- 11 May 20
On the 39th anniversary of the reggae superstar's death, we dial back to Niall Stokes' epic encounter with Bob Marley, when the very essence of his beliefs and music was discussed. In many ways, it feels like entering a different and far more innocent time-zone. Which, of course, is exactly what's involved...
Take this as coming from one who possesses not an intimate knowledge, but rather a growing affection; from one, who has moved from an initial distrust to a developing fascination, but for whom something like Two Sevens Clash is still an obscure and largely impenetrable artefact. Take it as coming from one who does not understand but sympathises; who sympathises but cannot agree. Take it as coming from one who is of Babylon.
I was always into reggae, but only as much as it came my way. I never sought out the roots or followed it up to the point where it’s life outside the contemporary pop mainstream became evident. I knew that it originated in Jamaica – but little else.
Then came Bob Marley and that initial distrust. The fact that the Rastafari religion dominated his material threw up my defences.
Which may be a quintessentially Irish reaction: because we’ve had religion stuffed down our gullets from so early and for so long, it’s that much harder to take proselytising with any kind of equanimity.
The realisation that something of value – of real value – burns through the work of Bob Marley, irrespective, came slowly. But it came. I still feel there’s a degree of naivety in some of the sentiments and beliefs expressed, potentially completely off-putting in the long term – but there is something being articulated also which transcends such specific quibbling. Something vitally important.
For the moment, let’s just say that Rastafari and Reggae, intimately inter-related one with the other as things stand, are both also essential to the emerging identity of the black people of Jamaica.
While it would be fine to expect more in a European nation evolving a workable democracy – that they might find their identity through a collective political stance or realisation – there is no background of educational sophistication to inspire political insight among Jamaica's black population.
Their response is simpler – in that sense of being less sophisticated. More primitive, if we accept that adherence to totally specific religious answers is being gradually discredited as science, anthropology and increasing cross-fertilisation of cultures reveal such single-mindedness as being too ridiculously commonplace to be defensible.
But the Rastafari – or Rastafarian – religion has given the Jamaican people, or at least some of them, a pride they never previously felt. It has given them a direction and a sense of communal purpose. It is taking them out of their immediate misery, giving them the strength to build up and away from their ghetto past.
Not that everything is necessarily gonna be alright at all. More of that later. But there is somewhere to go and a means of getting there. The real achievement may well lie in what’s accomplished along the route. The hope may also be that those very achievements will make it inevitable that the more fantastic, the more fanatical among their current objectives will be forgotten. That remains to be seen.
The important thing now is that there is a means towards a better end than has been the Jamaican lot.
Haile Selassie notwithstanding.
Bob Marley is primarily a religious man. There seems to be absolutely no way one could discuss his music with him without reference to his God. It is his complete motivating force.
He explains it patiently but with the kind of quiet assurance that comes only from being a True Believer. He says that it was always his motivating force. Those who imposed a political interpretation of his work were wide of the mark in that political repercussions represent an incidental – though probably an inevitable – implication of his vision.
But to begin at the beginning I open by suggesting to Bob Marley that his material has moved to some extent away from politics. His answer is to disavow intentional political attitudinising, at all.
“They not really move away from anything. ’Tis music. It can’t be political all the while, you know? Me never like what politics really represent. So it’s not really politic, it’s really talking about roots. Mon roots, y’know? And Exodus is really Exodus from Babylon to freedom, seen?”
And roots, as you’re probably aware, is a dangerous word. But there’s no point in letting the question go a-begging. What does he mean by it?
He doesn’t answer the question directly. He never does. The interview consists of a series of barely-connected tangents, that nevertheless centre around a very specific core. Anyway, he answers.
“What I mean is that when I look upon the earth I see the vision too much that people don’t know them roots. Mankind don’t know them roots. Seen? When I check with myself I see that in the last destruction, one man saved, who was Noah and with him three sons, Ham, Shem and Japhet and them wives.
“All of this people on the earth today come from these people and them wives, who multiplied people. What is wrong is that mankind figure there is something different… like, is a different God make some people and a different God make other people, when it is one God make all people.”
He speaks about the whole thing as if it is self-evident and obviously irrefutable.
“I understand something universal about people. I understand that all people have one father, which is Noah because Noah is the one who was saved during the time of the flood. So people is universal in that them all come from one father, them have one roots because them father is Noah.
“So this is the only way you know ‘em can unite – by knowing them father. So you can find the communication between you and the black man and the man from Asia.”
Babylon is one of the concepts that worries me in the whole Rasta thing. It suggests that salvation is only for the black man. Babylon is his place of captivity – Ethiopia, or looking at it in the wider perspective, Africa, represents his promised land. What he yearns – and is struggling for it – is deliverance.
Thus people are dumped or lumped into exclusive camps. Antagonistic camps too, in that those who originally inhabit Babylon are responsible for keeping black man in captivity.
