & Island Records and the music of African sensation Fela Kuti.

The Institute has turned conventional learning on its head by its active pursuit of new, experimental topics which have proven to be extremely popular. The Bob Marley course even got mentioned on NBC's comedy special, Saturday Night Live a few weeks ago.

History and culture

The course content will examine Jamaica's history and culture and its connection with Britain, Marley's evolution as a musician, his creative partnerships, the business of his music, and his commitment to Pan-Africanism and Rastafari as a way of life.

Bob Marley's music is the sonic telling of a nation's story. The arc of his work reflects the evolution of experiences and the emerging self of a Jamaica transitioning from 300 years of colonial rule into the determined stance of Independence.

Like other musicians of his generation, Marley started out sampling mento and ska, Jamaican early native music and experimented with Black American R&B before finding his own sound.

With reggae, he became an original voice of an Independent Jamaica whose music was helping to shape its identity and giving it worldwide recognition.

Reggae's richness was the intensity of its sound and message. This was a music with attitude, force and meaning.

The audacity was in its beat and rhythm; the revolution in its spirituality, politics and psychology; the bonding chord in its humanity - in its global call for peace, love, equality, justice and righteousness.

That it emerged in the 1960s - a period weighted with the politics of oppression and the decolonisation movement - made it the music of its times - connecting with oppressed people in not just the African diaspora but audiences everywhere concerned with ideas of fair play and justice.

Goldman stresses Bob Marley and reggae's power as a unifying force.

"Bob awoke so many people to the ideas of Garvey and Rasta. He built the bridge within the Pan-African community without excluding people of other races. It is huge that he struck that balance with black empowerment and at the same time got out that message of unity with everyone. We all tuned into that idea of higher self and empathy for others. For me, reggae is personal."

What is revolutionary about reggae as well is not just its global reach but its impact on the former colonising power, Great Britian.

Jamaica's honoured folklorist Louise Bennett said it best - 'Colonization in Reverse' she called her poem about West Indian immigrants' impact on the United Kingdom in the Post World War Two years.

Reggae, the loudest expression of Jamaican culture, has burrowed deep into Britain's cultural space and psyche.

"I was one of a large generation that was shaped by Jamaican culture," says Goldman, who is of Jewish ancestry, and was born and raised in England.

"It was the culture that did the work. People in the UK were indoctrinated and changed by Jamaican culture without ever getting to the island. It was a kind of cultural colonisation that happened after colonisation," she observed.

"I wonder if Jamaica realises how phenomenally influential it has been on English culture?" the reggae lover opined.

"In dance music, rave music, warehouse music. They would never have happened if not for first-wave, post-war Jamaican immigrants bringing with them their insistence on having a good time in a rather drab post-war England. Reggae has seeded so many other forms - punk, rap, hip hop, Spanish music - reggaeton."

Bob Marley and his musical cohorts have grandfathered it all.

In early roots reggae we hear the purest form of the musical dynamism that revolutionised the world.

The university course at NYU's Clive Davis Institute is a nod to Marley's greatness and the continued impact of Jamaican indigenous sound.

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