Jamaican Music

Bob Marley at Sixty Six: still the Poet Laureate of Reggae Music & its "Classical Troubadour

Bob Marley, the uneducated ghetto poet’s story is one of the 20th century’s most powerful and compelling human dramas. A prolific songwriter and musician, of significance and importance, Marley died at age of thirty six from melanoma cancer. Every aspect of Marley’s brief but extraordinary life has been the subject of the pen. His meteoric rise to international cultural importance and musical significance made him one of the most significant contributors to world culture. Had he lived he would have been sixty-six on February 6, 2011.

Reggae Music’s royal house consisted of Bob Marley, the “King of Reggae Music,” Peter Tosh the “Black Prince of Reggae Music” and Dennis Brown the “Crown Prince of Reggae Music.” While Dennis Brown was reggae music’s quintessential singer, its ultimate stylist and most influential vocalist, Bob Marley, was the Poet Laureate of Reggae Music, and, according to cultural critic Dr. Basil Wilson, reggae music’s Classical Troubadour. No other Jamaican since Marcus Garvey has had such a great impact on the world community’s consciousness with regard to the struggle for human rights, equality and justice as the Marley legacy.

As one-third of the legendary reggae group the Wailers, along with Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer his words and lyrics were the Lyric Poetry of Rebellion. Bob’s international recognition and cultural influence made him the symbol in reggae that bridged the divide between the races. His music defined reggae’s form, contents, logic and ethos with its messages of social justice, themes of moral rearmament and freedom for the human spirit.  Marley became the group’s most popular and successful spokesperson, though not it is most militant; that role was filled by Peter Tosh.

Marley’s life work was filled with universal and immortal qualities. His music was the embodiment of the revolutionary spirit of human freedom. His visionary music opposed violence, embodied struggle and the celebration of life. It transcended race and class distinctions, geographic boundaries and political and ideological affiliations. The themes of his songs were rooted in the sociopolitical, spiritual and cultural experiences of the oppressed world, and his lyrics were filled with passion and emotion. Marley’s charismatic persona and vocal stage presence commanded the world’s attention. His music intertwined with his Rastafarian ideology expressed cultural authenticity.

His importance as a world figure was obvious in the year of his death when Time Magazine’s obituary section placed him in the company of Israeli war hero/statesman Moshe Dyan, Academy Award winner William Holden, and four- star General Omar Bradley, as one of the important world figures who died in 1981. He’s received important awards including the Jamaican Order of Merit (The third highest honor in Jamaica. England’s British Broadcasting Corporation declared his song “One Love,” from his 1977 album “Exodus,” the anthem of the 20th century, and called Marley the Songwriter of the Century. Time Magazine also selected “Exodus” as the Album of the Century. The New York Times designated his 1974 album “Burnin'” as “the work of art from the 20th century that will survive 100 years into the future,” and placed his album “Exodus” in a time capsule to be opened at the end of this century. Vibe Magazine called “African Herbs Man” one of the 100 best albums of the century. He was inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the United States. Bob was also awarded the United Nations Medal of Peace on behalf of Africans. Disney Corp. built a $20 million memorial theme park in his honor at Disney World in Orlando, Florida. He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. With the world heaping such accolades upon him, it would be fitting for the government of Jamaica to consider upgrading Marley national award from Order of Merit given at the time of his death 30 years ago.

When he was alive, Marley as a musician was hard news for major newspapers and was the front-page story wherever he went around the world. In Ireland, he shared headlines with Pope John Paul II on the Pope’s visit to that country. Voted the ”hottest band in music” by Rolling Stone Magazine in 1979, the Wailers broke all attendance records set by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones in Europe in 1980.

“He is great who is what he is from nature, and never reminds us of others.” 
“Representative Man”- Ralph Emerson 

Poet Ralph Emerson’s phrase “representative man,” best describes Marley, who gave the poor and oppressed an important voice in the international arena of ideas. Through his message of social justice, themes of moral rearmament and freedom for the human spirit, he offered the sufferers of the world’s oppressed hope and promise. Those sufferers were the emotional center of Marley’s art. His message resonates with relevance today, 30 years after his death, more so than when he was alive. At the time of his death, noted Jamaican journalist John Hearne wrote, “He dug for, isolated and refined, delight and comfort to a billion people around the world … his songs of protest against social injustice contained not one word of hate.”