Bob Marley is talking to me now like a friend. Can white people possibly be incorporated into his understanding of salvation? The potential political issue – and it’s attendant personal implications – are skirted and avoided in Bob’s answer.
“Thing is Ham, Shem and Japhet. Noah have three sons: Ham, Shem and Japhet. Ham is the black man, seen? Shem is the man from Asia. Japhet is the white man, seen? Now, when them three sons come, them never like one white, one black and one brown. Them was all black. But man move into different climate – ‘cos Noah give Europe to Japhet an’ Europe is cold... an’ he move out an’ his skin come clearer and clearer and clearer and clearer. Understand?”
Which is as good a way as any of turning the tables on the crappy image of the White Aryan Adam we’ve been spoon fed since time immemorial. But it’s hardly likely to make the whole notion any more palatable.
Anyway, Bob elaborates: “So white people is included if them know them roots is the same… That is the root of the white people. From Japhet, them get the blessing of technology. We get the blessings of wisdom from Ham.
“The division started then, the white man got Europe, we get Africa… the other Asia.”
But if you don’t believe in Noah in the Rastafari way, then I guess you’re just about doomed. Which sounds mighty familiar, all you Christians out there. Except it wasn’t Noah, right?
“Babylon is Babylon – set up themselves ‘cos them stray from the ways of them father. ‘Cos Noah is them father, right? So them go and get them one house and make them one family and them become Babylon. ‘Cos them stray from teachings of their father.”
The logical implication of which is that anyone who rejects Noah is Babylon. Bob becomes animated, talking at high speed.
“Yeah!!! You cannot reject your father – because how can you deny your father? And your father is a righteous man. You cannot say your father is a junker – do have no good. Your father is a hopeful man because him build the ark of time when earth was saved. That mean your father is Noah. Noah was a righteous man. That means that any man should be proud to know that Noah is him father.”
He laughs outright at the perfect logic of it all.
“That is why, for the unity of mankind, money or nothing else can do it. If we come from a different planet, we could never come together. But we all come from the same father. That is why it is possible to come together.”
The question as to what’s supposed to happen when all the Rastas head down to Ethiopia has always puzzled me.
Another Arab-Israeli conflict? I don’t think of putting it that way on the spot.
“It’s the people fulfilling their desires and doing just like the bible say. And y’know, it’s just like Ham must return to Africa because Ham is from Africa. So it is the fulfilment of the bible.”
I wonder is this a practical projection.
“What can be more practical than a fulfilment? ‘Cos it really is a practical thing, really doing it. Get people going.
“The other thing is that Rome will fight Ethiopia. Now you have two brothers who quarrel. You have a big guy who have them guns and technical skill so we no get the land. Look what is happening in Ethiopia now! Them kill an awful lot of people there foolishly. I don’t get the big idea. What’s the idea them try to kill all the people?”
My own belief is that so many problems of this kind arise because people feel they hold the only valid ideas, to the point where they’re willing to kill to defend or spread them.
Bob Marley: “Yeah, that is ideas. But the truth is the truth. If a guy have idea and can’t prove it, then that is bad. But if you have something and you can prove it, y’know. That is proof. ‘Cos if his majesty is God, that is proof then his majesty is the almighty.”
And the kind of thing that doesn’t need to be proved is that Haile Selassie is divinity. Marley’s advice for the warring factions in Northern Ireland is to look in his direction.
“One thing you can tell them. Some people have education. Some people do bad things, that them can’t see God again. But if Noah is them father. What kind of religion? The religion is Rastafari! Because if you find Noah is your father – you follow the lineage down, see where it come from. Your lineage go right to Selassie I.
“Catholics and other people have too much going on. Don’t them read the bible?”
Needless to say, Rastafari occupied the bulk of our conversation. It makes me feel weird, when all’s said and done, that the whole package sounds so similar to our own particular form of brainwashing.
It’s even weirder when you consider how hip the whole reggae thing is considered, given that the Rasta message being promulgated is so naïve from a ‘first world’ standpoint. It’s as if people haven’t thought about the implications of any of it.
I mean how does all this fit with punks and their initial social realism?
The fact is that Marley knows sweet damn all about punk and doesn’t pretend otherwise, despite the appearances conjured by ‘Punky Reggae Party’. Indeed I guess quite a few people will be amazed and/or affronted hearing the kind of people he listens to.
“Yeah, we listen to other music, man. All music, we listen to. We listen to Barry White. We listen to Issac Hayes. Also Earth, Wind and Fire. We listen to all black artists, man.”
Barry White? Issac Hayes??? Gasp! Your credibility, Bob is in mortal danger. More revelations pending, however. What about white people?
“Yeah, we listen to most people we get from Island. Stones and people. And Jefferson Starship, The Eagles and an’ all of them.”
I play it cool. The Eagles did I hear you say, Bob?
“Great… Go to 'Hotel California'. Yeah!”
Treat the emergency cases in the ward on the left, please. What he gets off on actually is the total sound – and particularly their brilliant harmonies. He shows nothing like the same knowledge of punk.
