The Bob Marley songbook is bursting with eloquent social protest, exposing the poverty, oppression and injustice endured by inhabitants of the “developing” world.
“Burning and Looting”, for example: “This morning I woke up in a curfew. O my God I was a prisoner too … Could not recognise the faces standing over me, they were all dressed in uniforms of brutality.”
Or from “Slave Driver”: “Every time I hear the crack of a whip, my blood runs cold. I remember on the slave ship, how they brutalise the very souls. Today they say that we are free, only to be chained in poverty … slave driver catch a fire so you can get burn, now.”
This is a message as relevant today as it was when Marley died from cancer 30 years ago in 1981 at the age of 36.
“Check my life if I am in doubt,” advised Marley to any who doubted his authenticity.
The Jamaican roots reggae superstar of the 1970s was never motivated by fame or money, though Marley did acquire these things when reggae went global under his stewardship.
These materialistic trappings were regarded by Marley as the “tools of Babylon”, which he would use to raise consciousness and spread a revolutionary message.
As a “mixed-race” child of rural Jamaica and, later, the working-class Trenchtown district of Kingston, Marley experienced the inequities of the post-colonial system.
Selling records and filling concert halls was never a vehicle for the gratification of Marley’s ego. It was for the transformation of a conflict-ridden world divided between exploiters and exploited to a new order of peace, harmony and understanding — “one love”.
At times, Marley encountered temptation and sometimes strayed into the path of excess.
Yet, as Chris Salewicz’s definitive 2009 biography Bob Marley: The Untold Story shows, Marley remained uncorrupted by the music business.
Although Rastafarianism (like any religion) contains its fair share of irrational dogma, Marley’s emphasis was on “redemption” in the here and now by toppling “Babylon” (i.e. the racist imperialist system of oppression).
“If you know what life is worth, you will look for yours on earth,” sang Marley in “Get Up Stand Up”.
Like “liberation theology”, a strand of radical Christianity that made a welcome contribution to the anti-imperialist movement in Latin America, Rastafarianism is compatible (in many respects) with the secular struggle against capitalism.
Marley’s dissent made him a target for surveillance and harassment.
His militancy was too much for the US intelligence establishment, which regarded Marley and other Rastas, such as fellow Jamaican reggae musician Peter Tosh, as dangerous subversives.
“Rasta”, as Bob defiantly stated in “Rat Race”, “don’t work for no CIA”.
The dramatic implications of this line can only be understood when viewed in the context of Jamaican politics.
Following the “loss” of Cuba in 1959, Washington sought to contain the spread of genuinely independent Caribbean regimes.
By the mid-70s, Jamaica was in a state of unofficial civil war. Two political parties, each equipped with armed gangs, battled for control of the island.
On the mainstream left, there was Michael Manley’s Peoples National Party (PNP), which held government.
It was opposed by the deceptively-titled Jamaican Labour Party (JLP) under Edward Seaga, whose funding came from the domestic Jamaican “white” elite and foreign corporate interests involved in the mining industry.
The US government interfered to help fuel the political violence. It openly aimed to install Seaga (or “CIA-ga”, as he was widely known) in power.
Manley’s offences had been to pursue greater state control over the country’s plentiful bauxite reserves and engagement with Cuba’s revolutionary government.
The CIA, through the JLP, conducted a campaign of destabilisation against the Manley government.
Marley refused to be directly associated with Manley’s 1976 re-election campaign, but he did identify with Manley’s anti-imperialist policies.
At Manley’s request, he agreed to perform at the “Smile Jamaica” concert organised by the PNP.
In apparent retaliation, a squad of four JLP-affiliated hit men tried to assassinate Marley and his wife Rita on the eve of the concert.
Rita, with blood streaming from her scalp, only survived by playing dead at the wheel of her shot-up VW.
Marley’s manager stepped into the line of fire just as the gunman opened up, taking four bullets.
A ricochet struck Bob in the arm after grazing his chest. “If he had been inhaling instead of exhaling”, notes Salewicz, “the bullet would have gone into his heart.”
Two days later, the injured Marley performed at the concert.
A few days before the attempt on his life, Marley was visited by an official from the US embassy.
Salewicz said the official “advised the singer to tone down his lyrics, and to stop aiming at a white audience in the USA; if he didn’t, he would find his visa to enter America had been taken away”.
Whether the CIA ordered the assassination attempt or not, it is beyond doubt that the shadowy, murderous organisation was supporting right-wing elements in Jamaica that wanted anti-imperialists such as Marley dead.
There were thousands of JLP/CIA-orchestrated political killings during this period.
Having terrorised Jamaica for years, Seaga took power in 1980, severing relations with Cuba and implementing neoliberal policies.
Embracing neoliberalism, Manley returned to office with US backing in 1989.
After a succession of “business-friendly” governments, most of the island’s population remains mired in poverty.
For people of the left, Marley should be remembered as a comrade in the common struggle.
Although he mistrusted Jamaican “politricks” (with good reason) and was never an orthodox “socialist”, Marley was nothing if not a vehement critic of the global capitalist “Babylon System” — which he memorably described as “the vampire, falling empire, sucking the blood of the sufferers ... Deceiving the people continually”.
Bob Marley performs 'War'.