Wailer’s Grief

30 Years
Without
Bob Marley

He was still young, at 36, but had already become one of the greatest artist to ever have come from Africa. In his native Jamaica, only one of his mentors (and competitors), the older and still very much alive Jimmy Cliff, comes close to his popularity. But Bob Marley’s was closer in artistic affinity to Nigerian Fela Kuti, another of the continent’s exceptional performers with working class roots and a complicated relationship with power and religiosity.
At that time, being a poor, black Jamaican had similarities with poor rappers in New York City and L.A., circa 1990, growing up in the ghetto, being socially oppressed and nurtured to become a criminal. The music was his way out of that restraining reality, as it was with many an American rap artist, but not everyone of his inner circle made the transition. Or even survived it.
The experience of living in poverty and having so few options to transcend it, if one’s lucky enough not to be hijacked by the drug underworld, marked Marley deeply and is reflected in his music. As with many poor kids who made it big, he’d carry forever a sense of survivor’s guilty, of having succeed when many did not. It was a grunge and an armor, complete with an overinflated ego, exacerbated sense of pride and the arrogance of someone acting as if he didn’t owe a thing to anyone.
Nevertheless, part of the allure of Bob Marley’s legend is the generosity and longing for social justice one finds in his lyrics. Even though he was not as articulated as other musical, political and religious leaders of Jamaica, he still managed to write well-crafted verses infused with poignant, almost mystical simplicity. And then there was the reggae, at that point, the most defined and mature musical form coming from Africa. Another force of nature that Marley made his.
The death of his spiritual guide, Haile Selaissie, emperor of Ethiopia and a radical proponent of African unity through his Rastafarian doctrine, in 1975, at the brink of Marley’s transformation from local hero to global megastar, was another one of the many events that ultimately propelled and liberated him. After all, the ideological principles professed by the old “Lion of Judah” were beginning to be questioned even by the Jamaican youth, a fact that didn’t go unnoticed to Selassie’s followers, who may have wished the charismatic songwriter’s toxic mix of mysticism and political liberalism was not so appealing to the new generations.
Way before Selaissie’s death, though, Marley had already managed to upstage the powerful movement (Selassie’s name is Tafari; Ras means prince) that so identified his art in the beginning, out of his sheer talent to own the movement’s revolutionary (and hedonistic) strains, while staying clear of its more doctrinarian teachings.
By then, Marley’s music had become itself a more powerful symbol for African identity than Selassie’s out of sync dream of a huge continent under one rule, his own. It was an unblemished moment of spiritual liberation, a declaration of independence from what had come before, and it represented the maturity of Marley’s artistic expression. He was now unencumbered by the past and ready for the last and most successful years of his life.
Curiously, a powerful African artist such as Marley have influenced many more musicians from the West than from Africa. There are honorable exceptions and, of course, his many children. But even today, few even understand Marley’s combination of spiritual renewal and agitpop. Perhaps only South Africa’s Hugh Masekela, who’s older than him and an original author on his own right, could be mentioned here, in the light of his long history of artistic accomplishments and desire for social change.
Such observations may be irrelevant, but it’s somewhat unnerving to realize that there’s a big gap in African culture since his death. Besides the lack of truly inheritors of his legacy, there are only a few, if any, new, innovative recordings of his music. There hasn’t even been many re-readings of his greatest hits by other black musicians, Steve Wonder notwithstanding. Marley seems to be kept inside a air-tight amber capsule, these days: everyone pays respect to his iconic status, but few notice his humanity slowly evaporating.
It’s probably because he became much bigger than the sum of the unique components that conjured someone like him to emerge and dominate his era like he did. Perhaps this all is going to change. Let’s hope that new conditions arise and he’s image is forced down from the pedestal history placed it in, so we can have back at least a partial idea of the untamed energy of his talent, and the visceral impact of his breakthrough on the cultural scenario of the 1970s.
After 30 years, we need to grasp again a bit of Bob Marley’s relevance, have new insights on the complexity of his historical perspective, and regain the sense of the long missing transformative power of his music.

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