Reggae Fans Celebrate Bob Marley's Birthday
By Philippe Wamba
Every February 6th, reggae fans all over the world celebrate the birthday of Bob Marley with tribute parties, concerts, radio and TV programs, and the release of new albums of Marley-related material, commemorating the life and legacy of one of the most significant cultural artists of the 20th century and mourning his death on May 11, 1981, at the age of 36. This year Marley would have been 55 if he had survived the cancer in his right foot that claimed his life in 1981, and memorial festivals and events are taking place internationally. That a pop singer who died 19 years ago would still captivate people from Jamaica to California to Boston to New Zealand to Zanzibar is a testament to Marley's powerful and universal appeal, and the endurance of both his impressive musical contributions and his message of spiritual redemption.
To Prof. Horace Campbell, the author of Rasta and Resistance: from Marcus Garvey to Walter Rodney (Africa World Press, 1987) and a professor of African American Studies and Political Science at Syracuse University, it's no surprise that Marley's work still has contemporary relevance. "‘Redemption Song' will always resound," he said, referring to one of Marley's best-known songs, which encourages listeners to "emancipate yourselves from mental slavery." "One of the main problems we now have is this vast technological revolution which has led to the debasement of human values…Bob's message was that we are human beings, we have values, we're not just machines to make money." For many Marley fans, it's a message that seems increasingly vital in a cultural environment saturated with the often money-obsessed perspectives of much of contemporary black popular music.
Since nearly two decades have passed since Marley's death, his legacy is perhaps in danger of being lost on a new generation of young people. Still, because of the passion that endures for a man who became an international icon of revolution and cultural pride in the 1970s, many have striven to ensure that those too young to remember him will be exposed to Marley's music and message.
Among others, Bob's own children -- in particular Ziggy and brother Steve, who tour with an ensemble of Marley offspring called the Melody Makers -- have endeavored to bring their father's music to a new, youthful audience.
Last year Steve produced an album titled Chant Down Babylon, a collection of Marley songs remixed and digitally remastered to feature vocal performances by a selection of contemporary rap musicians. Save for notable contributions by Lauryn Hill ("Turn Your Lights Down Low," originally on Exodus, 1977) and Busta Rhymes (who sounds right at home growling in Jamaican patois on the Marley classic "Rastaman Chant" from 1973's Burnin'), the collection primarily demonstrates that it's impossible to improve on perfection.
It is, however, possible to repackage it to make it more palatable for an audience more accustomed to hip hop, and on this objective the album delivers, gaining a new following for revamped old classics and perhaps whetting appetites for a taste of the undiluted originals. Although many reggae purists balk at the idea of contaminating Marley's music with rap verses, Prof. Campbell sees Marley's discovery by a new generation as a positive development. "Youth respond to Marley today because they're looking for leadership, there's a need for clear political leadership," he said.
In addition to the efforts of Marley's children, popular artists such as Lauryn Hill, whose relationship with Bob's son Rohan has yielded two new Marley grandkids, self-consciously seek to embody and manifest the values Marley stood for. "Lauryn Hill is currently the best representation of Rastafari, the spirit of Bob, against every form of violence and oppression, against the dehumanizing culture of materialism," Prof. Campbell said enthusiastically. "Take what Lauryn Hill is saying, we must stop fighting for the Benjamins [one hundred dollar bills] and fight against the beast. Lauryn asks, ‘would you kill your brother for the Benjamins?' the same way Bob asks [on the song "Coming in From the Cold," Uprising, 1979] ‘would you let the system make you kill your brother man?' -- ‘No, dread, no' is the answer."
A self-described Rastafarian "from ever since," Marley infused his songs with a spiritual message of peace, love and social justice and lyrics taken directly from the Old Testament. Rastafarianism (or Rastafari) emerged as a popular religious movement in Jamaica in the 1930s, and taught that Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I (who before his coronation was called Ras Tafari) was the earthly embodiment of God ("Jah") and that through Rasta's redemptive power believers would be delivered from bondage in the west ("Babylon") to freedom in the Promised Land (Africa).
