Bob Marley as national hero
Ian Boyne, Columnist
There is no superlative adequate to describe Bob Marley's genius and artistry. There is an ineffability about his artistic greatness and prophetic appeal. A couple of days after his 70th birthday, one of the greatest artistes of all times commands attention from this columnist. History would not absolve me if I did otherwise.
Marley does not need my endorsement. No less a media giant than the BBC, from the homeland of his former colonisers, dubbed his song One Love the anthem of the millennium. I did not say century. I said millennium. Time magazine, America's leading newsweekly, chose his album Exodus as the best album of the 20th century. The New York Times, regarded as the world's most prestigious newspaper, called Marley "the most influential artist of the latter half of the 20th century".
The commodification of Bob Marley and the exploitation of his name to simply promote Brand Jamaica, I must 'blood'. Marley is being exploited by people whose values radically clash with his own. If they took the time to listen beyond One Love they would see that Marley 'cramp and paralyse' their idolatrous attachment to things and possessions. There has been a systematic campaign to de-radicalise Marley, to drain his lyrics of their revolutionary impact and to sanitise him as a good boy serving the interests and values of capitalism.
It is safe to lionise Marley now, for we are over the radical '60s and '70s. It is safe to cull those lovey-dovey parts of Marley and to market that to the world in Brand Jamaica promotion, diluting the radical, anti-Establishment message in Burnin and Lootin, Them Belly Full (But We Hungry), Heathen, Concrete Jungle, Rebel Music, Small Axe, Stiff-Necked Fools, Crazy Baldhead, Jump Nyabinghi and, of course, Rat Race.
In the height of the Cold War in the 1970s as the forces of capitalism, represented by the United States, and those of communism, represented by the Soviet Union, were fighting for the power for they knew not the hour, Marley represented that Third Way - that deeply nationalistic, non-aligned spirit that spoke against those isms and schisms.
Our intellectuals here in the 1970s had arrayed themselves largely in the Soviet Marxist camp. Rejecting their foreign ideology, Bob said defiantly, "Give us the teachings of His Majesty; we no want no devil philosophy," a clear reference to communism. (But he also said in Rat Race, 'Rasta no work for no CIA'.) Which brings up a deep source of Bob's influence, which is not given much attention in the scholarly literature: The influence of the Bible on Bob. Of course, we all know that Bob was influenced by Rastafari, which was heavily influenced by Bible.
most fascinating scholarly book was published in 2013, which explores
the deep influence of the Bible on Bob. Titled The Bible and
Bob Marley: Half the Story Has Never Been Told, it is written
by a theologian - Dean MacNeil - who has worked in the music industry
for decades. The book notes that of the 400 books written on Bob Marley
up to then (yes, it has been that many!) not one had dealt specifically
with the Bible and Bob Marley, though other scholars had done work on
the religion of Bob Dylan, the Beatles and U2.
does an excellent job of quoting Bob's lyrics and showing allusions to
scriptural passages. The book is absolutely fascinating. And no Marley
scholar should be without it. Most of Bob's lyrics come from the Bible's
Wisdom literature - the Psalms and the Proverbs, mostly the former. The
theologian also goes into Revelation and the Pauline corpus to analyse
secularists have no interest in exploring the biblical influences on
Bob, preferring to see the Bible as mostly having a negative influence
and being a brake on development and progressive thought. So they fail
to take seriously how this book has aided revolutionary causes, choosing
only to focus on how 'the white man' and 'oppressors' have 'used the
Bible to hold back black people and progress'.
who knew Bob best, though, had no doubt about how seriously he took the
Bible and how it shaped his world view.
in his book Bob Marley, says: "Bob would
often consult and quote from the weathered Bible he carried with
him." The Bible and Bob Marley quotes
Vivien Goldman, who toured with The Wailers, as observing, "Bob
never went anywhere without his old King James Bible. Personalised with
photos of Haile Selassie, it would lie open beside him, a ribbon
marking the place as he played his guitar by candlelight in whatever
city he found himself. He had a way of isolating himself with the book,
withdrawing from the other laughing musicians on the tour bus to ponder a
particular passage, then challenging his bredren to debate it
vigorously as if they were playing
In Small Axe,
Bob does his creative adaptation of Psalm 52:1, changing "mighty man" to
"Why boasteth thyself, oh evil
Playing smart and not being
I say you're working
iniquity to achieve vanity
goodness of Jah Jah idureth for
resonates with courage, hope and defiance in the face of exploitation.
It expresses hope of good over evil. It rejects learned helplessness.
(Of course, it was partially aimed at the Big Three record companies
Marley felt were not dispensing justice - Dynamic, Federal and Studio
One). The small axe did, indeed, outstrip the then Big Three and strode
the world stage without them!
Talking about songs of
hope and inspiration, here's another of my favourites, Rastaman
"Rastaman live up, bongo
man don't give up
culture, don't be afraid of the
Stand up for what you believe, no
matter the cost, no matter what Babylon says. Don't bow. Today, too many
are bowing, giving in for just material gain and vanity. Bob says,
don't sell out your principles. These are strange values today, uptown
and downtown. Both have sold out to Babylon. This is a nihilistic,
dog-eat-dog era. Disgracefully, we have moved in the music from Bob to
Bop (Gully)! It's a decadence that I have deplored and despised publicly
want to get on a spiritual high, I go to Bob's music. I remember
preparing for theological lectures and immersing myself in Marley music
to build a vibes. Whenever I need a spiritual lift, I reach for Marley
music. (And I am an ardent early Wailers, slow-beat fan,
There is a spiritual force, an inexpressible
spiritual energy that exudes from Marley's music that is absolutely
mystical. My own musical idol, Rocksteady King Alton Ellis, is quoted in
Chris Salewicz's book Bob Marley: The Untold Story
as saying: "Bob's sound was always different. It mesmerised me
from then. His music always has a sense of direction. Not even just the
words — I am talking about sound, the melody that him sing, the feel of
the rhythm. Always ... different." In a galaxy of his
Bob Marley was a secular prophet whose vision of
justice, liberation and redemption was similar to the biblical prophets.
For most Jamaicans, his sexual promiscuity, marital infidelity and
ganja smoking would not make him a candidate for the next national hero.
But Bob in the popular culture and among spiritually aware progressives
is already a national hero. He needs no accreditation from the
Babylonian state to declare him so.
I wish our youth
would play Rat Race every day to get their goals
right. And to those holding down poor people, I recommend
rest on your conscience, oh
The Gong cannot die! Long
live the Gong!