Mon | May 29, 2017

Marley's militant style: He That Does Truth Comes Into The Light

Published:Sunday | February 1, 2015 | 2:00 AM

Herbie Miller, Contributor

Bob Marley was as a man of the world who understood it as borderless, free for all to tread because "Jah (God) created the earth for man." [Tosh]. In his song Road Block, Marley retorts: "Why can't we roam this open country? Why can't we be what we want to be? We want to be free." And to broadcaster Neville Willoughby, he said, "Jah a earth rightful ruler and him nuh run no wire fence" around it. With the Wailers band, Marley, as if with a backpack bulging with music, travelled far and wide sharing this philosophy with all who listened.

The universal embrace of his message and his immense achievements best gauge his impact during those years. As singer, lyricist, musician, philosopher and philanthropist, his creative genius (brilliance, virtuosity) emphasised universal aesthetics deflecting his accomplishments to timelessness rather than anchored in his own moment.

Coming of age in a multiethnic society in colonial Jamaica, Marley was aware he had a definite role in life; his mission was the oneness of humanity. This jali/griot's spiritual, sociological and creative quest and message was to energise and bring equilibrium to the human ethos and aesthetic. As an additional well-known line from another of his songs makes clear, "One love, one heart, let's get together and feel alright" was Bob's universal message.

Marley was a visionary for whom music was artillery, hymnal and his book of gospel; with his creativity - much like Pablo Picasso and Miles Davis - he was able to achieve superstardom and commercial success without compromising idiomatic integrity.

A great deal about Marley's personality is revealed by the memorabilia and other private items on display at the museum that bears his name in Kingston. The collection also obscures much and exercises liberal poetic licence with the rest. The Bob Marley Museum is located at 56 Hope Road, and is the house Marley occupied from around 1975 until the time of his death in 1981. As an example, the clothes on exhibit displayed his frugality [and stylistic preference]. They include a blue denim shirt and a pair of olive flannel army trousers with the legs cut off and described along with another patchwork army green denim pants in quilted style as "Bob's football shorts". The manufacturer's label in the waistline of the flannels gives the following details:

Clayman & Sons Ltd.

Trousers, Men's

Battledress, Khaki (1954)

October 1969

Size No. Small

UNIFORM OF REBELLION

Perhaps to Marley, the worn denim jacket, patchwork shirt, denim short pants and army green quilted shorts were his 'battledress' since they represent a kind of uniform of rebellion rather than football shorts as the museum's label suggests. This set of clothing also betray Marley's shopping habits and suggest he picked up bits and pieces at places like London's Portobello Road flea market, the Army and Navy surplus shops, and Salvation Army stores in the USA.

It's generally the case that entertainers tend to display an addiction to high fashion. Yet with all his musical sophistication, Marley's basic sartorial taste made it appear as if he were either always on the way to a job at a construction site, or even more in keeping with his world view, to some battlefront intent on liberating the exploited from late capitalism's ferocious pangs, an ethic clearly documented by his lyrics, music and pronouncements.

For example, as he so passionately sang: "Come we go bun dung Babylon one more time."

Bob's attire also suggests he never had the time or inclination to go shopping for the latest designer apparel. But there was, as many Marley admirers know, a certain cool about his style and aesthetic. Like the Gap ads of a number of seasons ago that used Hemingway, Marilyin Monroe, Sammy Davis Jr, Picasso and Miles to promote khaki as fashionably cool, and for those of us attentive to the distinct earthy characteristics and sophistication of how hip Bogart wore his trench coat and Ingrid Bergman her khakis (see the movie Casablanca) which, at once balanced elegance and relaxed informality, so too, for some of us, Marley was able to transform the earthy to the refined, because he brought a kind of iconoclastic reverence to the blue jeans and fatigues he donned.

