Bob Marley, National Hero? Does Jamaica need another one?

Bob Marley’s birthday was February 6 and February is officially month and in Jamaica, the discussion of making him a national hero is heating up.  When in 2000 I, as music editor for the New York paper ‘Caribbean Style’  wrote the original cover story raising the specter of Bob Marley being considered for national hero status in Jamaica; my intention was to provoke a debate on the merits of his candidacy and viability of whether or not Jamaica needed another national hero. I questioned whether it was time to consider, given Marley’s growing international importance, cultural significance, accorded Marley such a vaunted status.

In the interceding years while the debate never fully materialized at least two petitions have emanated from North America advocating making the reggae icon Bob Marley a national hero. The question of whether Bob Marley should be considered for national hero status and does Jamaica need another national hero is tied to Jamaica’s identity. Before this question can be answered the criteria for being considered for national hero status in Jamaica needs to be made public and to be discussed. Does Bob Marley meet the criteria? If so why hasn’t he been considered, if not, should the criteria be revised or updated to allow for Bob Marley to be considered?

All of Jamaica’s nine national heroes fought to establish their identity and laid the foundation for Jamaica as a nation. They earned their status because of their political anti-slavery, anti-colonial endeavors. In one way or another, they either fought for or were responsible for the development of the nation. Some were freedom fighters on the battlefield for the liberation of Jamaica, like Paul Bogle, Nanny ‘The Maroon’ and Sam Sharpe; others sought to establish freedom through the more formal legal and constitutional process like George William Gordon, Norman Manley, and Alexander Bustamante. Marcus Garvey– Jamaica’s first national hero’s, contributions was made because of the global impact of his political and ideological philosophy-Black Nationalism. Marley in his music philosophically drew almost exclusively from Garvey’s political philosophy and work. Did Marley in his music develop any new philosophical treatise beyond what Garvey, who to date has the largest political organization globally of an estimated 10 million people, wrote or did Marley simply popularize Garvey’s work and ideas?

The driving impetus for the advocacy for Bob Marley being made a national hero comes from within the Diaspora outside of Jamaica, where his accomplishments are far more recognized and celebrated than in Jamaica. He has received by far his most important honors outside of Jamaica from entities such as  the BBC, The New York Times, United Nations Medal of Peace, Time Magazine and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to name a few, contrasted against his Order of Merit (The third highest honor) honor in Jamaica given almost thirty years ago at the time of his death. Marley placed Jamaica on the world’s cultural map.
The strongest argument for considering Marley for national hero is as a cultural icon and how that related to Jamaica’s national identity. Marley’s accomplishments and impact has enhanced Jamaica’s national identity in the international community. His individual accomplishment and achievements, significant though they may be would be difficult to situate purely in the political realm; and to the extent that they do, they aren’t new or original. It is indisputable; 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.

Marley gave the poor and oppressed an important voice in the international arena of ideas. These sufferers were the emotional center of his art and his lyrics and Rastafarian philosophy demanded a discourse between oppressed and oppressor. The themes of his songs were rooted in sociopolitical, spiritual and cultural experiences of the oppressed world, and his lyrics were filled with passion and emotion. Marley charismatic persona and vocal stage presence commanded the world’s attention. His music intertwined with his Rastafarian ideology expressed cultural authenticity.

His importance as world figure was obvious 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, Egyptian President  Anwar Sadat and World War two  four star General Omar Bradley, as one of the important world figures who died in 1981. 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.”

While Garvey’s movement was political and Marley’s was rooted in his music, as such, one of Marley greatest achievements was situating the issues and concerns of social justice and cultural authenticity–which he sang about in Rastafari/Reggae– successfully in popular culture. Marley made discourse on these issues seem like acceptable dinner table topics.

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. Through his message of social justice, themes of moral rearmament and freedom for the human spirit, he offered the sufferers of the world’s ghettos hope and promise.

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. The essence of Marley is his moral intensity and spiritual passion which he brought to his art. His art was driven by his emotional compass and his Rastafari beliefs. His music was rooted in moral rearmament, and at the emotional center of his art were his suffering people, at the time, the nonwhite masses and the poor. Marley is not only important just because of whom he became, but because of whom he was before he became famous. Jamaica’s racial hierarchy and class structure, Marley’s biracial identity coupled with his rejection of his natural class/ race privileges to become a member of the black lower class as a Rasta, gave him a unique perspective on oppression and class discrimination and clearly informed his view.
While I am not conversant with the specific criteria for being a national hero, it seems to me the rationale for any nation having national heroes speaks to the identity and the character of its people. British white slavery and colonialism bequeathed to Jamaica 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 message, created yet another identity for the nation’s people.

Marley’s message was rooted in his Rastafari beliefs and was the driving force behind this new identity. Despite Jamaica’s national motto ‘Out of Many One People’ equal opportunity for many in all spheres was elusive. If Marcus Garvey’s message of Black liberation gave oppressed blacks the inspiration and philosophical rationale to fight the vestiges of slavery, colonialism, and neo-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 for the poor black masses. If Garvey, Jamaica’s first national hero’s, message had significant impact on the shaping of Jamaica’s post colonial identity then it seems a convincing case can be made that Marley’s message did the same thing for a later generation. Arguably Michael Manley’s social revolution and identity politics could not have been successful were it not for the pervasive influence of Rastafari and reggae music.

Why haven’t many important forces, including the Marley family, many of whom no longer reside in Jamaica, not been leaders of the movement for or at the forefront of the advocacy of Marley being made a national hero? How do the majority of Jamaicans on the island feel about this question? Should there be referendum in Jamaica on this question?

Pan-African ideas at its inception at the dawn of 19th century held sway until the end of the 20th century. Throughout the19th and 20th century all black people, regardless of where in the world they lived, suffered and shared a common body of oppression and injustices because of European colonization in much of the black world. Marley and his message emerge at a critical juncture, the end of neocolonialism. Marley’s message was timely and resonated clearly that he was a man for his time…the question is…is  it time that he should be made a national hero? Let the debate begin.

Published Jan 30, 2009: Edited  February 6