Born on February 6, 1945, the Third World's only superstar was a man of intense contradictions and genius. Now 39 years after his untimely death Robert "Tuff Gong" Marley is still a musical legend. And while his music lives on the world and his millions of fans still miss the Supreme Rastaman. Like great wine Bob Marley gets better with age and as the age of the Internet and an "instant gratification" culture buttressed and underpinned by social media and fake memes, on the 75th anniversary of his birth controversy still swirls around the man and his music.
In fact, much has changed over the time of his birth and the decades following his death. Today, there are fresh raging and deadly arguments about who is the oppressed and who is the oppressor in the world today. So, just how does Bob Marley's music count in this volatile and explosive global scenario? Perhaps, his celebrated unofficial anthem of Jamaica, "One Love," offers an answer. I believe that the song's deep and blunt scariness and its juxtaposed sorrow is a perfect mix for today.
For many believe this Marley song - carefully and artfully constructed was really a prophecy, and it's hard to say which would be worse: fulfilling the prophecy or averting it. No matter, haunting and nostalgic at the same time "One Love" can still unnerve and unsettle us in this age it can still disrupt easy notions of what's right and wrong; it can still be a threat.
In his book Reggae and Caribbean Music, author Dave Thompson, laments what he perceived to be the commercialized pacification of reggae maestro and the Emerging World's first and only superstar's more militant edge. He wrote the following:
"Bob Marley ranks among both the most popular and the most misunderstood figures in modern [20th century] culture ... That the machine has utterly emasculated Marley is beyond doubt. Gone from the public record is the ghetto kid who dreamed of Che Guevara and the Black Panthers and pinned their posters up in the Wailers Soul Shack record store; who believed in freedom; and the fighting which it necessitated, and dressed the part on an early album sleeve; whose heroes were James Brown and Muhammad Ali; whose God was Ras Tafari and whose sacrament was Marijuana. Instead, the Bob Marley who surveys his kingdom today is smiling benevolence, a shining sun, a waving palm tree, and a string of hits which tumble out of polite radio like candy from a gumball machine. Of course, it has assured his immortality. But it has also demeaned him beyond recognition. Bob Marley was worth far more."
I could not agree more. I've been a follower and fan of Bob Marley's music since he burst on the musical scene on the 1970s. And, over the years, I've written reams about the man, his music, and his life. Now on the 725th anniversary of his birth, I'm going to take a shot at analyzing some of the songs of Bob Marley to present the real intrinsic meanings of his lyrics. I am going to delve, somewhat, into the Bob Marley that Dave Thompson wrote about and I'm going to make the case for his worth and more.
Let me start by acknowledging that tremendous body if literary works that have mushroomed around the life and times of Bob Marley and his Clan. Indeed, many books have been written about Marley from many 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 chieftain. I also recommend "Catch a Fire: The Life of Bob Marley" by Timothy White.
Marley's classic reggae offering, "One Love" expresses the deeply spiritual and social 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 and heroes, Marcus Mosiah Garvey, and his Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). It is a song about love, not just physical love, but the kind that transcends the base human capacity to "love one another" and morphs into something truly and utterly beautiful. Indeed, "One Love" calls for peace and harmony through selflessly helping others underscoring the universality of this message to cut across all religious lines from Christianity to Rastafarianism. Marley adroitly made the case for compassion to "have pity on those who chances grow thinner," and also issued a chillingly blunt warning: "There ain't no hiding place from the father of Creation."
The haunting, long, almost soulful lament of "No Woman, Nuh Cry," is a reggae love ballad dedicated to women for all the sorrows and hardships that they bear in 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 Jamaica's 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 in an at-risk community of the socially forgotten - 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 the commonality of poverty and a need for each one to help the other.
"Redemption Song" was the last song that Bob Marley wrote. And, it was the very last song he performed in public in Pittsburgh, on September 22nd, 1981. Weary, knowing his death was near, the Supreme Rastaman, Tuff Gong, sang a personal prayer that forced us all to walk with him:
How long shall they kill our prophets
While we stand aside and look
Some say it's just a part of it
We've got to fulfill the book
Won't you help to sing,
These songs of freedom
'Cause all I ever had, redemption songs
All I ever had, redemption songs
These songs of freedom.
Happy Birthday Bob!