Never mind whether or not they were sound or ripped, he wore them with such nonchalance that it hardly mattered beyond the fact that he was fully clad. And though absolutely ignoring the latest expensive apparel was evident in 'Skip's' everyday wear, it was from the stage that he made the ultimate sartorial impact; he made street clothes look hip, they gave him a rebel image, an aura of panache that was mysteriously adventurous but with classic appeal. Blue denim jeans, army discards, khaki trousers and boots represented his uniform. Marley's small athletic frame was the model even as his disregard for fashion and trends shaped a distinct couture.

He was seen as the leader of a cultural revolution of sorts that defines 1970s Jamaica when many Rastafarians who fashioned their clothes after His Majesty's battledress and anti-establishment youths who were influenced by Fidel Castro both desired khaki and fatigues for its military and militant overtones. "Se me uppa Constant Spring inna mi Khaki suit an ting" a line from Althea and Donna's pop hit Uptown Top Ranking encapsulates the character of pop culture and the popularity of army fatigues and military khaki during the defining socialist experiment of 1970s Jamaica.

Rastafarian rituals were everyday practice in the life of Bob Marley and are indicative of his African and Afro-Jamaican spiritual and cultural focus. The Maccabee version of the Bible that sits on a bedside table (opened at Psalm 37) reads:

Fret not thyself because of evildoers,

Neither be thou envious against workers of iniquity,

For they will soon be cut down like the grass

And wither like herb.

These are words that appeared in the lyrics of Let Jah be Praised, written and sung by Peter Tosh, an original Wailer and lifelong brethren of Marley's. Like the members of Coptic and Orthodox Christian churches, Rastafarians place great interest in the Maccabees. The open Bible and the Ethiopian Orthodox cross that lies across its pages like a bookmark represent Bob's epistemology; his link to Addis Ababa, Lalibella, Oxom, in general, to Ethiopia and H.I.M. Haile Selassie, King of Kings, Lord of Lords and Conquering Lion of Judah, he who Rastafarians call God Almighty. Marley was a thorough and avid student of the scriptures, which not only guided his life and helped shape his world view but as it did for his brethren Peter Tosh [and Bunny Wailer among others], it also served as a source of inspiration for lyric to many of this bard's compositions.

PERSONAL ITEMS

The Chillum pipe is also a ritual object. It was used to smoke herb, the holy sacrament according to Rastafari concepts. Bob smoked herb in pipes as a daily ritual. It was a rite that he shared with other devotees of the Rastafari faith. His pair of studded and adorned sandals - likely Ghanaian, plus a red, gold and green knitted Rastafari tam are additional personal items that indicate his African-centred Rastafarian beliefs.

Of all the ironies to contemplate at the Bob Marley Museum is one that stands out like a fly on a two-shilling bread. Hanging on a silken maroon-coloured ribbon is the Honorable Robert Nesta Marley's insignia of the Order of Merit. It is Jamaica's third highest honour. The OM is the highest accolade conferred upon any private Jamaican citizen. It is set aside for those individuals who have achieved pre-eminent national and international distinction.

Displayed along with other international medals and commendations, the Order of Merit symbolises the character and achievement of a man that struggled for human dignity and artistic recognition, which until his international breakthrough in 1973 was threatened by class prejudice in his own country. But Bob Marley aimed for the higher ground. He embodied, on the one hand, a generous man with saint-like qualities, and on the other, a resolute revolutionist who at the sound of the call was prepared to be on the battlefront, much like Omar Mukhtar and Haile Selassie when the need arose in their times.

As such, the achievements of this humanitarian, advocate for human equity and musician par excellence is represented by the OM. It testifies to how significantly Marley has contributed not only to the arts of Jamaica but also to national identity, human consciousness and commerce. And more, his creative and humanitarian fulfilment reinspires, re-establishes, reassures and reaffirms our sense of self and our paths of choice; it informs humanities relationship with itself. Marley may have intuitively known this is the role of music and the arts in traditional African societies, and by extension those of its diaspora. The inscription on the medal, "He That Does Truth Comes Into The Light", brings into clear focus the fact that the system notwithstanding, this Jamaican has served and continues to serve his country beyond any measure, and his service, as required to receive the Order of Merit, has made a "meaningful and significant contribution to national development". As such, in addition to bestowing this award on Marley, there have also been calls in some quarters for him to be recognised as a national hero.

