If Bob Marley Was Still Here
Posted: Thursday, January 31, 2002
6th Feb 1945 - 11th May 1981
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February, 01, 2002
By Barbara Makeda Blake Hannah
Each year as February rolls around, so does the annual celebration of the birth of Jamaica’s unofficial National Hero, Bob Marley. Falling as it conveniently does in Black History Month, Bob’s birthday and the events hosted by his siblings in Bob Marley Week, give reasons for a serious look at the Rastafari movement in both a national and global context. This is in view of the fact that – of all the Rastafari who have ever existed – Marley is the most famous and the one whose life has had the most far-reaching global effect.
Marley internationalized reggae music as a vehicle of Black protest and revolution in the early 70’s. Echoing the feelings of the youthful urban poor with the angry anthems "Small Axe" "Three O’Clock Road Block" and "Johnny Was a Good Boy", Bob Marley and the Wailers were the original ghetto rude boys who dared to confront "the shitstem" with musical verse, expressing their outrage at the inequality and injustices which pervaded Jamaican life at the bottom of the social ladder.
MARLEY’S MUSICAL MESSAGES
At the same time as creating his musical revolution in the 70s, Marley activated the twin half of his life work, namely the internationalization of the Rastafari movement, religion and lifestyle. Marley sang the songs which explained Rastafari beliefs in the divinity of Emperor Haile Selassie I, in Repatriation to Africa, and in the victory of Good over Evil. "Three Little Birds", "Exodus", "Rastaman Chant" and the rare "Haile Selassie is the Chapel" were some of the most powerful of Bob’s religious messages. As the power of Rastafari swelled out of the countryside Nyabinghi tabernacles and the inner-city Kingston ghettoes, Bob Marley put a handsome, media-friendly face on the controversial movement and not only took Rastafari ‘uptown’ but overseas across the globe.
In the process, Bob became world famous, equaling and in many ways surpassing the global effect of other famous musicians such as The Beatles, Elvis or Michael Jackson, for Bob’s fame encompassed a religious philosophy which filled the yearning of the world’s oppressed peoples. His fame not only remained so following his passing 20 years ago, but increases in fame as the years increase.
My link with Bob Marley goes back to 1972, when I decided to return to live in Jamaica after spending 8 years in England. My last job has been as PR Officer for the international launch of THE HARDER THEY COME -- Jamaica’s first feature film which first exposed reggae and Rastafari to the world. Before I left England, the film’s backer Chris Blackwell asked me on my return to host some foreign journalists he had invited to Jamaica to check out the music scene then just bursting into reggae-rich creativity and meet a new group. The group he introduced me to was The Wailers, whose leader Bob became a friend of mine for the remainder of his life.
Looking back at Bob Marley in his life, it is interesting to speculate on what Bob would have thought about the Rastafari world that exists today, 20 years after his death.
THE JESUS CHRIST CONTROVERSY
I wonder what Bob would have thought about the two new Rastafari viewpoints that have emerged regarding that controversial historical figure -- Jesus Christ. In Bob’s time Rastafari viewed Emperor Haile Selassie as Christ reborn, a 20th Century MAN-ifestation of God living again on earth in human form. This belief formed the most controversial of all the Rastafari philosophical and spiritual principles, and caused orthodox Christians to regard Rastafari as heretics and fools. Yet, it was the foundation of most of his songs. Bob’s song "JAH LIVE!", created after the word spread that the Emperor had allegedly been assassinated, showed that Rastafari philosophy was not in any way altered by the news.
Today, 20 years later, Rastafari views on Jesus Christ have developed into two main streams. Leading one stream is the philosophy of the multi-racial Twelve Tribes of Israel, which states that Emperor Haile Selassie was not Christ but a man, that the Emperor is dead and that the the rightful occupant of the throne of Ethiopia whom Rastafari should honour and help restore to the monarchy, is the exiled Crown Prince Zara Jacob.