What does he feel about the association between it and reggae?
“I couldn’t really stop the snow, you know? It’s a mystic association. No comment.”
For which there’s probably a more pertinent reason than any mystic bit. He admits, “I never really hear a lot of punk music, y’know?”
But from what he knows of the movement, he sympathises with it.
“It’s great ‘cos a punk feel that English society do them no good. They want them roots.”
They also probably see Marley as a punk in his own way: “That’s so I’m sure. The Babylon system look on me as a punk. But it is not me that is the punk. Is them that is the punk!”
He laughs loudly.
And by the way, ‘Punky Reggae Party’ was all Lee Perry’s idea, a way of saying thanks to The Clash for doing their version of ‘Police And Thieves’.
All of which has to be placed in the context of the gradual softening of Marley’s stance since the days of Natty Dread polemic.
There is nothing as anthemic as ‘Get Up, Stand Up’, ‘War’ or even ‘Exodus’ on his new album Kaya. Nowhere does he draw the lines between the righteous and the wrong. He has become a fox, where once he was a lion. He has learned the truth of his own words, "He that fights and runs away/ Lives to fight another day". I ask him does his more restrained approach relate to the incident where he was shot at the concert held as part of Prime Minister Michael Manley’s election build-up.
He wants to forget that entirely. There’s no point in reactivating a potentially inflammatory issue. Anyway, he puts his drifts down to tactics. His new albums are more mellow. Possibly more commercial.
“We not really singing more love songs but inviting more people to listen. So we’re not so political. We’re going out on the road, and when we come home and play music to the child, them sing it. We just sing to get them to sing.”
Which is the kind of process that’s involved, only this time on a macroscopic level.
“That means to get more people, you have to take it easy sometime. ‘Easy Skanking’. ‘Is This Love?’ You get more people to listen and then you can say what you want to next time. That’s how we do it anyway.”
Which, you might speculate, is the kind of logic he learned from The Eagles, though the latter had no ultimate vision with which to zap the multitudes. The question is – will Marley retain his, when the hour is at hand?
He adopts the same kind of attitude about exposure in the UK national press, Britain’s modern equivalent of the penny dreadfuls.
“What is important is that them show Rasta again. This is the thing. Them educate the people to Rasta, ‘cos it is easy for them to do it, ‘cos they are the media. I could never get so many people as when a newspaper come out – all the people who read the newspaper that day read of Rasta. That mean, spiritually a tiny notch get in. That is really a fulfilment! That’s a good reason!!”
He bursts out laughing again.
But I’m not sure that it works quite like that. Compromise, however creatively motivated holds its inherent dangers that can’t be easily surmounted.
It’s interesting that even the concept of singing a love song man to woman involves him in contradictory feelings. He explains: “To me the word love is God. That is my meaning of love – is God. When we say me love a woman or me love this, that is not right. God himself is love.”
And still Bob Marley can sing, "I don’t want to wait in vain for your love."
“That’s a trick again. Invite more people. People who never used to listen to ‘Burnin’ an all thing, because my thing is to communicate with all people.”
Suddenly the simplicity of it all becomes evident. The polemics in which Bob Marley engaged were, for the most part, addressed to his Jamaican audience and the crazy baldheads against whom they were struggling. But he’s now addressing himself to an international audience as wide as possible. He figures he’s got to bring Rasta to them more cautiously, to speak their language before asking them to speak his.
His work has lost some of his intensity – but then it’s developed an equally attractive tenderness and compassion. Nowadays Marley asks ‘why fight?’ ‘why kill?’ But he still sings with deep and sometimes devastating feeling.
He has become an agent of peace in a world rift asunder with violence. He wants to subvert the system whereby people are manipulable by cold, impersonal and oppressive bureaucracies, but without violent consequence.
To some that will seem like a cop-out. To others, it’s a perfectly logical development in one who has not only seen but also felt those consequences.
The crucial factor however is that the strength of the music burns, irrespective of the religious purpose behind it. Bob Marley himself might not particularly welcome that assessment, but I think it’s inevitable.
However many people he may turn-on to their own spirituality and to the cosmic connections that have been obscured in our consumer world, I doubt that he can make many converts to Rastafarianism, among the white public who now form such a large proportion of his audience.
It’s a situation and a set of relationships fraught with ironies. The other point is that however at odds I might seem with Marley’s beliefs through this interview, there’s no gainsaying the sense of assurance and togetherness he radiates. Which proves only that he has come to terms with his own situation.
And at that level, it’s whatever gets you through the night. If Rasta does it for him, more power Rasta.
It’s strange where history and circumstance lead us. And how often things come down to the same simple aspiration.
“I see myself maybe, as a good man. Me want to be a good man. Me see myself as – I want to be a good Rasta man. Never die.”
I really like Bob Marley’s smile.
First published in Hot Press Vol 1 Issue 20, March 30, 1978.