Robert “Bob” Nesta Marley at 75
Tuff Gong Still Rules
An Essay By Michael D. Roberts
Born on February 6, 1945, the Third World’s only superstar was a
man of intense contradictions and genius. Now 39 years after his
untimely death Robert “Tuff Gong” Marley is still a musical legend.
And while his music lives on the world and his millions of fans still
miss the Supreme Rastaman. Like great wine Bob Marley gets better
with age and as the age of the Internet and an “instant gratification”
culture buttressed and underpinned by social media and fake
memes, on the 75 th anniversary of his birth controversy still swirls
around the man and his music.
In fact, much has changed over the time of his birth and the decades
following his death. Today, there are fresh raging and deadly
arguments about who is the oppressed and who is the oppressor in
the world today. So, just how does Bob Marley’s music count in this
volatile and explosive global scenario? Perhaps, his celebrated
unofficial anthem of Jamaica, “One Love,” offers an answer. I
believe that the song’s deep and blunt scariness and its juxtaposed
sorrow is a perfect mix for today.
For many believe this Marley song – carefully and artfully
constructed – was really a prophecy, and it’s hard to say which
would be worse: fulfilling the prophecy or averting it. No matter,
haunting and nostalgic at the same time “One Love” can still
unnerve and unsettle us — in this age it can still disrupt easy notions
of what’s right and wrong; it can still be a threat.
In his book Reggae and Caribbean Music, author Dave
Thompson, laments what he perceived to be the commercialized
pacification of reggae maestro and the Emerging World’s first and
only superstar’s more militant edge. He wrote the following:
“Bob Marley ranks among both the most popular and the
most misunderstood figures in modern [20 th century]
culture … That the machine has utterly emasculated
Marley is beyond doubt. Gone from the public record is
the ghetto kid who dreamed of Che Guevara and the Black
Panthers and pinned their posters up in the Wailers Soul
Shack record store; who believed in freedom; and the
fighting which it necessitated, and dressed the part on an
early album sleeve; whose heroes were James Brown
and Muhammad Ali; whose God was Ras Tafari and
whose sacrament was Marijuana. Instead, the Bob
Marley who surveys his kingdom today is smiling
benevolence, a shining sun, a waving palm tree, and a
string of hits which tumble out of polite radio like candy
from a gumball machine. Of course, it has assured
his immortality. But it has also demeaned him beyond
recognition. Bob Marley was worth far more.”
I could not agree more. I’ve been a follower and fan of Bob Marley’s
music since he burst on the musical scene on the 1970s. And, over
the years, I’ve written reams about the man, his music, and his life.
Now on the 72 5th anniversary of his birth, I’m going to take a shot at
analyzing some of the songs of Bob Marley to present the real
intrinsic meanings of his lyrics. I am going to delve, somewhat, into
the Bob Marley that Dave Thompson wrote about and I’m going to
make the case for his worth – and more.
Let me start by acknowledging that tremendous body if literary
works that have mushroomed around the life and times of Bob
Marley and his Clan. Indeed, many books have been written about
Marley from many angles. In fact, the Ghanaian-born
Jamaican/American poet, Kwame Dawes, in his book, “Bob
Marley: Lyrical Genius,” does a scholarly job of analyzing the
talented and gifted reggae chieftain. I also recommend “Catch a
Fire: The Life of Bob Marley” by Timothy White.
Marley’s classic reggae offering, "One Love" expresses the deeply
spiritual and social code of Jamaican Rastafarianism – "One God,
One Aim, One Destiny." It was a theme originated and inspired
by one of Jamaica’s premier Black Nationalists and heroes, Marcus
Mosiah Garvey, and his Universal Negro Improvement
Association (UNIA). It is a song about love, not just physical
love, but the kind that transcends the base human capacity to “love
one another” and morphs into something truly and utterly beautiful.
Indeed, “One Love” calls for peace and harmony through selflessly
helping others underscoring the universality of this message to cut
across all religious lines – from Christianity to Rastafarianism.
Marley adroitly made the case for compassion to "have pity on
those who chances grow thinner," and also issued a chillingly
blunt warning: “There ain't no hiding place from the father
The haunting, long, almost soulful lament of "No Woman, Nuh
Cry," is a reggae love ballad dedicated to women for all the sorrows
and hardships that they bear in society. Drawing on his upbringing
and experience with poverty and violence, Marley relives and recalls
the days he spent in "a government yard in Trench Town,"
and "observing the hypocrites/As they would mingle with
the good people we meet." This was to be a Marleyian hallmark
for in many of his songs, he castigated and excoriated society’s
hypocrites – from politicians to preachers – people who said one
thing and acted and did another.
In Marley’s days, Trench Town was (and still is to some extent) a
violent place in Kingston, the Jamaica’s capital city. Marley
captured the social climate of this ghetto when he sang: "Good
friends we have, good friends we've lost, along the way."
He then draws on his religious Rastafarian faith to offer hope for the
future: "In this great future you can't forget your past/ So
dry your tears I say/ No woman, no cry/No woman, no
cry/Little Darling, please don't shed no tears/No woman,
Marley’s lyrical genius shines through in the next verse of the song
when he reminisces about the simple pleasures that were there in an
at-risk community of the socially forgotten – despite the abject
poverty and social depression of Trench Town. He waxes “warm and
fuzzy” painting a picture of people united and drawn closer together
because of the commonality of poverty and a need for each one to
help the other.
“Redemption Song” was the last song that Bob Marley wrote.
And, it was the very last song he performed in public in Pittsburgh,
on September 22nd, 1981. Weary, knowing his death was near, the
Supreme Rastaman, Tuff Gong, sang a personal prayer that forced
us all to walk with him:
How long shall they kill our prophets
While we stand aside and look
Some say it’s just a part of it
We’ve got to fulfill the book
Won’t you help to sing,
These songs of freedom
‘Cause all I ever had, redemption songs
All I ever had, redemption songs
These songs of freedom.
Happy Birthday Bob!