The other stream, led by Rastafari’s most outstanding folk philosopher Mutabaruka, dismisses the name "Jesus Christ", replacing it with the Hebrew "Yeshua" – claimed to be the correct name of the man of Nazareth who lived 2000 years ago. Refuting many Biblical stories and claims, the Bible is rejected as ‘a book of Christian myths" reworking immemorial truths. The Divinity of Emperor Haile Selassie I is not regarded as in any way linked to, or the result of, a previous existence as Jesus of Nazareth who attained the title of "Christ". Selassie I’s divinity stands on its own in the eyes of this Rastafari philosophical development.
What would Bob say about all this?
REPATRIATION AND REPARATIONS
30 years after "Exodus" became an anthem of the Repatriation movement, would Bob be disappointed at how little progress has been made? Would he be surprised that the original Rasta cry: "NO REPATRIATION WITHOUT REPARATIONS!" has been forgotten, and that some have set out on their own to repatriate to Africa and start a new life?
Looking down on the pioneering efforts of Rastas in Africa, would Bob have reminded them of the wisdom of the Elders, who realized that without massive funding, Repatriation would not be successful? Would Bob have urged I&I to make greater efforts to receive reparations for the unpaid labour of our ancestors, the exploitation of our Continent and Diaspora, and the impoverishment of our peoples?
The dynamism and growth of Rastafari philosophy, has also led to other changes which Bob would never have envisaged. I remember being at 56 Hope Road one day when Bob, Skill Cole and Seeko were speaking angrily to a blonde American teenager, telling her to leave the premises and go back home to America. The girl said she had come to Jamaica and to Bob Marley because she wanted ‘to become a Rasta’. Bob and his associates were telling her in strong terms that it was not possible for her to become a Rasta – it was a ‘movement of Black people, FOR Black people."
What would Bob think of the proliferation of "white Rastas" who have grown up since the global spread of Rasta reggae music in the 70s? Just as there is no country in which one cannot meet a traditional African-race Rasta, Rastafari has believers in practically every single race on earth. There are Rastafari White Americans, Jews, Europeans and South Africans, North and South Amerindians, Aboriginee tribes of New Zealand and Australia, Polynesians of Hawaii and the Phillipines, Japanese, Indians and Chinese Rastafari, carrying the message of Rastafari in multi-racial voices.
Many ask if non-Africans whose genes and family histories do not store memories of centuries of suffering and oppression of an entire race, can really become Rastas. Non-Black Rastas are asked if they feel the deep emotions that cause people of African descent to become Rastafari in order to educate, explore and develop their Black racial and spiritual consciousness. The growth of "white Rastas" seems peculiar, because the Rastafari philosophy is so directly aimed at Black people, so it is strange to hear non-Africans state with assurance the basic Rastafari belief that an African man is the Deity of their faith. What would Bob say, if he was to see the thousands of white people eager to identify with Rastafari – whether Rastafari like it or not.
Would Bob be surprised by the fact that, as a result of the proliferation of "white Rastas", some of them have reached important ‘heights’ of Rastafari life, hosting Rastafari seminars, Rastafari radio programmes, and Rastafari Internet websites that present Rastafari to the world? What would Bob think of the fact that Rastafari is now being taught as a graduate subject in white universities to white students by non-Rastafari professors? What would Bob think of the fact that Rastafari is now authenticated by an ‘academic dictatorship’ which has become an ‘authority’ over the movement, publishing books and presenting international academic papers which claim to accurately define Rastafari expression, but which always fall short of full accuracy because they are prepared by those who proudly remain ‘outsiders’ of the movement?
RED, GOLD AND GREEN COMMERCIALISATION
Would Bob be pleased to see how many non-Rastas make money selling Red, Gold and Green books, clothing, food, drink, art, craft and souvenirs? What would he think about the "Reggae Rum" or the "Lion of Judah Overproof White Rum" with Rasta emblems on their labels, created and sold by non-Rasta Jamaicans, with no protest whatsoever from the Rasta community?
