Carolyn Cooper | Nana Rita Marley, a Rasta woman from roots
Today is Nana Rita Marley’s 75th earthstrong. To mark this occasion, she has been dubbed “Mystic of a Queen”. The title is entirely appropriate. Like a mystic, Rita Marley intuitively knew she was divinely called to fulfil a queenly mission. In 1983, I interviewed her for Pulse magazine. This is how she described herself:
“I am a Rasta woman from roots. And then I stand for certain principles and respect because I see myself as Black Queen Omega, not just a little skirt or daughter on the corner. No, no, although I was raised in Trench Town. But I was brought up with that dignity and pride of being black and having something in me. I always felt, as a little baby, that I had something special in me.”
Rita Marley’s journey to claim her specialness – her distinctive identity – was not easy at all. Her struggles and triumphs are documented in her autobiography, No Woman No Cry: My Life With Bob Marley, published in 2005. The book’s title and, even worse, its perverse sub-title confirm one of the major forces that Rita had to confront. Male domination! She is positioned as a mere foil destined to reflect the greater glory of her superstar husband.
In a remarkably shameless manoeuvre, the publishers of the book opportunistically marketed Rita’s autobiography in this way: “Full of new information, No Woman, No Cry is an insightful biography of Marley by someone who understands what it meant to grow up in poverty in Jamaica, to battle racism and prejudice. It is also a moving and inspiring story of a marriage that survived both poverty and then the strains of celebrity.” The anonymous writer of that dust-jacket blurb should really have added the ‘s’ word, sexism.
SETTING THE RECORD STRAIGHT
Rita Marley did not allow herself to be silenced. She rejected the role of an anonymous ‘someone’. Right from the “Prologue”, she insistently set the record straight. Rita first acknowledged Bob Marley’s overpowering voice: “So if I hear his voice now, it’s only confirming that he’s always around, everywhere. Because you do really hear his voice wherever you go. All over the world.”
Then, Rita immediately insisted that her own voice must also be heard: “And one interesting thing about it, to me, is that most people only hear him. But I hear more, because I’m on almost all of the songs. So I also hear my voice, I also hear me.” Rita is more than a back-up singer. Like Marcia Griffiths and Judy Mowatt, the other two members of the I-Three, Rita was able to launch her successful solo career, independent of star-boy Bob.
Rita tells a powerful story about her escape from the limitations imposed on a poor black girl in Jamaica in the 1940s. In “Trench Town Rock”, the very first chapter of the autobiography, Rita recalls the cruel insecurities of childhood: “Because I was very dark-skinned, the kids in school called me ‘blackie tootus’ ... . I learned discrimination early and underestimated my own value because of my colour. Jamaica has a long history of colour consciousness and racial struggle.”
The Dictionary of Jamaican English defines tutus as ‘a darling, a pet’. But when ‘tutus’ is combined with ‘blackie’ it becomes an insult that motivated Rita to define her identity on her own terms. She asserts, “Because I know how I feel about myself. I know what I’m gonna try in life, I know this Trench Town thing is not gonna be my last days. Sometime, somehow, I’m gettin’ out of here.”
THE PULL OF HISTORY
Though Rita Marley did get out of Trench Town, she never forgot her roots. Her travels took her to another place of origins, the African continent. Rita Marley journeyed through Rastafari to a consciousness of Africa that redeemed the “blackie” in “blackie tootus”. She recalled the widespread alarm her uncharacteristic behaviour provoked when she sighted Rastafari:
“Then I started to wear my nurse’s uniform, and tied a rope of red, gold, and green (the Rasta colours) around my waist, and people began to whisper, ‘You know she’s crazy, she’s getting crazy, what a shame after all the money her aunty spend on her’.” But, for Rita, the appeal of Rastafari was its sanity: “The whole thing seemed intelligent to me; it wasn’t just about smoking herb, it was more a philosophy that carried a history with it. That’s what pulled my interest, the powerful history that hadn’t been taught to me in school.”
It was the pull of this history that drew Rita Marley to Ghana: “Africa has come like a new life to me, with an ancient background, because it’s so black; and because of this I feel at home – that fight you face against blackness in other places does not exist here. I want the freedom to be what I am, and what I’m supposed to be, without having to fight anybody to be that.”
In 2000, Rita Marley was installed as a Queen Mother in Konkonuru, Ghana, and given the title Nana Afua Adobea. ‘Nana’ is a term of respect for both male and female elders. In her role as Queen Mother, Nana Rita has built the Alpha & Omega Home for the Aged and a clinic to serve residents of Konkonuru. In Jamaica, she has been just as generous.
There have been several events over the last few days celebrating Rita Marley’s earthstrong. Odessa Chambers and I moderated an edutaining panel discussion on “Women in Music”, featuring Tanya Stephens, DJ Sunshine, Coleen Douglas and Tova Hamilton. The video will be posted on Tuff Gong International’s official YouTube channel.
Today at 5 p.m. EST, there will be live stream on the channel featuring a new Rita Marley exhibition at the Bob Marley Museum; the premiere of the digitally remastered Africa Unite Concert; and, top of the bill, the Mystic of a Queen Concert. Big up Nana Rita Marley – matriarch, entrepreneur, entertainer and philanthropist!