“yeah me see myself as a revolutionary ... imma take no bribe from no one and fight it single handed with music”
Born on February 6, 1945, Robert Nesta Marley lived to become Jamaica's biggest cultural export and a musician, lyricist and songwriter of worldwide renown. Today, May 11, people around the world will mark 35 years since he died.
Though his life was cut short by Metastatic melanoma at the age of 36 — just five years after Rolling Stone awarded him and his band the Wailers with Band of the Year honors — Bob Marley's fame has continued to grow, with countless songs passing on to become timeless staples of pop culture.
Of course, few would argue that he is undeserving of the global recognition he received, even if much of this was bestowed posthumously.
However like many leaders and visionaries, Bob Marley has been re-branded, with his musical repertoire reduced to a handful of songs in order to strip the artist and man of his revolutionary outlook and positions.
Marley began from humble roots, coming from a rural family that moved to Trenchtown after his father died. He began his career in music after befriending individuals who would become legendary bandmates including Bunny Wailer, Peter Tosh and Junior Braithwaite, but still had to work as a welder and hotel janitor to make ends meet. Even after releasing his first album, the now-legendary singer went to work in the United States as a DuPont lab assistant and on the assembly line at a Delaware Chrysler plant.
By this time, Marley had adopted Rastafarianism, which included elements of Garveyism (the Jamaican Marcus Garvey had a lasting impact on the social and political on the Island), Pan-Africanism, as well anti-imperialism.
The politics of Bob Marley and the Wailers began to come through in the ‘70s, subtly in the 1970 hit release of Soul Rebels which features 400 Years, to Survival (1980), which featured a song celebrating the victory of Robert Mugabe's — yes, that Robert Mugabe — Zimbabwe African National Union over the racist Rhodesian government. Marley’s last album, released while still alive, Uprising, included Redemption Song, whose lyrics are in part taken from a speech given by Garvey during a 1937 trip to Nova Scotia, Canada.
The unquestionably moving song — largely stripped of its meaning and origin — has been covered by everyone from P!nk to Jewish reggae artist Matisyahu, while Bono claimed he brought the song with him to meetings with politicians.
While many of the more militant songs from the Wailers were written by Peter Tosh, they were not far off from Marley's own views.
In “War” (1978), Marley references another of his major political influences, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I and his fiery 1963 Speech to the United Nations where the leader proclaims:
"… until the philosophy which holds one race superior and another inferior is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned: That until there are no longer first-class and second class citizens of any nation; That until the color of a man's skin is of no more significance than the color of his eyes; That until the basic human rights are equally guaranteed to all without regard to race; That until that day, the dream of lasting peace and world citizenship and the rule of international morality will remain but a fleeting illusion, to be pursued but never attained; And until the ignoble and unhappy regimes that hold our brothers in Angola, in Mozambique and in South Africa in subhuman bondage have been toppled and destroyed; Until bigotry and prejudice and malicious and inhuman self-interest have been replaced by understanding and tolerance and good-will; Until all Africans stand and speak as free beings, equal in the eyes of all men, as stand and speak as free beings, equal in the eyes of all men, as they are in the eyes of Heaven; Until that day, the African continent will not know peace. We Africans will fight, if necessary, and we know that we shall win, as we are confident in the victory of good over evil ..."
Marley inserted his one perspective — until these things occur, it's war.
In addition to his song writing, Marley used his clout to personally involve himself in political affairs.
Along with other artists, Marley actively supported and campaigned for Michael Manley of the left-wing People’s National Party (PNP), even being shot on the way to perform at a campaign rally. Manley, whose PNP promised more wealth distribution and political empowerment for Jamaica's poor majorities, was a staunch ally of Cuba and Fidel Castro, and was regarded as a “communist” in Washington.
Even as he cemented his stardom, Marley displayed consistent and brave internationalism, headlining of the 1979 Amandla Festival in Boston which opposed the South African apartheid regime — at the time, being actively supported by the United States — and performing a year later in Zimbabwe's first Independence Day.
Robert Nesta Marley was a remarkable individual who accomplished an incredible amount in a short amount of time, and it is a testimony to his genius that his music has such universal appeal. Indeed, it is part of his legend.
But just as he thought of himself as a revolutionary — he sang it and lived it — and this is an important aspect of what drew people to him and his music, along with his sincerity and humility.
This should not be forgotten or stripped from the official record.