I've been a follower and fan of Bob Marley's music since he burst on the musical scene on the 1970s. And I've written reams and reams about the man, his music, and his life. Now on the 74th anniversary of his birth, I'm going to take a shot at analyzing some of Bob Marley's songs and to interpret the real intrinsic meanings of his lyrics. Let me state here from the onset: There are other ways to decipher Marley and Marlyean Philosophy. This is just my take on it, from my analytical perspective. Its an interpretation and it does not necessarily have to be right.
Indeed, many books have been written about Marley from many different and unique angles. In fact, the Ghanaian-born Jamaican/ American poet, Kwame Dawes, in his book, "Bob Marley: Lyrical Genius," does a scholarly job of analyzing the talented and gifted reggae maestro. I also recommend "Catch a Fire: The Life of Bob Marley" by Timothy White. Both offer a refreshing and unbiased look at Marley, the man, and his music.
Marley's classing reggae offering, "One Love" expresses the deeply spiritual and social and moral code of Jamaican Rastafarianism - "One God, One Aim, One Destiny." It was a theme originated and inspired by one of Jamaica's premier Black Nationalists, Marcus Mosiah Garvey and his Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). It is a song about love, but not physical love, but the kind that transcends the base human capacity to "love one another" and morphs into something truly beautiful. Indeed, "One Love" calls for peace and harmony through selflessly helping others. Marley's made the case for compassion to "have pity on those who chances grow thinner," and also issues a blunt warning: 'There ain't no hiding place from the father of Creation."
The haunting, long, nostalgic lament of "No Woman, Nuh Cry," is a reggae love ballad dedicated to women for all the sorrows they bear in oppressive and male-dominated society. Drawing on his upbringing and experience with poverty and violence, Marley relives and recalls the days he spent in "a government yard in Trench Town," and "observing the hypocrites/As they would mingle with the good people we meet." This was to be a Marleyian hallmark for in many of his songs, he castigated and excoriated society's hypocrites from politicians to preachers - people who said one thing and acted and did another.
In Marley's days, Trench Town was (and still is to some extent) a violent place in Kingston, the Jamaican capital city. Marley captured the social climate of this ghetto when he sang: "Good friends we have, good friends we've lost, along the way." He then draws on his religious Rastafarian faith to offer hope for the future: "In this great future you can't forget your past/ So dry your tears I say/ No woman, no cry/No woman, no cry/Little Darling, please don't shed no tears/No woman, no cry."
Marley's lyrical genius shines through in the next verse of the song when he reminisces about the simple pleasures that were there - despite the abject poverty and social depression of Trench Town. He waxes "warm and fuzzy" painting a picture of people united and drawn closer together because of poverty and a common need for each one to help the other. Listen to him:
And then Georgie would make the fire light
Log wood burning through the night.
Then we would cook corn meal porridge,
Of which I'll share with you.
Then he beautifully and a bit sorrowfully captures the deep and systemic poverty of life in the Jamaican ghetto when he sings about a poor man who doesn't have a car or money for a taxi or bus fare to get home. In the midst of this suffering Marley sings that the man is still optimistic, still hopeful that "everything's gonna be all right." "No Woman Nuh Cry" is vintage Marley part lament, part tribute, and always positive. A true reggae classic.
My feet is my only carriage,
So I've got to push on through
But while I'm gone I say...
Everything's gonna be all right.
In the popular favorite of Black Revolutionaries "Buffalo Soldier," Marley demonstrates his revolutionary side. He carefully makes the link between the U.S. 10th Calvary Regiment and Rastamen Warriors. He skillfully plays on the Black regiment's heroics during the American Civil War fighting alongside the Union Army. And he also showcases his grasp of American history because the story goes that Native Americans called the Black soldiers "buffalo soldiers" because of their kinky hair that to them resembled the wholly coat of the Plains buffalo.
Marley sings about being "stolen from Africa" just like the Buffalo Soldier.
"I'm just a buffalo soldier in the heart of America,
Stolen from Africa, brought to America,
Said he was fighting on arrival, fighting for survival;
Said he was a buffalo soldier win the war for America."
But Bob Marley was also a quintessential Caribbean man. And his Caribbean and Jamaican machismo would many times seep through in his songs. He could be as suggestive as any Trinidad calypsonian, especially when singing about sex and sexual prowess. In that light he was as gifted as the "king of sexual innuendo" The Mighty Sparrow.
Songs like "Put It On," "Guava Jelly" Stir It Up" and "Lick Samba" are loaded and pregnant, pardon the pun, with sexual meaning. "Come rub in my belly like a guava jelly" leaves little to the imagination but is also a celebration of the realities of life, love and togetherness. He went even further in "Stir It Up" by transforming (like any calypsonian) the mundane task of cooking into a graphic sexual escapade.
"I'll push the wood
I'll blaze your fire
Then I'll satisfy your heart's desire
Said I'll stir it, yeah, ev'ry minute, yeah
All you got to do is keep it in, baby."
I believe that in the context of analyzing Marley's work and lyrics he should be thought of as the folk poet of the developing world. Indeed, his huge body of work continues to influence countless musicians, songwriters, and entertainers across the globe. There's no doubt that Bob Marley was a world rock star. Finally, he was a pragmatist who understood the realities of life and living "inna Babylon."
In the political, call-to-action song, "Get up, Stand Up," Marley makes the case for individual actions to find solutions to problems and "do for ourselves."
"Most people think great God will come from the sky
Take away ev'rything, and make ev'rybody feel high
But if you know what life is worth
You would look for yours on earth
And now you see the light
You stand up for your right, yeah! "
In Before the Legend: The Rise of Bob Marley" writer Christopher John Farley says: " The reggae star Bob Marley never sold out, but he understood the importance of selling well. He came to terms with the necessity of marketing at an early age." You might well say that he found the right mix of music and lyrics coupled with a great personality and charisma.
As I remember Roberts Nesta Marley, the Third World's first and only superstar, the Supreme Rastaman, I can see him "Trodding inna Babylon" with a great bolt of lightning in his hand.