Bob Marley: Are Musicians Revolutionaries?
One of my motivations for writing “The Popular Image of Bob Marley and Rastafarians” were the claims of Bob Marley being a prophet and a revolutionary. Is Bob Marley a revolutionary? Perhaps in a musical sense, but he never led a revolution. To refer to him as a revolutionary, I think, tends to undermine those who actually fought and died for the liberation of African people. He was a musician, not the leader of any particular movement. Was Marley a prophet? Perhaps if you are someone who believes in the Rastafarian religion, but then what of Leonard Howell, the author of The Promised Key and the man who first preached the doctrine of Haile Selassie’s divinity? Howell died the same year that Marley did, yet he is a man who has largely been forgotten by Rastafarians—as I explained in my essay, Marcus Garvey did not have a very favorable opinion of Rastas or Haile Selassie, yet there are more reggae songs dedicated to Garvey than there are songs dedicated to Howell.
In many ways the popularity of Bob Marley has helped to obscure some of the elements of the very Rastafarian movement that he popularized. This was perhaps best exemplified when rapper Snoop Dogg decided to become a Rasta, which is also mentioned in my essay. Snoop’s conversation was not motivated by any understanding of the history behind the Rastafarian movement. To have that level of understanding would be unnecessary given that as far as the public seems to be concerned, all that you need to be a Rasta is a love for reggae music and a love of ganja. For instance, First Lady Laura Bush was described by her daughter as a “secret Rastafarian” for being a Bob Marley fan, but how radically different would the First Lady of the United States being a “secret Rastafarian” be if she was a fan of the Promised Key, with its message of black supremacy? How radically different would it be if Snoop Lion publically proclaimed that Marcus Garvey is a prophet and sang about that in his music?
I myself was caught up in this. I knew of Bob Marley for a while, but I really did not start listening to his music until my sophomore year in high school. My father had referred Marley’s music to me, telling me that I should listen to Marley’s music because it was very socially coconscious. Marley’s music was in fact conscious, but throughout high school I never really understood the significance of Marcus Garvey and Pan-Africanism, despite listening to Marley’s music. I was listening to the music without have a complete understanding of the history behind that music. Another major motivation for writing “The Popular Image of Bob Marley and Rastafarians” is that many people who listen to Marley’s music really don’t understand the history behind that music—such as the Rastafarian movement, the Marcus Garvey movement, or the roots of Ethiopia’s Solomonic dynasty.
Aside from educating people on the history of the Rastafarian movement and how that movement influenced Marley, I also wanted to put Marley in perspective with my essay. This is why I made it clear that although Marley sang about the revolutionary struggles in Zimbabwe, he was not a fighter in those struggles. His music had a powerful Pan-African and revolutionary message, but as I said before, the massive popularity of Marley’s music, in my opinion, has helped to obscure the genuine revolutionary Pan-African struggle that Marley was singing about. When people think of Bob Marley they think of “One Love” or “don’t worry about a thing” but they generally don’t think about the struggle of African people around the world. The image of a ganja loving hippie is very different from the reality of Rastas in the 1970s when Marley came to international fame. Rastas in the Caribbean were in conflict with the governments. In my essay I point to the persecution of Rastas in Grenada, Antigua, and Dominica. Rastas were often brutalized by the police.
In my essay I briefly mentioned Peter Tosh, who was more radical than Marley was in some respects. I think Tosh was closer to being an actual revolutionary than Marley was in the sense that he was much more direct and outspoken about injustice than Marley was. For example, Tosh took part in the Rodney Riots of 1968, which was unrest that resulted from Walter Rodney being banned from Jamaica. He also participated in the One Love peace concert. Whereas Marley was there to try to create unity between Michael Manley and Edward Seaga, Tosh used the opportunity to criticize the oppressive practices of the Jamaican government in the presence of both men. I did not explore the dynamics of both men in much detail in my essay, but I would argue that Marley became an international music icon because his less militant approach seemed to connect with white audiences in ways which Tosh did not.
I also think that at times Marley’s music approached being a form of escapism in which Marley was engaging in singing against an oppressive system, as he explained in “Chant Down Babylon.” The reality is that one cannot merely chant away oppression. As Malcolm X said, “Today it’s time to stop singing and start swinging. You can’t sing up on freedom, but you can swing up on some freedom.” To speak of Marley as a revolutionary because of his music, I think, is to overstate the impact that music actually has on social change. This is why I stress the importance of the fact that Garvey’s mass movement and the Rastafarian movement in the Caribbean influenced Marley because it is political and social movements which influence artists, and not the other way around. This is not to say that artists cannot have a serious influence in their own right, but as far as I know, there was no musician who led a revolutionary mass movement through music alone, although Fela Kuti attempted this, with marginal success, as I will explain.
