Bob Marley, Soul Rebel

“Live if you want to live / That’s what we got to give,” were the first lines sung by Bob Marley at the Amandla Festival held at the Harvard Coliseum some 34 years ago in 1979. Marley’s plea for life eternally resonates in the minds and hearts of all his listeners, which is exactly why he participated in the festival. “Amandla” derives from the South-African Zulu language and means power, strength or energy. It was the festival of unity. Nesta Robert Marley, who would have been 68 on February 6th, was the embodiment of the Third World’s struggle for self-determination.

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Jamaica— which is known as the land of the rebel slaves—is lush and mountainous. Unlike like their African American counterparts, the tiny island did not afford a “promised land”. Given the limited land mass there was place to go to freedom. Hence, the Jamaica religious creature did not focus on the Exodus narrative in her encounter with the Bible but rather Babylonian Exile. Like the Israelites of the Old Testament—a people torn from their motherland—they struggled to maintain their cultural identity in a wicked land.

The rebellious spirit of the Jamaica culture was also shaped by constant acts of resistance to the British plantocracy. Her national heroes—Samuel Sharpe, Marcus Garvey, Paul Bogle, Norman Manley, George William Gordon, Sir Alexander Bustamante, and Queen Nanny of the Maroons—defied British imperialism throughout the nation’s history. For Garvey, Sharpe, Bogle, Gordon, and Queen Nanny, their struggle was mandated by their religious beliefs. The fertile Blue Mountains—home of the rich coffee that bears its name—was the base from which Queen Nanny built a liberated community in the late 1600s. Nanny was born a slave and practitioner of obeah—a new world religion that was mixture of traditional West African religion and native Arawak faith practices. Upon escaping from slavery she formed a Maroon community. The Maroons were liberated slaves who built elaborate systems of support for runaway slaves. Nanny was among their most fierce leaders.

Cultural legend has it, that Maroons would raid the British plantations for supplies; as the British they were distinguished from “unfree” Africans by their hair. Living in the bush without combs, the Maroons hair would be tangled and locked into long braids. Upon seeing the fleecy locked Maroons the British referred to them as “those dreaded locks”—as a term of derision. Hence, “dread locks” became known as an aesthetic of resistance.

Nearly, three centuries later, Marcus Moisah Garvey—a descendent of the Maroons—continued the Jamaican struggle against “Babylon”. Garvey founded the Universal Negro Association and African Communities League to repatriate the African diaspora to Africa. Over 4 million people belong the Garvey movement worldwide. Emphasizing black pride and self-reliance, Garvey was considered a modern day John the Baptist by the Rastafarians. Throughout the 1920s, as Garvey traveled the world lecturing, he often called upon listeners to ” Look to Africa, when a black king shall be crowned for the day of deliverance is at hand”. In 1930, Haile Selassie became emperor of Ethiopia. At his ascendency to the throne, Selassie took the name Negusa Negas, which means the Elect of God, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah. Rastafarians believed that was fulfillment of Garvey’s prophetic utterance. For Rastafarians, Selassie was the second coming of Jesus.

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Early in Bob Marley’s career, he struggled to earn a living as musician in and around Kingston. Though Kingston was only a few miles from Nine Mile—Marley’s rural place of birth, it was worlds apart. Marley and his band mates, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer lived in the government housing project in Kingston named Trench Town. Notorious for gunplay, knife fights, and backbreaking poverty, Trench Town was also home to Mortimer Planno—a founder of Rastafari Movement Association. Planno established the Local Charter 37 of the Ethiopian World Federation taught the Rastafarian philosophy in his Trench Town home. Marley and the Wailers attended Planno’s sessions, which including African drumming and chanting.

Prior to his encounter with Planno, Marley’s music largely mimicked the black America’s Motown Sound that flooded the Jamaican airwaves. After listening to Planno interpretations of the Bible, Zion (Africa and African consciousness), Babylon (Western society and thinking), Marley joined the Rastafarian movement and adapted its Old Testament dietary restrictions and partook its meditative sacrament— ganja. Marley’s music was heavily influenced by Planno’s Rasta reasoning. Psalm 68’s referred to God as “Jah” and the term ‘I and I’ replaced “We” to designate equality of all. These terms and theology saturated Marley’s music and mind. Planno briefly managed Marley and the Wailers and produced the track ‘Selassie is a Chapel’.

