Bob Marley’s Fiery Legacy

So if a fire mek i bun

An if a blood mek i run

Rasta deh pon top Can’t you see?

So you can’t predict the flop.

Gotta lightning, thunder, brimstone an fire, fire

Lightning, thunder, brrrr brimstone an fire

Oh ya, fire, oh ya

Kill, cramp an paralyse

All weak-heart conception

Wipe dem out of creation, yeah!

These incendiary lyrics are not the words of Sizzla, Anthony B, Capleton, or any of the ‘fire bun’ Bobo dreads whose metaphors inflame today’s dancehall consciousness. The rhetoric is vintage Bob Marley: Revolution, from the 1974 Natty Dread album.

Three decades after his death, the revolutionary Tuff Gong Rastaman is now completely made over and repackaged as the poster boy for the Jamaican tourist industry. The Jamaica Tourist Board’s decision to adopt and adapt Marley’s One Love to market the island as a vacation paradise is understandable.

It is very difficult to use blood and fire to promote the Jamaican tourist product – unless one is advertising a sizzling jerk meat festival. So it makes commercial sense to construct the fiction of Jamaica as an out-of-many-one paradise. But this is not the truth that Bob Marley begs us to tell the children.

From the grave, Bob Marley cannot rise up in protest against the ways in which his intellectual property is being exploited by Babylon. Dead men sing no songs. Re-releases, yes; but no new songs. If Marley were alive today, he probably would be singing the very same range of songs as he did before he was cut down prematurely – songs chanting down Babylon in its many guises, and songs of love and reconciliation.

But the passage of time often produces selective memory. Bob Marley is now set up on a pedestal. His grounding in Kingston’s concrete jungle and his militant songs of social protest are conveniently forgotten. From that height of near divinity he is routinely summoned to cast down judgement on the generation of vipers that are the contemporary dancehall DJs.

In his lecture at the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona, Vybz Kartel perceptively reminded his audience that reggae used to be called ‘rebel’ music.  And he positioned dancehall as the ‘forwarding’ of this legacy of rebellion. But for many nostalgic reggae fans, any attempt to dare to suggest continuities between the work of Bob Marley and that of the DJs is simply sacrilegious.

Trench Town to Hope Road

Literal genealogy would suggest that it is to Bob Marley’s biological children that we should look to find the Marley musical legacy in its purest form. But their lives of privilege are far different from their father’s: rural upbringing with a religious mother; urban drift into the concrete jungle of Kingston; brief migration to the United States to do factory work; return to yard roots; unprecedented rise to international superstardom.

Bob Marley’s ideological heirs are far more likely to originate in the new generation of sufferers who have not yet managed to travel the social distance from Trench Town to Hope Road and up into the hills of material security. And ‘is nuff a dem’. Suffering is the generic condition of the impoverished masses of the Jamaican people who ambitiously strive to improve their circumstances.

In the words of Bounty Killer:

Mama she a sufferah

Papa im a sufferah

Can’t mek mi children grow up turn sufferah.

Skill at creating and performing lyrics about their own reality will give a few of this generation access to unimagined wealth. But most are alienated from Babylon and its culture of scarce benefits and spoils. In failing to remember Bob Marley’s own fiery chanting down of Babylon, Jamaican society does him, and his potential beneficiaries, a grave injustice. Cut off unnaturally from the contemporary generation of DJ chanters, Marley is made inaccessible to them as a credible role model of social protest.

     Marley’s biological children understand the need to bridge the ideological and rhythmic divide between their father’s generation and their own. They have experimented with his music, cutting and mixing it with dancehall, rap, and R&B, making it over for consumption by their contemporaries. Chant Down Babylon, produced by Stephen Marley, is an excellent example of this innovative trend.

In response to his critics, Stephen Marley is philosophical: “The people that say the music shouldn’t be touched is those that know that music and get it . . . . But all them people that listen to Tupac and the gangsta rap, them no get it. The ’70s, that culture and that time, was a very revolutionary essence, which a lot of older people had the opportunity to grasp and be affected by. It’s different now. . . . Now you have a whole heap of different things to show to the youth today; them get more of a thug mentality. But we are the living testimony of my father, and what you don’t know, me can tell you. And I can tell you in my heart, my father woulda dig this record.”

I would be the first to admit that some of our less-inventive DJs ought to take lessons from Marley in the use of symbolism. Marley often drew on proverbial wisdom to chant down Babylon – throwing word without naming names; throwing corn without calling fowl. By contrast, the youths not only throw corn, dem call fowl, dem catch the fowl, dem wring off di fowl neck, dem pick the feathers and dump the carcass in a pot of boiling water on the fire.

But each generation must tell its own complex truth. And, truth be told, if Marley were a youth today, he would sound a lot like Capleton, Sizzla and Anthony B.