Bob Marley is one of the finest poets Jamaica has produced. His skilful use of language – both English and Jamaican – compellingly affirms his highly charged literary sensibility. Biblical allusion, proverb, riddle and Rastafari symbolism are all potent elements of his creative writing. His words require the careful critical attention we usually give to poets who don’t know how to sing.
In “One Drop”, Bob Marley vividly defines reggae as a “drumbeat … playing a rhythm/resisting against the system.” And the central concern of his songs is, most certainly, beating down the oppressive social system. Babylon, the whore, the fallen woman of St John’s Revelation, must be chanted down in fiery poetry.
The Rastaman’s chant against Babylon echoes the fall of biblical Jericho. The power of the spoken word is brilliantly manifested in the distinctive language of Rastafari. With upful lyrics, Rastafari condemn downpressors of all stripes. And they teach a revolutionary philosophy that puts truths and rights at the very centre of the new curriculum.
In “Crazy Baldhead”, from the Rastaman Vibration album, the theme of revolution resounds. The social institutions of Babylon are seen as dysfunctional – the educational, religious and penal systems. “Brain-wash education” must be rejected and the con-man/crazy baldhead sent running out of town:
Build your penitentiary
We build your schools
Brain-wash education to make us the
Hateraged you reward for our love
Telling us of your God above.
We gonna chase those crazy
Chase those crazy bunkheads
Chase those crazy baldheads
Out of town.
Here comes the con-man
Coming with his con-plan
We won’t take no bribe
We got to stay alive.
ROBBERS AND SELLERS
Marley’s lyrical “Redemption Song”, from the Uprising album, is a classic example of the songwriter’s literary skill. The opening lines telescope time, compressing a whole history of exploitation and suffering into minutes:
Old pirates, yes
They rob I
Sold I to the merchant ships
Minutes after they took I
From the bottomless pit
Marley’s use of the word ‘pirates’ confirms the fact that many heroes of the British empire were nothing but common criminals. Sir John Hawkins and Sir Francis Drake were key actors in the slave trade, earning great wealth from the business of human torture. But Marley also reminds us that Africans were implicated in the mercenary enterprise of transatlantic slavery.
The ambiguous placement of Marley’s neutral ‘they’ inextricably links both the robbers and sellers. There is no real difference between the ‘they’ who rob and the ‘they’ who sell. True, if there were no buyers, there would be no sellers. But the instinct to exploit seems to be our common inhumanity.
But my hand was made strong
By the hand of the Almighty
We forward in this generation
This triumph requires of us a song, as the Melodians so plaintively chanted in Rivers of Babylon. Putting to music Psalm137, verse 1, they, like Bob Marley, knew that song is therapy:
Won’t you help to sing
These songs of freedom?
Cause all I ever have
Bob Marley appears to be contrasting songs of freedom with redemption songs. There’s a popular hymnal, Redemption Songs, that was first published in London in 1929 or thereabouts. It has become part of the religious culture of Jamaica, regularly showing up at wakes. The title page describes the book in this way: “A choice collection of 1,000 hymns and choruses for evangelistic meetings, solo, singers, choirs and the home.”
Redemption Songs seems to have come to Jamaica with evangelicals from the United States. It was my friend, Erna Brodber, a historical sociologist and novelist, who persuaded me that Marley is actually rejecting “redemption songs”. They are part of the Euro-American religious legacy. And that’s all he was once forced to have.
But there’s another meaning of redemption that I think we should also take into account. Redemption is the act of buying oneself out of slavery. The religious and commercial meanings of ‘redemption’ converge in Marley’s song. Redemption songs are also songs of freedom. There is divine grace – the hand of the Almighty. But there is also the practical justice of freeing one’s self from both physical and mental slavery.
Marley’s Redemption Song is both a rejection of evangelical Christian orthodoxy and an affirmation of a new redemptive vision. So, Marley pays tribute to Marcus Garvey, who prophetically declared, “We are going to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery because whilst others might free the body, none but ourselves can free the mind.”
But Garvey does not stop there. He gives a profound warning: “Mind is your only ruler, sovereign. The man who is not able to develop and use his mind is bound to be the slave of the other man who uses his mind.”Garvey is advocating a new kind of education. Not ‘head-decay-shun’, as Rastafari mockingly describe colonial schooling. If that’s all we ever have, we will continue to be enslaved by old notions of redemption. Like Bob Marley, we must create our own new songs of freedom.