There was no mass organization or movement attached to Bob Marley. Rather he was part of a larger revolutionary movement in the 1970s. Again this is obscured, so that one only associates Rastas with Bob Marley and not with, for example, the Rastas who were involved in the Grenadian revolution that brought Maurice Bishop to power. Many of those same Rastas were imprisoned when they began to criticize Bishop’s government. These were people that were not only singing, but were directly involved in a form of political struggle. Prince Nna Nna, one of the Rastas who was jailed under Bishop’s regime, said that Rastas were the most grassroots element in Grenada, even more so than the revolutionary government.
This also speaks to a larger issue that I have noticed with socially conscious or politically charged music. That type of music certainly does have its place, but it is very limited unless it is connected to a real movement. In speaking about why political hip-hop eventually faded away, Boots Riley explained:
“A lot of good wishing was in the air with the music; Public Enemy, X-Clan and all of that type of stuff but there was no movement to make it real. So those ideas were not attached to something tangible for the folks that were listening to it. So you could wear the—and I have said this statement a lot—you could wear the African medallion and go home and there is no food in the refrigerator and you are struggling to pay the rent. And then you consciously or unconsciously start looking at that music as fantasy whereas someone making a record about how you can sell a rock (crack cocaine) and make $10, that's connected to a real movement.”
The reality is that if the music is not connected to a real movement then it becomes, as Boots called it, a fantasy. To illustrate this I would use Fela Kuti as an example. He was an artist who was even more politically outspoken than Bob Marley was. Unlike Marley, the target of Kuti’s music was not a system of oppression vaguely labeled as “Babylon.” Kuti called out Nigerian leaders by name, whether it was Olusegun Obasanjo, Shehu Shagari, or Muhammadu Buhari, or whoever else Kuti felt was involved in the oppression of African people. For this Kuti was frequently jailed and beaten.
Fela Kuti was a fearless government critic, but I found him to be lacking in terms of real political or historical understanding. For instance, Fela was an African traditionalist who seemed to misunderstand African tradition. In my essay “The Historical Struggle of African Womanhood” I discussed Fela’s sexism a bit and why Fela’s views on women were at odds with Yoruba norms, which typically stressed sexual discipline and marital fidelity. Fela’s views were also at odds with Africa’s general history of powerful and influential women. Fela viewed women largely as sexual objects that were meant to pleasure their men.
Fela had a political party known as the Movement of the People (MOP). Fela founded the MOP with the intentions of contesting the elections in Nigeria in 1979, but the party was never registered by the Federal Electoral Commission. By the 1980s Fela had abandoned his idea of a political party and created a new band named Egypt ’80. Fela was clearly more of a protest musician than he was a political leader or revolutionary.
Although Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti was not an internationally famous icon like her son became, Funmilayo was one of the most prominent anti-colonial activists to emerge from the anti-colonial movement in Africa in the 1950s and 1960s. I first heard of her through doing research on Fela Kuti himself and I became impressed by the sheer energy and uncompromising nature of Funmilayo. I became more impressed with her than by Fela Kuti. Fela himself seemed to have been greatly inspired by his mother’s fearless nature. He took pride recounting one instance in which she insulted a representative of the British Crown for not showing her proper respect.
Whereas Fela was a musician who used his music to attack corruption in Nigeria, his mother was a political activist. She was a founding member of the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) and the West African Students Union (WASU). She was also president of the Abeokuta Women’s Union. In my opinion, there is an important contrast between the political work of Funmilayo and that of Fela’s music. Fela may have had a political party, but it was not connected to a larger movement like the work his mother was doing was. This is why Fela’s political party quickly fell apart and he returned to singing.
I also do not want to give the impression that I am being completely dismissive of socially conscious music. The griot in African history was often a voice of protest who derided a ruler when it was necessary. This is a tradition that was taken to the Diaspora. In my essay on the 1970 Black Power revolution in Trinidad and Tobago, I mention the works of musicians such as Chalkdust, Black Stalin, Brother Valentino and others that criticized Prime Eric Williams through their music. I think in the Caribbean the critiques of the calypsonians are often times more stinging than the critiques of political opponents, so music can be a powerful tool for political criticism and protest.
So in conclusion I will say that artists do have an important role to play in the African struggle as people who can use their music to spread the message of African liberation, but singing alone has never liberated a people. This is why I would never classify Bob Marley as a revolutionary in the sense that some have classified him. Nevertheless, he has made an important contribution to the African struggle.
By Dwayne Wong Omowale
A historian and the author of many books on African history including Kingdoms and Civilizations of Africa, The Black African Crisis in the Age of a Black President, Malcolm X, Bob Marley, and Other Essay, Essays Towards Restoring the African Mind, and The Life, Goal, and Achievements of Marcus Garvey. Dwayne is also a board member of Speak Up Florida.