Bob Marley

Bob Marley

11 May 2011 marks the 30th anniversary of the untimely death of Robert Nesta Marley – probably the most significant cultural figure of the 20th century. I can’t think of anybody else who has reached such levels of popularity and influence whilst consistently putting forward a message of resistance to oppression.

Undoubtedly, Bob’s image has been somewhat sanitised and pacified by corporate forces who like to portray him as a “chilled out guy with a great voice”.

Dave Thompson, in the book Reggae and Caribbean Music, writes:

“Bob Marley ranks among both the most popular and the most misunderstood figures in modern 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.”

But you only have to only have to look outside Europe and North America to see the profound and enduring effect Bob Marley had on the downpressed masses of the world. Marley is still loved by the sufferahs all over the world, not simply because of photos of him burning the holy herb, but because of the hope, pain, love and inspiration of his music and his words. In Africa and South America, Bob is a hero and a teacher. Indigenous Australians keep a flame burning for him in Sydney. He is revered by many indigenous Americans.

As a revolutionary poet of the highest order, Bob Marley has been a teacher and guide to more than one generation of oppressed youth. You can go to school and you can learn some or other Shakespeare play about medieval kings, but it’s Bob that tells you what you need to know:

“Get up, stand up / Stand up for your rights / Get up, stand up / Don’t give up the fight.”

“Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds!”

Bob Marley always put forward a deeply humanistic vision of the unity of all peoples (“I only have one thing I really like to see happen – I like to see mankind live together – black, white, Chinese, everyone – that’s all”). Yet he was also keenly aware of how much of the system of empire, colonialism and white supremacy had been built on the oppression, enslavement and murder of Africans. Bob loved all humanity, but he represented for the oppressed, and for Africa first and foremost.

The commercial radio stations might play ‘Stir it Up’, but they don’t play ‘War’! Check the lyrics (which are adapted from a speech made by Emporer Haile Selassie to the United Nations in 1963):

What life has taught me
I would like to share with
Those who want to learn…

Until the philosophy which hold one race
Superior and another inferior
Is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned
Everywhere is war, me say war

That until there are no longer first class
And second class citizens of any nation
Until the colour of a man’s skin
Is of no more significance than the colour of his eyes
Me say war

That until the basic human rights are equally
Guaranteed to all, without regard to race
Dis a war

That until that day
The dream of lasting peace, world citizenship
Rule of international morality
Will remain in but a fleeting illusion
To be pursued, but never attained
Now everywhere is war, war

And until the ignoble and unhappy regimes
that hold our brothers in Angola, in Mozambique,
South Africa sub-human bondage
Have been toppled, utterly destroyed
Well, everywhere is war, me say war

War in the east, war in the west
War up north, war down south
War, war, rumours of war

And until that day, the African continent
Will not know peace, we Africans will fight
We find it necessary and we know we shall win
As we are confident in the victory

Of good over evil, good over evil, good over evil
Good over evil, good over evil, good over evil

Another song that represents Bob’s position on the frontline of struggle against oppression at the end of the 70s and the beginning of the 80s is ‘Zimbabwe’, which was written specially for that country’s independence celebrations.

Danny Sims, Bob’s first manager, puts it well:

“Like our great leaders, like Marcus Garvey, like Malcolm X, like Martin Luthur King, Bob Marley was one who, once he knew he had something to get across to the world, he couldn’t rest because of his vision … To a generation, Bob Marley was a Malcolm X for the 1970s, a true revolutionary and a man who never left the people he loved and struggled for. During his life Bob Marley never changed. He never changed his outlook … he never even changed his wardrobe.”

Rest in power, Bob Marley!