In the formative years when the Wailers turned away from producers and went out on their own, Rita Marley, the museum's administration assistant informed me, "delivered records from the bicycle on display". This rustic wire skeleton from the seat is shown in Picassoesque fashion juxtaposed here next to five wooden kitchen utensils (ladles, spoons, spatulas and forks), illustrative of a mixture of basic unadorned Zulu spoons and utilitarian utensils, which are, in a way, also reminiscent of the vernacular art of Eastern European folk expression. If they were to be displayed upside down, a stretch of the imagination may also create an illusionary connection to Asante Akuaba dolls.

Their elongated bodies and circular disc-like or geometric heads reiterate balance, and like any number of Marley songs, they also illustrate the importance of form and subject to aesthetics. These items are all made from natural materials that complement the organic and naturalistic atmosphere of Marley's home environment. Like almost everything else exhibited, they are worn from usage and are not just props to show off any decorative interest of Marley's. They glow with the kind of patina that implies a character rich from usage and natural age. Simply put, in Bob's world, many of the artefacts on display served their respective purpose.

Marley's hammock hangs in the corner of the upstairs verandah in a manner that suggests that to relax or to loaf was its and the room's main purpose. In addition to being a site for playing table tennis, as evidenced by the table tennis board that used to be on the verandah, it was also the place where Bob entertained his brethren; where reasoning, jibing, talking football, strumming his guitar and making up lyrics also took place.

CAUSTIC TEASER

In fact, from time to time a soccer ball was bounced around in a game of 'keep up'. But the most extreme activity in that space was the physical exercise in which super fit athletes like Gilly, Skill, Neville, Bob and others competed. Woe be unto the man who could not complete 10 rolls on that hand wheel abs buster. Bob was one of the most caustic teasers of the group. Yes, he could be competitive with those he respected, but would mock other challengers he considered not up to the task, a position that carried over from the very way he constructed his life - respectful of others but never shy to make the rest aware that they were coming up short.

The mixing board, cable and recording tape represent the realised dream Marley harboured for artistic and commercial independence for himself and other artistes. It, however, obscures the fact that during Marley's times the location of the studio was on the ground floor of the main building and not, as implied by the museum's docents, at the back of the premises.

That Bob Marley was among the 20th century's most important musicians is universally acknowledged. His intelligence and his charisma made him one of the truly great artistes and leaders of the last hundred years; his band, the Wailers - like Art Blakey's or any edition of Miles Davis' represents in jazz - is among the defining progeny of reggae distinctiveness in modern popular music. Yet, if the choice were his, Bob may have chosen another profession. If he wished he could have become someone else; he would not choose to become any other musician, but a footballer possessing the abilities of his closest friend and confidant Allan 'Skill' Cole. No matter how good his music it was football that Bob wanted to excel at like 'Skill'. Cole's focus on the game and his delicate but sure ball manoeuvres in the late 1960s guaranteed him an automatic place on the Jamaican team and by the early 1970s a contract with Nautico Club in the competitive Brazilian soccer league in the company of players like Pele, Rivelino and Tostoa.

I suspect that watching the poetic lyricism of a player like Skill, the agile maneuvres of Herbert 'Dago' Gordon and the determination of Corcel Blair represented for Bob the visual counterpart to his own aesthetic fluidity and dogged resolve; a cross between the nuanced grace and physical endurance that allowed individuals like himself and those he admired to develop a way of rejecting any and everything, anywhere in the world, that suggested social limitations and human subjugation.

It was this mindset that allowed Bob Marley the confidence that made him comfortable with his creative iconoclasm, humanity and frugality, which his life exemplified. So, symbols like the Order of Merit, his hammock, the jeans and Portobello Road military flannels, work boots and sandals, his well-worn and thumbed Bible, its loose spine and patina pages; its yellowing over time, suggest Marley was a man of the world, a visionary grounded in spirituality and possessed by humility, humanity and a generous touch of creative genius.