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Remembering The Prophetic Voice of Bob Marley

  • Written by  Omid Safi

Saturday marked the anniversary of Bob Marley’s passing away.    Marley passed away on May 11th, 1981. There is a classic commercial for the Jamaican beer Red Stripe that ends with the memorable line:  “Red Stripe and Reggae, helping our white friends dance for 70 years.”

Walk into most college scenes, and Reggae is as much a part of the American party scene as mainstream friendly hip-hop, equally devoid of any political content .

College kids+beer+reggae=instant party.

But if our familiarity with Reggae doesn’t extend past Bob Marley’s Legend albums (admittedly, one of the coolest albums ever), and we can only sing a few lines from “Buffalo Soldier” and humming along to “Let’s get together and feel all right”, we’re missing out on a whole world of Reggae worth exploring.

One could move on Peter Tosh.   Echoing the way that many 60’s radicals, including the later Dr. King, became disenchanted with the empty rhetoric of “peace”, Tosh sings:

“Everyone is crying out for peace,

none is crying out for justice.

I don’t want no peace,

I need equal rights and justice.”

 

Tosh saw this reggae message as a global struggle against colonialism and imperialism:

 

Everyone is fighting for equal rights and justice

Palestinians are fighting for equal rights and justice

Down in Angola, equal rights and justice

Down in Botswana, equal rights and justice

Down in Zimbabwe, equal rights and justice

Down in Rhodesia, equal rights and justice

 

Peter Tosh correctly recognized that his own struggles were linked to the anti-colonial struggles of Palestinians and Africans.

But there is no reason to move past Bob Marley himself.    Marley’s Rastafarianism was already wed to radical anti-colonial politics.    In memory of Bob Marley, the prophet of linking together music, protest, revolution, love, and redemption, here is his radically powerful song, “war.”  Marley’s song was almost a verbatim reiteration of the powerful speech given by Haile Selassie I before the League of Nations in 1963:

 

Bob Marley, “War”

 

Until the philosophy which hold one race superior

And another

Inferior

Is finally

And permanently

Discredited

And abandoned -

Everywhere is war -

Me say war.

 

 That until there no longer

First class and second class citizens of any nation

Until the color of a man’s skin

Is of no more significance than the color of his eyes -

Me say war. 

 

That until the basic human rights

Are equally guaranteed to all,

Without regard to race -

Dis a war. 

 

That until that day

The dream of lasting peace,

World citizenship

Rule of international morality

Will remain in but a fleeting illusion to be pursued,

But never attained -

Now everywhere is war – war.

 

 And until the ignoble and unhappy regimes

That hold our brothers in Angola,

In Mozambique,

South Africa

Sub-human bondage

Have been toppled,

Utterly destroyed -

Well, everywhere is war -

Me say war.

 

War in the east,

War in the west,

War up north,

War down south -

War – war -

Rumors of war.

 

And until that day,

The African continent

Will not know peace,

We Africans will fight – we find it necessary -

And we know we shall win

As we are confident

In the victory

Of good over evil -

Good over evil, yeah!

Good over evil -

Good over evil, yeah!

Good over evil -

Good over evil, yeah!

Let’s give Marley the last word here as well:

 

Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery;

None but ourselves can free our minds….

 

How long shall they kill our prophets,

While we stand aside and look?

 

Reggae is at its most revolutionary force when it is prophetic, emancipatory, raw, justice-oriented, anti-colonial, imbued with love and life-affirming.

And very much like Hip-Hop in this case, what a tragedy to see such powerful prophetic medium commercialized to enable awful, awful drunken dancing.

 

Happy Redemption, O Holy Bob.

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