I wonder what Bob would think about his song "One Love" becoming a Jamaican tourism anthem, and Rasta colours used to advertise Jamaica by its official agencies -- especially when there are no Rastas visible in the Jamaican tourism industry – neither at the top level management, not employed within the official industry, nor even by the national tourism agencies. I think Bob would have been horrified to see his song being stripped of its revolutionary conception and watered down to the mundane level of a "Yellow Bird". But I know Bob would be pleased to see that the Red, Gold and Green banner has become an ‘unofficial’ Jamaica flag, and that everybody – not just Rastas – are smoking ganja anywhere and everywhere.
Most of all, I wonder what Bob Marley would have thought of Jamaica today – burdened by a political divisiveness which has few solutions. Bob knows that Rastafari long ago offered a political solution based on the objective of uniting all I&I as Jamaicans in the "One Love" about which he sang.
"One Love, one heart; let’s get together and feel alright" was not written to invite tourists to enjoy hedonistic pleasures, but to invite Jamaicans, Black people, the world to come together in loving I-nity to bring peace and harmony for all mankind.
This is what has drawn people of all races to Rastafari. The revolutionary content of much of Bob’s work has been lost under the glossy packaging of record company’s boxed sets, while the coffee table books on Bob and reggae by non-Rastas have translated and re-presented Rastafari in a format more acceptable to a potentially racist white audience.
In the process, controversial but important aspects of Rastafari principles as Garveyism, Afro-centricity, Egyptology, repatriation, reparations and legalization of the ganja sacrament are hidden, while Marley’s half-white racial background and non-confrontational songs are promoted -- to the constant tinkle of an ever-flowing cash register. If it is true, as one report indicates, that the Bob Marley estate earns US$1 million PER DAY in revenues from the proliferation of Marley music and memorabilia, then it is clear that sales would decrease dramatically if Marley was to become identified with a form of Rasta that was too militant. Peter Tosh – with his unrepentant militant Rasta stance – suffered in life and death from what Bob’s musical handlers have been careful to avoid. Yet Bob was I&I original Rebel.
MARLEY’S POLITICAL LEGACY UNFULFILLED
Bob Marley left a political legacy which I&I, his brothers and sisters still in flesh, are yet to inherit – not just in Jamaica. Dreadlocks have become a fashion hairstyle for Blacks everywhere and even some whites, but do dreadlocks unite more Black people to join together to achieve political and economic goals as seriously as – say – Jews?
And what of Bob’s other ‘political heirs’ – the Rasta men and women of reggae who tour the world sharing Rasta philosophy in music and reaping economic rewards far beyond their expectations? Have they contributed financially to the much-needed development of the wider Rastafari community? Where are the Rasta banks, co-operative farms, schools and educational foundations, chains of Red, Gold and Green shops and ital restaurants, the media outlets to deliver Rastafari messages, music, films and more?
Where is the united Rasta political lobby which can force a government to act on Rastafari demands, because its large number speaks with one voice and is backed by other Rastafari power groups around the globe? Would Bob be depressed to find that these foundations which should have been well-established by now, are instead invested in personal real estate, luxury material goods and exclusive lifestyles?
And would Bob be surprised to discover that, despite the international population of Rastafari, there is no I-nity of prayer, no powerful global gathering together at regular pre-announced times to ‘chant down the walls of Babylon’?
What would Bob Marley think of all this, were he alive today?
"Emancipate yourself from mental slavery,
None but ourselves can free our minds
Have no fear for atomic energy
Cause none of them can stop the time….
Won’t you help to sing
These songs of Freedom
They’re all I ever had
Barbara Makeda Blake Hannah - is an author ('RASTAFARI - THE NEW CREATION'; 'JOSEPH - A RASTA REGGAE FABLE") film maker and journalist devoted to issues of Afro-centric culture and history. She operates The Rasta Information Service at website: The Rastafari Page - http://www.geocities.com/maskel2001
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