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Ewart Walters: Bob Marley: from Rasta to Christian

Published:Friday | May 6, 2016 | 12:00 AM
Ewart Walters
Jamaican reggae singer Bob Marley juggles a ball at a soccer field in Paris, France, on May 10, 1977.

Dead since 1981, Bob Marley continues to mesmerise. His albums keep being bought; his songs are covered - in reggae and jazz - by more and more musicians. The Marley family gets up and stands up for its licensing rights. His estate makes about US$10 million annually.

But Marley's spiritual journey is even more compelling.

Bob transcended the humility of his rural beginnings to become the million-selling reggae artiste whose pleas for justice and peace attracted worldwide acclaim. As a performer whose sensibilities were thoroughly enmeshed in the developing world - his world - Marley addressed poverty, cultural identity, and racism, singing about issues that mattered to people just like him.

Yet, Bob Marley, who died at 36, was very different from the people like him. He had just been awarded Jamaica's third-highest civil honour, the Order of Merit. The funeral procession carrying him to a hillside mausoleum at his birthplace in Nine Miles stretched more than 50 miles. His lyrics are now being studied by students and professors in universities all over the world. Who would have thought that all this could have come out of a ghetto called Trench Town?


God in Trench Town


At an early age, Marley would have been immersed in the revival forms of Christianity practised by those Jamaicans who rejected the authority of the mainstream churches. Trench Town, immortalised in the songs Trench Town Rock, and No Woman No Cry, was Bob's first home in Kingston. In communities like Trench Town, God was never very far away. The people developed their own forms of worship, and Sundays would find them at their places of worship morning and night.

It is from these beginnings that the young Bob Marley got his early sense of religion. Indeed, it is quite likely that One Love, the Song of the Millennium, sprang from a chorus that he would have heard sung often 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."

'Armageddon' occurs only once in the Bible, at Revelation 16:16, and refers to the final war between human governments (Babylon) and God.

But the environment changed and the country changed. The Rastafarian movement that had begun attracting marginalised young men and women in 1938 enveloped Bob Marley, who became its most ardent supporter. The movement took its name from Ras (Prince)Tafari Makonnen, who became Haile Selassie I.

Selassie, a practising member of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, visited Jamaica in 1966 and, much to the dismay of the thousands of Rastafarians gathered to welcome him, told them that he was not God. To underscore the point, Selassie later sent an abuna of the Orthodox Church to Jamaica to work with the Rastafarians to establish the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Jamaica.

On arrival, Abuna Yesehaq Mandefro, who later baptised Bob Marley into Christianity and who died in New Jersey in 2005, made nutrition one of his first concerns. The Rastafarian diet was short on protein, for most refused to eat pork and many would eat no meat at all.


Cheap pork


The abuna found a solution. Pork was cheap and plentiful. Why not bless it and call it something else, as was 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:

"I feel like bombing a church, 'cause I know that the preacher is lying" - Talking Blues;

"Building church and university, Deceiving the people continuously, Graduating thieves and murderers, Sucking the blood of the sufferers", Babylon System; and finally,

"You fi give us the teachings of His Majesty, We no want no Devil philosophy." His Majesty being not Christ, but Haile Selassie - One Drop.

But what he was attacking was the Babylon that surrounded him in the deceit and oppression of the class system and which consigned so many to poverty and deprivation.

It was the 1974 album, Natty Dread, that marked Bob's entry into the Rastafarian sect. By this time he had grown the dreadlocks that are the badge of Rastafari who found biblical authority for their locks in the Old Testament Nazarite vow that Gideon took.


powerful statement


One of the songs on this album was So Jah Seh, a simple and powerful statement of conviction wrapped in both the Christian and Rastafarian persuasions that marked Marley's life. But it was more Rastafarian than Christian. Note the defiance and the use of the title Jah, the Rastafarian term for their God.

"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 such as Revolution, Dem Belly Full, But We Hungry, and Talking Blues. This 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, and with an emergent satisfying recognition that their situation was not only now seen and understood, but championed.

While Marley's art made him wealthy, he remained poor in spirit ("Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven") and close to the poor, to whom he gave daily and freely of the wealth his songs brought him. Perhaps it was his continual acts of compassion which helped pull him back towards Christianity.

When Haile Selassie died in August 1975, Marley quickly released Jah Lives, a statement reassuring the Rastas of Selassie's immortality. Nevertheless, by the time Marley died in Miami, on his way home to Jamaica in 1981, he had been baptised as a Christian in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, taking the name of Berhane Selassie (Light of the Trinity).

In the years after Marley's death, several Rastafarian singers, including some in Marley's group, became Christians.

Interestingly, if many of the lyrics found in the early Marley songs were from the Old Testament, it was the New Testament that featured in his final days.

The song Marley released just before dying is Redemption Song. A simple song, it reflects a great artist looking back at his life, at the road he had travelled, at the recognition finally of who he is. It was sung without accompaniment, except his own guitar. There is no mention of Jah. It has nothing at all to do with Rastafarianism.

Instead, it speaks of slavery, of Christian principles, of the "bottomless pit", of prophets being killed, of fulfilling "the book", of redemption, of triumph, and of his "hand being made strong by the hand of the Almighty".

Now, the doctrine of Redemption is one of the most important doctrines of the system of faith. It is an essential concept of Christianity. And here is Bob Marley, the best-known Rastafarian in the world, singing a simple song - no drums, no bass, no rhythm guitar, no harmonica, no I-Threes - just one man facing his mortality, and the understanding that Christianity is a simple pact between himself and God.

Marley 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.

- Ewart Walters is the author of 'We Come From Jamaica: The National Movement 1937-1862', which also chronicles Revival, the emergence of Rastafari and the Back to Africa movement. The book is distributed in Jamaica by Novelty Trading Company. Email feedback to and