If Bob Marley were alive today, it is likely that he would be assassinated again, by the U.S. government and its agents. His 75th birthday would be tomorrow, February 6th, although he perished at the age of 36, a man in the prime of his music, lyrics, and creativity. It is fitting he was born in February, a free spirited Aquarius and in the month in which we honour African liberation.
Like the reggae music with which he is inextricably bound, Bob’s music spoke of life on the streets and in the hearts of Jamaica, a country he loved profoundly and put on the musical map for all these decades to come.
When I was a teenager, I associated this music with dissatisfied middle-class white boys whose rebellion was smoking weed and listening to reggae for the street cred. My downtown public schools were almost completely white, in contrast to what I see today in Toronto. And I could not relate to the music I felt was appropriated by my classmates.
However, as I left the confines of Toronto and brought CDs in dusty suitcases, back in the day (— when they were novel technology!) I started listening to the lyrics Marley penned. And I was moved by the depth and range of his insights, so rare in mainstream pop culture. Since then, Bob Marley’s music has accompanied me through countless days and nights. His social commentary, fiery commitment to racial and anti-imperialist justice, gentle love songs, and praise of Rastafari have earned him a place that is unparalleled in western popular music.
From his soaring lyricism in “No Woman, No Cry” to his plea for self-knowledge and history in “Buffalo Soldier” and “Redemption Song”, his critique of Jamaica’s hypocritical drug policy and neo-liberalization in “Trenchtown Rock”, his love for Rastafarian pride in the Caribbean in “Natty Dread”, Bob sang of the under dog and downpressed. He centred “nation language” during a time of post-Independence nation building in the Caribbean, in which black humanity, not white capital, was the driving moral force.
Little wonder that songs which underscored “that a hungry man is an angry man” substituted for years of politcal theory, and their author had to be silenced. His musicalization of Haile Selassie’s speech to the United Nations resulted in “War”, and “ Natural Mystic”’s lyrics could have been composed yesterday. Bob Marley is truly a songwriter and performer of our time— a time of great social upheaval and possibility. He understood that people were capable of consciousness and pleasure, and that they are not antithetical.
Although the massification of Marley’s music has resulted in horrid fusions and countless cover versions, even muzack like renditions, it’s important not to take his music for granted. His image is one of the most reproduced and commoditized in the world, along with that of Che Guevara. But his message, ironically, is that of anti-commodification and emancipation from a soulless and mindlessly hierarchical world. Happy Birthday, Mr. Bobby! I hope you enjoy the playlist below.
no, woman, no cry
Marley shot 1976
Bob Marley Funeral 1981