Bob Marley: The Prophet’s feel-good theology

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this opinion piece by Drew Forrest. Here are excerpts; for full article, photos, and music videos, go to The Mail & Guardian. [Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.]

What is Bob Marley’s 1976 song Roots, Rock, Reggae saying? On the face of it, not much. He wants “Mr Music” — presumably a DJ — to play some reggae. And he boasts, playfully, that his songs are “bubbling” on the charts “like a mighty dread”.

It was Marley’s only single to break into the American Top 100 during his lifetime.

But, as so often with this master songsmith, seemingly trivial words carry a weighty sub-text. Music is an irresistible, quasi-religious imperative (“I can’t refuse it”), almost a destiny (“What to be got to be”).

All his songs, no matter how worldly on the surface, are devotional. Reggae is the music of freedom and togetherness: “Feel like dancing, dance ‘cause we are free/ Feel like dancing, come dance with me!”

Even the composition of Roots, Rock, Reggae, reflects the value of mutuality. Reggae songs were often the work of many hands and, like Marley’s signature track, No Woman No Cry, it seems to have been a collaboration with Jamaican songwriter Vincent Ford.

Music and its divine potency are also the theme of Trench Town Rock, which conjures the West Kingston slum of Marley’s childhood, scarred by the “trench”, an open sewer. It was here, among Jamaica’s underclass, that reggae was born. 

Originally “rege-rege”, Jamaican patwa (patois) for “ragged clothes”, it soothes remembered misery —“when it hits you, you feel no pain” — but also arouses pity for the many who are still “living small”. “Don’t turn your back”, he urges the “some” who are living big, “… never let the children cry.”

[. . .] Christians are so accustomed to the idea of faith as woe and self-flagellation — the hair shirt, the solitary cell, Christ’s “bloody sweat and agony” — that Marley’s idea of observance through sensory delight seems almost blasphemous.

It is a theme, a theological position, to which he constantly returns: “Live it up (x4) … give Jah all the thanks and praises” (Crisis); “We’re jammin’ in the name of the Lord” (Jamming).

Although he draws heavily on the language and prophetic tropes of the Christian Bible, he is hostile to the mainstream churches and what playwright George Bernard Shaw called “Crosstianity”: “Feel like bombin’ a church/ Now … that you know the preacher is lyin” (Talking Blues).

Nowhere in his songs is the crucifixion mentioned, and he is utterly removed from the morbid sense of sin and body horror of St Paul, St Augustine and their life-denying heirs.

There is no hell in his songs, indeed no Last Judgement or afterlife in the Christian sense. Life this side of the grave is what interests Marley; heaven, to which the entire black diaspora is invited, is the African millennium.

Nor does he believe in the foul-tempered, gouty old white man who passes for God in the Western imagination, William Blake’s “Noboddady [nobody’s daddy] aloft/ [who] farted and belched and coughed.”

Sin is “Babylon”, which for early Rastafarians meant Jamaica’s oppressive colonial government and police, but which Marley, Peter Tosh and others of their generation broadened to encompass the entire neo-imperial West, including the United States.

 “Rasta don’t work for no CIA,” Marley scolds in Rat Race. Indeed, the whole song can be seen as a complaint about the US, its violence, bullying relations with the poor South and “rude” competitive values.

Politics and religion were intertwined from the start of Rastafarianism in the 1930s. Raised as an Anglican, its founder, Leonard Howell, relocated the millennium to Ethiopia and its newly crowned emperor, Haile Selassie (“Might of the Trinity”, formerly Ras Tafari Makonnen), whom he identified as the “Black Messiah”.

Howell was deported from the US, jailed in Jamaica for subversion and locked in an asylum after baiting the authorities, established church and planter elite with his outspoken attacks on colonial rule and white supremacy. 

Police repeatedly raided his Rastafarian settlement, Pinnacle — in part because it used and traded ganja — finally shutting it down in 1958.

There is a direct line of succession from Howell to the anti-racism, anti-colonialism and Pan Africanism of Marley, Tosh, Black Uhuru and Burning Spear. [. . .]

For full article and videos, see

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