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Over a decade after his first encounter with Planno, Marley took the stage at the Amandla Festival. The Amandla Festival was a step towards unity and the creation of a more aware, collective mentality. Bob Marley was the perfect artist to headline the concert, since his ideals paralleled those of unity, strength, and power. The other stated goal of the Amandla Festival was to combat racism in Boston, which was still reeling from courted ordered busing and terrible images of violent opposition. To this end, Boston’s stalwart civil rights activist, Mel King was the Master of Ceremony of the multi-racial event. R&B singer, Patti LaBelle and jazz musician Eddie Palmieri performed as well.

As ganja smoke permeated Harvard Stadium, Mel King introduced comedian, activist, and former Chicago mayoral candidate, Dick Gregory. Gregory reminded the crowd that the purpose of the gathering was to support the liberation of Zimbabwe, Namibia, and South Africa. (A decade later the then jailed Nelson Mandela would be freed and become the first President of a free and democratic South Africa.) Gregory proclaimed the festival was “to talk about unity, to talk about love, to talk about peace, to talk about respect for one another as human beings. That’s what this is all about today. That’s what this is all about today. That’s what you’re here for, that’s what you’re a part of. And I say; when you leave here, take it with you. That’s what’s gonna turn the world around!” Gregory’s deep words were neither abstract nor intangible.

“The number one problem is that America is morally and spiritually bankrupt,” said Gregory as he concluded his cosmic speech to the audience. According to Gregory, Marley overcame poverty and racism because he understood that “pain is just for a few minutes and pain is definitely for a lifetime”. As Gregory thanked Marley for sharing his spiritual power with the world, the crowd began to applause and whistles rang out in hot July air.

With a banner bearing the image of Hale Selassie as half man and half conquering lion of Judah as the backdrop, Marley and Gregory held and kissed hands. “Jah Rastafari”, Marley proclaimed. “Free Africa Now”, “Africa no free—I and I no free”, he continued. Drum sticks clicked, setting the timing and the skanky reggae rhyme set upon New England as never before. “Rastaman Vibration, yeah”, Marley sang as the Wailers strummed the syncopated backbeat on the guitar and drums. Clad in green, yellow, and red skirts, The I-Threes, his female backup singers responded with a loose and bold harmony, “Positive”. For over an hour Marley blessed the audience with classics such “Slave Driver”—a critique of the slavery’s enduring legacy of poverty and illiteracy; “Running Away”; with a Rasta-like chant rhythm, Marley quoted Haile Selassie’s 1963 Speech before the UN: ‘…until the philosophy which holds one race superior and another inferior is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned’. Marley then yelled, “War” and the band launched into the song, “War” based on Selassie’s speech. The band seamlessly transitioned to “No More Trouble in the World”.

Throughout the concert Marley danced about the stage in his self -ossessed manner. Often his eyes were closed and head titled back, Marley performance had an exceptionally religious quality. Like a Rasta revivalist he poured his soul in each song. A passionate display was during “No Woman Cry”. Begging his “little sister” not shed a tear over the current state of affairs. Over a grutal guitar solo, Marley lamented, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Planno’s prized student closed the concert with a sermon. He ended the concert by simply saying “Free”!

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In January, Marley’s spirit returned to the area; across the Charles River at Brighton Music Hall. A smaller, less diverse, and less ganja filled crowd, was transported into the mind of Marley at the beginning of the show. Roger Steffens, a Marley scholar and archivist shared the context in which Marley music was created. Then audience was treated to a performance of Bob Marley and the Wailers’ “Survival” Album.

“Survival” was released the same year as the Amandla Festival. Marley’s pervious album, “Kaya” received criticism.

According to critics the album lacked a lot of political or theological content for that matter. “Survival” was replete with an abundance of Rastafarian political theology. Songs like “Zimbabwe”, “Africa Unite”, and “Ride Natty Ride”, challenged oppressed and oppressor alike to change their Babylonian ways. So much so that it was censored in part by the South Africa’s apartheid regime. The contemporary Wailers had one original member, Ashon Barrett on bass. Carrying the guttural moans of the “suffers”, Barrett, effortlessly, held down the bottom.

Marley’s Brighton stand-in danced about the stage and gave the audience a glimpse of what the 1979 crowd experienced. “Babylon system is the vampire, falling empire,
Suckin’ the blood of the sufferers,” he crooned. And for a moment we all were, “free”.

—Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou with Matthew Mancuso

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