Not black enough, not too white, a mestizo. Suffice to say that the skin color of Robert Nesta Marley, says Bob Marley, predestined him to a split habitus, to become a class defector, to be the voice of the voiceless, that of the vanquished that resonates in the heart of white power.
Worthy heir of Leonard Percival Howell, founder of Rastafarianism, disciple of Haile Selassie I, – Emperor of Ethiopia considered as the reincarnation of Christ and the redeemer of the black people -, marked by the history of his Jamaican compatriot, Marcus Garvey, master of invective against whites and one of the precursors of Pan-Africanism and black consciousness with the motto “Africa for Africans”, Bob Marley, the “Lion of Judah”, has retained all his dimension iconic in the Third World, and even more so in the Dark Continent, forty-one years after his death. He is more than ever in the firmament.
Through the grace of reggae, Marley the “southern”, embodied the image of outraged dignity, spoke to those below, to the rightsless, to the left behind, to the black people, from the Bronx to Soweto, from Marseilles to Dakar. A real survival of fireflies no offense to Pier Paolo Pasolini. Segregation, the fight against white supremacy, emancipation and peace, were at the heart of his universal message, with a watermark in the violent history of his native island, Jamaica.
– Marley before the legend
Bob Marley, born Robert Nesta Marley, February 6, 1945 at Rhoden Hall, near Nine Miles in the parish of Saint Ann in the countryside of colonized Jamaica, to a black mother, