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Who Killed the Real, Revolutionary Bob Marley?

  • Written by  Aaron Hampp
Bob Marley memorialized Bob Marley memorialized

I was lucky enough to get backstage to meet Damian Marley a few years ago, and I wonder what he thinks of the new documentary about his father, Marley, which opened on 4-20 and was made by director Kevin Macdonald, who previously did a documentary about Mick Jagger.

When I talked to Damian, the youngest of Bob Marley’s male children, and listened to the banter between him and his bodyguards and entourage in the small backstage room, I realized that my shallow white boy views of Bob Marley had been shaped by shallow white boy mainstream media.

Who stole the real Bob Marley from us?

And by the exploitive music culture that’s turned reggae into feel-good music played in beach bars where trollish people quaff Margaritas and Pina Coladas while shaking their cellulite.

In actual fact, Bob Marley’s life and music were not about “Is this love that I’m feelin’, or “No woman, no cry,” which are the only type of Bob Marley songs that get played on pop media these days…Bob Marley was about revolution, specifically Rastafari revolution.

Most people think Rastafari is all about consumption of a medical plant, wearing dreadlocks, and grooving reggae.

But that is a very shallow, mostly inaccurate portrayal of Rastafari, similar to the shallow, inaccurate way that Bob Marley himself has been portrayed.

For one thing, Rastafari is a separatist spiritual-political belief system created by a former emperor of Ethiopia who saw the world divided between righteous Rastafari and the corrupt West, referred to as Babylon.

These racial, spiritual, radical political elements are almost completely omitted from Marley the movie and from the “One Love” smoke ‘em media version of Rastafari and Bob Marley.

Backstage with Damian Marley, who looks in person and performs onstage like a reincarnation of his father, I caught the Babylon vibe.  

Damian wasn’t a pop star. He wasn’t in the music bizness so he could win Grammys and score lots of luscious young groupies, although a long line of gorgeous young girls were thronging the dressing room door trying to bust their way in.

I sat on a couch next to Damian talking to him almost in a whisper. Mainly because I could sense that the people in his entourage didn’t want me there.

His eyes blazed. Damian Marley is a super-intense dude. When I asked him what his music was all about, he closed his eyes. A minute or two went by. Then he recited some lyrics from songs that Bob Marley had written, and that Damian had adapted as his own:

Ev'rytime I hear the crack of a whip,
My blood runs cold.
I remember on the slave ship,
How they brutalize the very souls.
Today they say that we are free,
Only to be chained in poverty.
Good God, I think it's illiteracy;
It's only a machine that makes money.
Slave driver, the table is turn, y'all.

Slave driver, your table has turned
Catch a fire, your gonna get burned
Slave driver, your table has turned
Catch a fire, your gonna get burned


Old pirates, yes, they rob I
Sold I to the merchant ships
Minutes after they took I
From the bottomless pit
But my hand was made strong
By the hand of the almighty
We move forward in this generation
So won't you help to sing
these songs of freedom?

The “freedom song” side of Bob Marley is what I’d hoped to see way more of in the new movie Marley. I knew director Kevin Macdonald had it in him to do an exciting, politically-relevant passionate film that would have showed the context and worldwide relevance of Bob Marley’s Rastafari vision.

After all, director Macdonald won an Oscar for his 1999 “One Day in September” documentary, which featured a searing interview with an Arab terrorist allegedly responsible for assassinating Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

And Bob Marley was a lot more than just the “John Lennon of reggae.” Outside of the white boy world, people of the Third World remember Marley as a man who should have been head of the United Nations, who should have been prime minister of Jamaica.

For example, Marley helped organize the 1978 One Love Peace Concert in Jamaica, during which he engineered a public hands-clasped truce onstage between the Jamaican prime minister and his main political rival, at a time when Jamaica was rocked by widespread death and destruction caused by a civil war between the opposition and Jamaica’s government.

Marley survived assassination attempts in Jamaica, and the circumstances of his death in 1981 are the subject of as many conspiracy theories as the murder of John Lennon in New York City.

When I asked Damian Marley if he believed his father had been assassinated by the CIA or other Western baddies, he said no intelligent person could rule it out, given that Bob Marley’s stature at the time was of worldwide adulation, that some powerful people were urging Marley to get into politics, and that Bob Marley’s Rastafari beliefs were rooted in the struggle of the poor and oppressed against the capitalist, racist, military Babylon.

Unfortunately, although Macdonald does a workmanlike job of exploring the origins of reggae itself, Bob Marley’s music industry success, and some personal details of Marley’s life (he had a lot of women and made a lot of children, for example, what a surprise), Marley blandly takes the easy way out by avoiding the authentic anguish, fire and hardcore Rastafari fundamentalism that drove Marley’s most compelling songs and his inner beliefs.

Macdonald went soft. He made a PG-13 film that glosses over the real Marley. This movie could have won him another Oscar, if he had the guts to use the film to tie Marley’s legacy and his Rastafari roots into a broader context about the Babylon world that Bob Marley fought against and died to defeat.

In light of the shooting of Trayvon Martin, with multi-millionaire Mormon rich boys running for president advocating the dismantling of unions, with racists who’ve spent the last four years calling President Obama a Muslim-born in Kenya socialist, with washed-up amateur guitarist Ted Nugent holding up machine guns at a concert suggesting that Obama suck on the guns, with Mitt Romney and the GOP advocating even lower taxes on the rich, and trashing the safety net for the poor…in light of the rising economic gap between the 1% and the 99%, if Macdonald possessed some testicles, he would have made a film that explored the clear spirit of uprising that Bob Marley expressed in his song "War":

Until the philosophy which holds one race superior
And another
Is finally
And permanently
And abandoned -
Everywhere is war -
Me say war.

That until there no longer
First class and second class citizens of any nation
Until the colour of a man's skin
Is of no more significance than the colour of his eyes -
Me say war.

That until the basic human rights
Are equally guaranteed to all,
Without regard to race -
This is war.

That until that day
The dream of lasting peace,
World citizenship
Rule of international morality
Will remain in but a fleeting illusion to be pursued,
But never attained -
Now everywhere is war, war.

And until the ignoble and unhappy regimes
that hold our brothers in Angola,
In Mozambique,
South Africa
Sub-human bondage
Have been toppled,
Utterly destroyed -
Well, everywhere is war -
Me say war.

War in the east,
War in the west,
War up north,
War down south -
War - war -
Rumors of war.
And until that day,
The African continent
Will not know peace,
We Africans will fight - we find it necessary -
And we know we shall win
As we are confident
In the victory

Of good over evil…

Doesn’t sound like the tamed Bob Marley you hear about in Marley the movie, or at reggae night at the local bar, does it?

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Last modified on Monday, 02 July 2012 18:04

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