Music of resistance
Ethiopia was where the 60th birth anniversary of Robert Nesta Marley, better known as Bob Marley, was celebrated recently. It was a tribute to a ghetto-bred boy who had stood for peace, love and justice, and for the struggles of the impoverished and the powerless, says SHELLEY WALIA.
Bob Marley -- a symbol of the struggles of the impoverished and the powerless.
HIS five sons and his wife Rita Marley were there. So were the star performers N'dour and Baaba Maal of Senegal and Angelique Kidjo of Benin. The Rastafarian ethos was in the air with its dreadlocks and ethnicity, khaki camouflage and weeds so striking in the large audience that had gathered. It was in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where thousands gathered a few days ago to celebrate the 60th birth anniversary of Robert Nesta Marley (February 6, 1945 to May 11, 1981), better known as Bob Marley. It was a tribute to a ghetto-bred boy who had stood for peace, love and justice, and for the struggles of the impoverished and the powerless. Sixty years ago, Marley was born in a small village called Nine Miles in a rural St. Ann parish near Kingston in the Dry Harbour Mountains. His father Norval Marley, a white plantation overseer from England, was married to Cedella Booker, a black teenager from the north. This mixed heritage would be a dilemma for Marley till the end.
The concert in Ethiopia
The concert, one of the largest of its kind was held in Ethiopia and interestingly, not in Jamaica where Bob Marley was born. Marley's ties with Jamaica go back to his affiliations with the Rastafarian movement, a rebellious and messianic cult, which called for a final return to the African roots, "to unite and regain their glory". Ethiopia symbolised the African's spiritual home. Marcus Garvey, Jamaican civil rights leader, had predicted in 1930 that his fellow brothers must start "looking to Africa for the crowning of a king to know their redemption is near". This turned out to be a reality for the Rastafarians with the rise of Haile Selassie who became the Emperor of Ethiopia after the collapse of Imperial rule in 1974. As Jean Genet would say, "Are you there Africa with the bulging chest and oblong thigh? Sulking Africa, wrought of iron in the fire, Africa of the millions of royal slaves, deported Africa, drifting continent are you there? Slowly you vanish, you withdraw into the past, into the tales of castaways, colonial museums, the works of scholars; but I call you back this evening to attend a secret revel".
A world-wide following
Bob Marley, as a founding member of a group called the Wailing Wailers, first hit the Jamaican charts in 1964 with his heavy reggae and its blood and fire rhetoric; for the last 40 years his music has shown no signs of becoming outdated as is obvious from the celebrations and the world-wide following that he still enjoys. Music for Marley was evocative of the timeless and universal quality of peace and brotherhood, of unity and independence. A visionary and a revolutionary artist, he has become the icon of the African diaspora, a national heritage both for Jamaica and Ethiopia. His fist raised in triumph, together with the troubled rhythms of his songs which are attributed to the Rastafarian influence are a sign of his defiance that is at the heart of his music:
I, rebel music
I, rebel music
Why can't we roam this open country
Oh why can't we be what we want to be
We want to be free
The essence of reggae
Reggae is an African-Caribbean style of music developed on the island of Jamaica and is closely linked to the religion of Rastafarianism. It is founded upon its rhythm style characterised by regular chops on the backbeat, played by the rhythm guitarist. In 1963 Jackie Mittoo took the traditional ska beat and turned it into what we know now as reggae. Reggae music that Marley is associated with draws on the experience of the black people of Jamaica and Great Britain. It is steeped in Jamaican Creole with rhythms that are moody and heavy, a tightly constructed rhetoric that fuses the African oral tradition with the Pentecostal aiming to rouse the black audience with its history of the journey from Africa to Jamaica to Britain and then back to its homeland. The inspirational force behind it is the problem of the dialogic nation and diaspora within the context of transnational monopoly capitalism. In the bumpy geographical development of capitalism and the continuance of imperialism, the construction of identity becomes vital for the blacks whose interest has been in the expressive forms and rituals of the diaspora used to counter "white and dumb rages" and fuzzy suspicions. The style of such an art form, its gestures, its ideological character of cultural signs, and its very motives come into clash with the mainstream white culture challenging its principles of harmony and solidity. The confidence behind reggae screamed for the vital human need for due recognition denied to the oppressed.
Reggae's unique structure is imbued with this journey from slavery to servitude. And what really kept it afloat and struck a chord of fear in the hearts of the white slave owners was the African drum beat that had in the past been associated with pagan rites and anti-Christian sentiments in its celebration of negritude and black mythology. The disposed blacks could resurrect their lost continent paradoxically through the Bible which is the most central text in the consciousness of the Blacks and which had previously been used to subjugate them. The biblical ideas which had formerly argued on the binaries of Black Satan and the snow white lamb of God were now, by the Rastafarian movement, interpreted and appropriated to emphasise the need for liberation through faith and the Holy Spirit, as well as the main biblical thrust of the demise of slavery foreseeable in the dream of the Promised Land. The Bible would give the reggae singer the idiom and the vocabulary previously used by the white masters as strategies of dominance over the savage so as to adapt the entire Christian ideology for the comprehension of its history of slavery and final redemption. The fall of the imperial power in Ethiopia symbolised the fall of Babylon and the deliverance of the black race. As Marley says in his song "Stiff-Necked Fools":
Stiff-necked fools, you think you are cool
To deny me for simplicity.
Yes, you have gone for so long
With your love for vanity now.
Yes, you have got the wrong interpretation
Mixed up with vain imagination.
The lips of the righteous teach many,
But fools die for want of wisdom.
The rich man's wealth is in his city;
The righteous' wealth is in his Holy Place.
Marley and Rastafarianism
Rastafarianism preached this subversion of the white man's religion so as to see Haille Selassie crowned in Ethiopia as a God and the black race undergoing suffering in Babylon to be finally liberated. Rastafarianism, which was originally a movement to assert the supremacy of the black race, gradually drew away from racial hatred and began to lay more emphasis on the ideology of world peace and harmony. The religion has, over the years, spread throughout much of the world largely through immigration and interest generated by reggae.
Marley's devotion to the Rastafarian religion and its ideological underpinnings became the staple of his song writing that received global appreciation especially because of its message of brotherhood and peace for all of mankind.
Reaching an iconic stature, he was baptised into the Ethiopian Orthodox Church with the name Berhane Selassie just before his untimely demise from skin cancer known as malignant melanoma, which grew under his toenail. He paid no heed to the advice of having his toe amputated, saying "Rasta no abide amputation. I don't allow a mon ta be dismantled".
Such an operation undoubtedly would have hampered his dance and song performance which he was reluctant to give up at a stage when audiences around the world had begun to show positive response to his music and his ideology. Sadly, the cancer spread to his brain and other vital organs, and he passed away in Miami, Florida on May 11, 1981.
He died as an exile in his land of birth without fulfilling his hope of returning to his real home in Africa. Rita Marley, his wife, might succeed in her plans to exhume his remains in northern Jamaica and move them to his "spiritual homeland" of Ethiopia. Jamaica undoubtedly will offer stiff opposition to keep their national hero, a mythic figure integral to their history. This resistance will have to be overcome by Marley's family.
For more information visit: www.bobmarley.com
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