His Name Is Alive: Bob Marley Reissues Confront Babylon
“Any interpretation of the significance of Rastafari must begin with the understanding that it is a conscious attempt by the African soul to free itself from the alienating fetters of colonialism and its contemporary legacies”.
—Ennis B. Edmonds, “Dread ‘I’ In-a-Babylon: Ideological Resistance and Cultural Revitalization”, Chanting Down Babylon: The Rastafari Reader
The first thing I remember about the legendary Bob Marley is his death. It was another Long Beach family get-together at my grandma’s house, and the local Los Angeles news had put together a small segment noting his passing, replete with footage of Marley puffing on the biggest joint I had ever seen, blowing enough smoke to blur the lens. Such images were the central metaphors around which most of the American mainstream media coverage of Marley revolved.
And although the majority of the Long Beach reggae fans I grew up with maintained his legacy by lighting up at every opportunity and spinning the best of his vinyl offerings, including Natty Dread and Catch a Fire, there were always the smaller contingents within those crowds who allied their own growing rebellion against normalcy or unreasonable standards with his lyrics and defiance, and it is those invaluable assets that usually powered his mostly simple arrangements into protest music masterpieces. Which serves as a sobering reminder—concretized in the recent releases of Marley’s overlooked Confrontation and Babylon by Bus and especially in this time of probable war and waning protest—of the potency of language designed to incite deep thinking and vocalize the feelings of the dispossessed.
Although Confrontation—released two years after Marley’s death—may not be one of his musical masterpieces, it makes no bones about its aim to give voice to the various concerns of those who have spent their lives in the squalor of poverty and oppression. Each song contains a minor protest of sorts, starting with one of the disc’s best tracks, “Chant Down Babylon”, a missive formulated as a linguistic attack on what Chanting Down Babylon: The Rastafari Reader translated as “Western political and economic domination and cultural imperialism”. And although that may conjure images of extremism that hit close to home in light of the recent attacks on America’s symbolic/cultural structures, Marley’s version of insurrection almost always takes place though his music: “A reggae music / Mek we chant down Babylon / With music”.
This form of protest is particularly effective, as illustrated in the exponentially increasing popularity of reggae and Rastafarianism, because it is not simply about destruction, but about the sheer power of art’s ability to bring about constructive realignment of self-consciousness. If anything, Marley’s revolution of the mind seems to be one that begins in the heart, in a desire for mutual care of one’s fellow humans, rather than in the fist, the part of the body that those who have criticized the legitimacy of Rastafarianism as a cult or bastardization of Christianity are mostly afraid of. It is through the community that the music offers its listeners that Marley can most capably narrativize the turmoil of his people: “Music you’re the key . . . Bring the voice of the Rastaman / Communicating to everyone”.
Take one of his most popular songs ever—and probably the only tune that anyone has heard off of Confrontation—“Buffalo Solider”, which “analyse[s] the stench” of cross-continent slave trading, connecting the African Diaspora’s troubled self-awareness with its troubled past, and sending both head on into a collision course with white expectation and prejudice: “If you know your history / Then you would know where you coming from / Then you wouldn’t have to ask me / Who the heck do I think I am”. Or “Trench Town”, an addictive lilt of a song that also illuminates the power of music to heal souls who are fenced in on all sides by utter poverty: “We free the people with music, sweet music”. As one of Marley’s narrative homelands, Trench Town—named for the garbage-filled gutter than runs through it—becomes a rallying point for a battle against the “Stiff Necked Fools” (another song on the disc) who are mirror images of the vanity and callousness that course through Western imperialism.
Indeed, these song titles alone can give you an idea of what Confrontation is all about, if the disc title can’t do the trick on its own. And if you’re still in the fog, stiff necked fool, perhaps the disc’s peripheral texts—such as the defiant quote from Marley asserting, “Dem a go tired fe see me face, can’t get me out a the race”—and illustrations—such as the cover art depicting a Rastaman on a white steed doing battle with a dragon or the adaptation of a Ethiopian painting depicting the 1896 Battle of Adowa—may help out, even though the images of dark-skinned, heavily-armed warriors engulfing scores of boxed-in whites may cause the Clear Channel to ban the disc from the airwaves, you know, just in case. “Could You Be Loved”, this is not.
But such is the pleasure and eloquence that is the soul of Bob Marley, the same one that Sinead O’Connor felt she was channeling when she covered “War” before ripping apart a picture of the Pope on Saturday Night Live. And judging from the ecstatic crowd noise kicking off Babylon by Bus, such a determined stance and desire to be heard resonates with individuals across the world, including those in London, Copenhagen, Amsterdam and Paris, where the concerts were recorded. Although it is supremely difficult to encapsulate the sheer presence of a live Bob Marley on disc, Babylon by Bus does a capable job, one that shines brighter as the disc progresses. Standout tracks include “Punky Reggae Party”—Marley and Lee “Scratch” Perry’s paean to reggae’s brothers-in-arms such as The Clash, The Jam and The Damned—which has a backbeat that will pull you up out of your couch—and probably away from your bong. Same goes for crowd favorite “Is This Love?” whose tempo jumps up a few notches when the audience claps along. “War/No More Trouble” conflates two of Marley’s finest protest songs into one energized performance—if you listen carefully, you can imagine him thrashing about onstage as he sings.
And although Babylon by Bus features some of Marley’s toughest lyrics, including the controversial “Heathen”, one of the true highlights of the live disc is the fiery guitar work—especially on “Heathen”, actually—of Junior Marvin. The guitar is usually relegated to the background in most of his solo work, but Babylon by Bus showcases its ability to take a jam to the next level, as it does on an otherwise tepid live version of my favorite Marley/Wailers tune, “Concrete Jungle”. Many reggae purists have decried that song’s extended solo as a Western addition favored by producer Chris Blackwell in order to help the band better cross over, but then-guitarist Peter Tosh’s—and Junior Marvin’s—emotional renderings transmit the pain and dispossession in “Concrete Jungle” so effectively that it remains one of Marley’s most moving compositions.
Which is really saying something, because the one thing this slew of Marley reissues communicates is how immensely gifted the man was. Couple his absolutely raw talent with his determination to free the minds of his people through songs posing as history lessons or calls for action, and you have at long last the best possible versions of the power of creative genius. And although you might get ripped for $17.98 apiece buying them from some mega-chain, think of it as a concretization of Marley’s point about Babylon’s ubiquity and corruption.
Then go home and chant it down.