Bob Marley’s Legacy and the Global Uprising

by Alexander Billet

12 May 2011


None But Ourselves...

Today there is no shortage of figures and “fans” who would love to paper over this legacy. Militant anti-racism and anti-imperialism aren’t exactly palatable to commercialization and respectability. A few years ago, for example, Jenna Bush—Dubya’s daughter—told Oprah Winfrey that “my mom’s a secret Rastafarian. She plays Bob Marley around the house!” Interesting assertion coming from the daughter of a man who refused to shake the hands of Haitian earthquake victims!

According to legendary music critic Robert Christgau, this watering-down of Marley’s work is intentional. It’s also shunned by a great many of his fans world-wide:

“Most of the 14 million Americans who’ve bought the calculatedly anodyne Legend are in it for the herb. But Marley is very different for people of color such as the Tanzanian street vendors of Dar es Salam’s [sic] Maskani district, one of many third-world subcultures to integrate his songs and image into a counterculture of resistance.”

This counterculture can be felt across the African continent and beyond. Last year, the legendary Nas teamed up with Marley’s son Stephen (known to the world as “Jr. Gong”) to record Distant Relatives, a stunning piece of rap-reggae whose lyrical themes of anti-colonial empowerment could have come from the senior Marley himself.

The year before, Somali rapper K’Naan dropped The Messengers, a three-part online mixtape paying tribute to Bob Dylan, Fela Kuti, and, of course, Marley.

“Bob Marley had so much that he knew he had to give to the world,” says K’Naan on the intro track. “He said ‘when it rains, it don’t rain on one man’s house.’ This is the words [sic] of someone who understands the impact that unity and division have on the world. He understood that; I think he was propelled by it. So he made music for us. ‘Little children learn your culture or you won’t get no supper.’ These are the words that, I felt like, coming up, growing up… he was talking to me. And because of that, I’m looking at my culture.”

The themes tying Nas, K’Naan and Jr. Gong together—unity, cultural pride, resistance to oppression—all seem to cull a deep and burning sense among the developing world. Plainly put, it’s a longing for freedom. In Marley’s time it seemed to be burgeoning reality, but since his death appears to have receded back into mere dreams. That is, until recently.

It started in Tunisia. Then it spread to Algeria and Morocco, then across North Africa: ordinary people rising up against dictators and repressive regimes. Corrupt, enriched on the backs of their people, it seems of little surprise that many of these governments have long been propped up by the West.

Egypt’s case has by far been the most stunning. A country that only weeks before had played host to deadly attacks on the Coptic population now saw Muslim and Christian march arm-in-arm against the long-time “friend” of the US, Hosni Mubarak. In eighteen days he was gone, and the West got a whole new image of the Muslim world—politically, culturally, and yes, even musically.

One of the many tracks to emerge from these uprisings and shoot round the ‘Net was “Rebel”, written and recorded by one of Egypt’s first hip-hop groups, Arabian Knightz. Released the night before Cairo’s first “Day of Rage”, it revolves heavily around a sample of Lauryn Hill—who, perhaps not coincidentally, has been long married to Bob Marley’s son Rohan.

Though the protests have most notably spread across the Arab world into the Middle East, they are also finding their way down the African continent: rebellions against high food prices in Burkina Faso, Nigerian riots in the wake of an election many see as rigged, marches for better employment in Uganda, and public sector strikes that have brought Botswana to near-standstill. Though each of these are inspired most directly by their own domestic outrage, there can be little doubt that they’ve had the door opened for them by their neighbors to the north.

One Sub-Saharan artist who understands the meaning of all this is Thomas Mapfumo. Known as “the Lion of Zimbabwe”, Mapfumo is a pioneer of the music known as chimurenga—which literally translates to “the struggle”. When Zimbabwe was still known as Rhodesia, Mapfumo was a major figure in the fight against white British minority rule. Like Bob Marley, his songs have blended the sound of Western pop with the traditional music of his own country. In fact the two even toured together in the late ‘70s, and Marley paid specific tribute to the Zimbabwean struggle on his 1979 album Survival.

Rhodesian apartheid fell in 1980. Later in the decade, however, Mapfumo’s songs began to turn their attention toward the poverty, corruption and brutality of President Robert Mugabe’s regime. Mapfumo’s songs were banned from radio, and in the early ‘90s he fled into exile in Portland, Oregon. Still recording music, he maintains that “the struggle is not over”. In a recent interview with WBUR Boston’s Tom Ashbrook, he put forth a belief that should be familiar to any Marley fan:

“If you look at the whole situation, it’s like, well, people have to unite again and actually do away with this evil system… African people should be united to work for the prosperity of Africa. They actually should come together and work as a nation. We are all Africans. Why don’t we come together and come with a united Africa?”

Mugabe clearly feels threatened by the revolts to the north. In early March, the president’s police force arrested 49 socialists and trade-union activists for the “crime” of watching videos of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. Though all were later released, six still face charges of treason; if found guilty, they face the death penalty.

Though Zimbabwe has yet to see the kind of rebellions that have rocked the Maghreb, the nation of Swaziland has come close. One of the world’s last remaining absolute monarchies, poverty, disease and an almost complete lack of civil liberties has recently sprung the country’s labor movement into action.

In mid-April, city streets were swamped by thousands of protestors. Though arrests and repression have caused union leaders to call off future rallies for now, groups like the Swaziland Solidarity Network continue to organize. Denied basic resources that American or European organizers take for granted—resources like websites—the SSN’s online presence is largely limited to Facebook and Google Groups.

In this small nation, where average life-expectancy doesn’t exceed 32 years and any kind of dissent is viciously crushed, there are nonetheless vibrant hip-hop and reggae scenes. Reggae is particularly popular here; Swaziland once hosted one of the African continent’s only reggae festivals. In the days leading up to the April protests, a member of the SSN posted lyrics from Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” on the group’s forum.

It seems an odd choice: certainly one of Marley’s best-known songs, but also by far his most intimate, written not long after being diagnosed with cancer. Themes of freedom and oppression are there throughout, but all seem to be tied back into the apparently personal notion of redemption. Modern interpretations of the song cast the singer as more spiritual than political, the “redeemer figure” brought up on his website. Why would this, out of all Marley’s songs, be the one that inspires Swazi men and women to take up the mantle of insurrection?

Activist and journalist Nicole Colson provides insight into this:

“This song moves from an isolated first-person in bondage, ‘old pirates, yes they rob I,’ to the movement of a collective. ‘We forward in this generation,’ and not just forward, but forward triumphantly… When I think of the word redemption, I tend to think of the definition to make something whole or win it back. I think he’s literally talking about music that can make you a whole person, to help you step out of what you think are your limits—both in a personal and a political sense. But he also means, literally ‘liberation’.”

Indeed, there is something tragic in the wide relevance of Marley’s music thirty years later. Namely, if so many around the world can identify with it, then the pain and oppression he spoke on hasn’t gone anywhere.

But Marley was never one to buy into cynicism. Primarily, it seems to be the hope that people cling to in his songs. If so many in the most exploited, balkanized peoples of the world can look to his words as a call to action, then it shows that hope to be more than a pipe dream. It’s during moments like these that music becomes more than mere sounds, and the true legacy of Bob Marley comes to life.

Alexander Billet is a music journalist and activist living in Chicago. He runs the website Rebel Frequencies, and is a columnist for SOCIARTS. He has also appeared in Z Magazine, CounterPunch, New Politics and the International Socialist Review. He can be reached at rebelfrequencies AT gmail.com.

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