MAY 11 marked the 36th anniversary of Bob Marley’s untimely death. He was just 36 years old when he died of cancer in 1981. Since then, he has grown in stature and is viewed by many as a cultural prophet. In today’s column, I pay tribute to this Caribbean icon whose music still inspires our Caribbean civilization.
Bob Marley was first and foremost a political singer: he used his talents to articulate and convey political messages. Reggae music is by definition political music; its birth and evolution were a response to the dynamics of political independence in Jamaica and the Caribbean. But while reggae artistes have concentrated on mild political messages, Marley and a few others have stuck to the hard core direct political messages. Here I define politics in its broader sense to include a plethora of themes such as justice, freedom, empowerment, resistance, liberation, emancipation, human rights, struggle, revolution, self-reliance and nationalism.
To properly appreciate Bob Marley’ music, therefore, one has to understand the political developments of Jamaica and the Caribbean from the 1940s onwards. Marley was born in 1945, just as Jamaica was entering the period of decolonisation – the transition from colonial rule to independence. He was a teenager when Jamaica became independent in 1962. Hence, he was a child of independence who came of age during the period of decolonisation and the first two decades of independence.
The coming of independence to the Caribbean brought with it a spirit of freedom which was manifested by a heightened sense of national pride. That nationalism was especially strong among the African-Caribbean section of the population, which had been victims of both slavery and colonial domination. The experience of slavery has had a lasting influence on their identity— an identity which was largely shaped in the crucible of that system. Coming from Africa against their will as members of different tribes or ethnic groups, slavery, in effect, forced upon them pan-African identity. In the process of surviving and resisting enslavement, they created new ways of life that married retentions of their African cultures to the realities of the Caribbean. This creolisation would become a central tenet of Caribbean identity.
The Caribbean narratives, therefore, are grounded in memories of slavery and colonialism. These systems of domination had undermined the creative energies of the victims; their creative imagination was not allowed free rein. Insofar as they expressed themselves, it was done within prescribed limits. The coming of independence, therefore, saw a release of these energies in the forms of cultural and intellectual expressions.
In Jamaica, Ska music, a pre-cursor to reggae, burst on the scene. It was a music full of energy and celebration that came out of the lower classes of Jamaican society and captured the imagination of the entire society. In Trinidad and Tobago, the steelpan was born — a musical instrument that also came from the social bottom of the society. All over the Region the calypso, the mother music of the English-speaking Caribbean, became the national music. Caribbean writers began to publish books about the Caribbean for Caribbean audiences. Caribbean scholars, educated in the Caribbean both at the University of the West Indies and abroad, began to teach and advocate for the Caribbean revolutionary transformation in a united Caribbean. The national sport in the Region, cricket, was being transformed as the regional team begun to dominate and for the first time was led by a Black player.
By the end of the 1960s, the Caribbean political landscape witnessed the convergence of Black Power ferment, anti-imperialist advocacy and leftist revolutionary critique and activism. This radical political mixture would characterise the Region’s politics throughout the 1970s, when Bob Marley was at the height of his artistic production. In Jamaica, this was the period of Democratic Socialism advanced by the Michael Manley-led People’s National Party (PNP) government, which was swept to power in 1972 by the radical politics referred to above. Although he himself was not a radical activist, Manley’s anti-imperialist and nationalist rhetoric caught the imagination of the poor and the radical youth. His democratic socialism centred on the empowerment of the poor and marginalised sections of the society, including the hitherto maligned Rastafarians.
This is the Caribbean in which Bob Marley comes of age and begins to hone his craft. His generation was politicised by these developments. A collective national consciousness and Black consciousness gripped Jamaica and the rest of the Caribbean. In such an atmosphere, art was not divorced from politics and nationalism. In fact, artistic expression was itself a driving force in the shaping of the consciousness of the period.
Marley’s lyrics in many regards were the products of the politics of this period and in turn helped to further radicalise particularly the youth and the poor. His songs covered a range of political topics from poverty and war to slavery and imperialism –- topics that were very much part of the political discourse in the Region. While his lyrics did not directly reference local, politics and politicians, his general critique of the elites and the powerful in the society was enough to indict him.
Although he was not affiliated to any of the political parties or groups, his songs were utilized by especially the left- leaning political formations. Despite his distance from formal politics, he was seen by many as a fellow traveller of the political left. The titles of his albums, such as Catch a Fire, Confrontation, Uprising and Burning captured the revolutionary language of the time and some of his songs such as Revolution, War, Get Up Stand up for Your Rights and Redemption Song, echoed the rhetoric of the revolutionary leadership.
One cannot get to the larger meaning of Marley’s music outside of his personal experience. We have already discussed his struggles with his racially mixed identity in a society that had become ideologically Black in a manner that rejected the former White European order. Jamaica had recovered its Black African heritage with the coming of independence. Bob Marley, through his musical advocacy, had overcome the initial rejection and rose to the pinnacle of the Black world. He had made a definitive choice where he stood racially. The society in turn had embraced him as the true son that he always was– a genuine love affair between the nation and its child.
But the fierceness of the politics would test that affair. The Cold War, coupled with the very political legacy of colonialism, had constructed an adversarial political plurality which privileged party loyalty over national commitment. The working class, the sufferers — Marley’s primary constituency — had divided their loyalty between the left-of-centre People’s National Party (PNP) and the right-of-centre Jamaica Labour Party (JLP). In the context of the Cold War, the USA intervened on the side of the JLP. By the mid-1970s, partisan violence had reached fever pitch.
Bob Marley’s musical rhetoric of justice for the poor, Anti Imperialism and Black Power, despite his own practise of political neutrality, placed him on the side of the leftists. His acceptance of an invitation by the PNP government to do a concert for the people was interpreted as support for that party. Whereas Marley saw the government as above the partisan divide, others did not make that distinction. He was attacked and shot in the dead of night by gunmen believed to be affiliated to the JLP. A shocked Marley would go into exile from Jamaica for 18 months.
He viewed the attack on him in both personal and political terms. He felt betrayed by a people he loved. His period in exile afforded him the opportunity to reflect on his own mortality and his own role in the struggle. He returned to Jamaica and recommitted to his crusade for justice and equality. He resumed his critique of the status quo, but he constantly referenced the shooting, both as a reminder to Jamaica of its errant side and as an example of personal and collective overcoming.
More of Dr. Hinds ‘writings and commentaries can be found on his YouTube Channel Hinds’ Sight: Dr. David Hinds’ Guyana-Caribbean Politics and on his website www.guyanacaribbeanpolitics.com. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org