The belief system provided a powerful counter-narrative to the dehumanizing legacy of slavery and a spiritual means of overcoming that "dread-ful" experience. "Rastafari represents the spiritual values of our ancestors, reinforcing our sense that we are human beings, refuting a system which refuses to recognize our humanity," Campbell explained. Adherents of the faith often grow their hair in dreadlocks, the signature tresses that Marley popularized all over the world, eat an "ital" diet of fruit, vegetables and fish, and make frequent use of marijuana for meditation and spiritual reflection.
Despite Rastafarianism's preoccupation with the condition of black people, Marley's appeal transcended race. Freedom, equality and radical resistance to all forms of oppression were at the center of his thought and work, and his political message resonated with poor and disenfranchised people everywhere. "If you visit the Maori of New Zealand or Native Americans, all of them proclaim Bob Marley and Rasta because it spoke to their spiritual needs, their resistance to oppression," said Campbell. Quoting Marcus Garvey, Selassie, the Bible, Karl Marx and Jamaican folk wisdom, Marley unleashed sophisticated critiques of slavery, colonialism, capitalism and inequality in eloquently simple terms on songs like "Slave Driver" (Catch A Fire, 1973), "Get Up, Stand Up" (Burnin', 1973) and "Zimbabwe" (Survival, 1979), but also penned sentimental ruminations on love, and passionate praise songs in Jah's glory.
"Good God, I think this illiteracy, it's just a machine to make money," he sang on "Slave Driver," while on "Babylon System" (Survival, 1979) he proclaimed, "the Babylon system is the vampire, sucking the blood of the sufferer," laying bare the cruel nature of capitalist exploitation. "She's Gone" (Kaya, 1978) is a forlorn expression of lost love, the plaintive lament of a man who overlooked the signals of his lover's discontent until it was too late; as Bob sings mournfully, "Oh mockingbird, have you ever heard the words that I never heard?" On "Forever Loving Jah" (Uprising, 1980), an exuberant statement of spiritual faith, Marley expresses the boundless unconditional optimism and hope that Jah provides: "Old man river, don't cry for me, I've got a running stream of love you see, so no matter what stages, rages, changes they put us through, we'll never be blue."
After a ten-year career with the original Wailers (Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, boyhood collaborators who went on to successful solo careers), Bob Marley and the multi-piece Wailers band released ten albums between 1973 and 1980. An additional album of previously unreleased material, Confrontation, was put out in 1983, after Marley's death, and hundreds of compilations have followed, including Legend (1984), the "best of Bob Marley and the Wailers" collection that is one of the best-selling albums of all time. Although he enjoyed significant critical and commercial success during his life – he devoted most of his money to supporting thousands of poor people in Jamaica -- most of Marley's accolades and earnings have come posthumously. Last year Time magazine named his Exodus (1977) album one of the best recordings of the 20th century, and his legions of self-professed fans have grown to include some unlikely enthusiasts: former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Newt Gingrich, for example. Marley's legend has grown, too: in Jamaica he is a national hero; in parts of Africa he is revered like a musical saint; some Rastas see him as the reincarnation of Joseph; and among some Native American groups, his life and work are regarded as the fulfillment of ancient prophecy.
On "Ride, Natty, Ride," a song about the rise of Rastafari as a potent political force, Marley quoted the Bible in memorable fashion: "But the stone that the builder refuses shall be the head cornerstone," he sang with customary conviction. "It means that he who is rejected by society will be the prophet of a new social order," Campbell explained. Marley has found more widespread social acceptance and mainstream recognition in death than he ever received in life, and the continuing international tradition of celebrating his birthday each year is an indication of the strength of his eternal legacy. Perhaps the reggae prophet, who grew up poor in rural Jamaica and fended for himself as a youth on the streets of Kingston, was predicting his own destiny as the cornerstone of a worldwide cultural edifice that continues to grow and endure.