Despite every reason to hate, his songs were a message of love. More importantly, as Hearne said, “Bob Marley dredged so much loving into absolutely original music of his grim, hard, contemptuously treated childhood of poverty and neglect.” His music was rooted in moral rearmament, and at the emotional center of his art was his suffering people and so demanded a discourse between the oppressed and the oppressor.

British white slavery and colonialism bequeathed to Jamaica and the Third world a neo colonial society with an inherent class and color prejudice hierarchy, decidedly against the predominantly African majority. This situation gave rise to the need for an anti oppression black identity which the neocolonial state eschewed. The rise of Rastafari, as a Black Nationalist identity movement, one of the most compelling aspects of Marley’s message, created yet another identity for the nation’s people. Bob’s radical beliefs that “every man has a right to decide his own destiny” because “we refuse to be what you wanted us to be, we are what we are that is the way it is going to” therefore the oppressed should “get up, stand up for your rights” because “life is your right, so you can’t give up the fight” was both a clarion call and meant to strengthen the sense of self-identity that the oppressed felt deep within.

Marley message rooted in his Rastafari beliefs was the driving force behind this new identity. If Marcus Garvey’s message of Black liberation gave oppressed blacks the inspiration and philosophical rationale to fight the vestiges of slavery and colonialism, then Marley’s message of equal rights and justice and his Rastafari message of Black anti oppression, both espoused through reggae music, was the philosophical rationale which informed the new identity.

While Marcus Garvey’s movement was political and Marley’s was rooted in his music, one of Marley’s greatest achievements was situating the issues and concerns of social justice and cultural authenticity–which he sang about in Reggae–successfully in popular culture. Marley made discourse on these issues seem like acceptable dinner table topics. And did it as Mikal Gilmore noted in Rolling Stone Magazine, Marley, through his mellifluent insurgency… made hell tuneful”… as he sang about “how hell on earth comes too easily to too many.” He did this “like nobody before or since.” Marley’s accomplishments through reggae music and his impact have enhanced Jamaica’s national identity in the international community. Jamaica’s national identity is far more respected and admired because of Marley’s accomplishments. .

He also made it easier for Rock icons Sting and Bono to be taken seriously when they sang about human rights and debt relief for poor countries. Judy Mowatt, a member of the I-Threes– Marley’s back-up singers, said, “There is a reservoir of music (that) when you need to refer to a certain situation or crisis; there will always be a Bob Marley song that will relate to it.” He also placed the island nation of Jamaica on the world’s cultural map.

Marley and his band, the Wailers spent many hours composing, writing, critiquing the nightly concert performance. They would reason about and exchange ideas on Rastafari, music, religion and philosophy. Bassist Aston Barrett said “We often talked about the intrusion and influence of foreigners into reggae music.” Both agreed that continuing the commercial trend in reggae music was needed (much to the chagrin of some critics) until it had received sufficient international recognition, at which point they had planned to return the music to the Nyabingi form. Nyabingi is an orthodox form of Rastafari that focuses on celebration and reasoning. The return of the music to its Nyabingi origins would, they said, retain and maintain its cultural and spiritual integrity.

“In all his glory, a man is just a man. 
In his simplicity, a man is just a man.”-
 Garnett Silk 

He was a man of great complexity, deep convictions and often stirred intense controversy. He possessed an intelligent mind, was a brilliant musician and a thought-provoking lyricist. His ideas were compelling and his personality forceful. Though not formally educated, he was able to critically analyze and interpret the world in which he lived. His bias was decidedly toward the oppressed and poor, but his ideas had universal appeal. He was a man of great moral courage and spiritual strength.

In 1978 Marley was shot in an assassination attempt at his home. The following day, with a bullet lodged in his arm, he performed before a crowd of more than 80,000people at the “Smile Jamaica” concert at Jamaica’s National Heroes’ Circle.

Marley and his message emerge at a critical juncture, the end of neocolonialism. He was a man for his time who some say came before his time. He was a special human being whose story is a testament to the triumph of the human spirit. 

About the Author

Stan E Smith’s Weekly Entertainment News & Reggae Report on Radio:  

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About the author

Stan Evan Smith

Senior Editor and North East Media Coordinator for Jamaicans.com