On my 30th birthday, a friend of mine gave me a black t-shirt with a picture of Bob Marley playing soccer on the front and the slogan “Free Bob!” printed over top of it. He had written a story for Slate with that title, but I didn’t know that when he showed up at my house in Boston and, besides, the gift was a symbol of something between us. In college we had held an annual Bob Marley birthday party, during which we skipped a day of classes and organized a co-ed music and soccer party near his off-campus house and maybe that’s what solidified our life-long friendship or maybe it was just the reason we acknowledged in each other that even if the world around us never knew it, there were Rasta hearts beating in our chests. I wore the shirt until the picture rubbed off, a time that spanned meeting my wife, getting married, and having a son. On the morning of my wedding day, I organized a soccer game in a field in a clearing in the mountains of Western North Carolina, and we men, women, children and dogs played and played to the riddim of Bob’s music.
The main drive of the “Free Bob Marley” Slate story is that Bob’s white American mainstream fans have hurt his legacy, because he’s been put in a corny box by Legend, by tapestries on dorm room walls featuring the art from Uprising, by a million pseudo-philosophical conversations held over smoking bongs by the wayward sons of the suburban bourgeoisie. The story also kind of reinforces the notion that early Studio One Bob Marley is good and late Tuff Gong Bob Marley isn’t, which is something I’ve heard NYC music people say for a long time and which I don’t really agree with. There’s a video of The Wailers being interviewed by Roger Steffens in 1987 in which he asks them all what their favorite Bob Marley songs were and, while the answers were varied, they were all about the message: “Roots,” “Jump Nyabinghi,” “Natty Dread,” “Get Up Stand Up,” “War.”
The message the t-shirt carried for me was simple, mysterious, defiant, loving. Free Bob! From what? A riddle like the man himself, a musical prophet who permanently altered the lives of millions of white suburban kids in so deep a way that most of them will never claim it for fear of being fingered as stoners. And then the reverberating reality that he did the same for many other tribes of folks across the world whose material experiences have almost nothing common. Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds. Everyone can dig that. A rain a-fall but the dirt he tough. A pot a-cook but a food na ‘nough. Has your belly ever rumbled in hunger? In the abundance of water, the fool is thirsty. Free Bob!
Now I and I overstand that, in the world of reggae, to mention his name is something in itself. If you play reggae, to 99 percent of the people you speak to, you play Bob Marley music. And that is a comparison that in the best scenario can’t be flattering, because if you really do play his music, you are a pale substitute and if you really don’t, it’s a flat dismissal that an entire genre has emerged over 40 years with all the variety of the people who play it. But I and I would suggest that the only true and proper way to free reggae music from Bob’s shadow, from the Marley family’s chokehold on the industry, from Legend’s eternal lock on the iTunes charts, is to honor the man himself. To hold him up higher and not to pretend him shadow don’t spread across everything we sing and play, tell and say.
I picked up A Brief History of Seven Killings last month and I am still working my way through it. There is nothing brief about it. In Marlon James’ many expert voices, the book is the story of Jamaica, of black Kingston, through the lens of the attempted political assassination of Bob Marley. It is not Jamaica from the American side, the road from Mo Bay through Negril to Ocho Rios, but from the other side, where the ghetto meets Hope Road, where American mining interests meet Jamaican politicians, where the CIA and the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas meet gunmen with AK-47s driving white Datsuns. It is a place where Bob Marley was hated and loved; feared and hunted; misunderstood and worshipped as a prophet. It gives meaning to songs like “Rat Race,” “Ambush In the Night,” and “The Heathen.”
Jamaica has moved on (and not moved on) from that chapter of its history in the way that America has moved on (and not moved on) from Selma. But Bob Marley lifted his voice up into a prayer, a spell, a shockwave designed to reverberate beyond Jamaica and its impact is still being felt, the outcomes still playing forward. To leave that alone is a mistake. You could argue that no one has ever spiritualized pop music in the way that he did, and that is why white Americans, spiritually impoverished, are the ones who have needed him the most and maybe also why the ones who need him most are afraid to claim him.
Bob used rhyme and reason, proverbs and sayings and psalms, bush and God, to create a language coded and codified for the struggle against global oppression in its spiritual and material manifestations. The things that make his words easy to dismiss and misinterpret are the same things that make their impact profound and everlasting. There are two things I want people to remember on his birthday this year. The first is that Bob’s true impact can be felt in his words, which are immortal and speak for themselves. The second is that their weight was so profound that people came to kill him in 1976. He went on stage two days later to sing his songs as a different man.
This week on Rootfire, we’ll be featuring the stories of musicians telling about how Bob Marley changed the way they look at the world and their music. Ask yourself. Betta know.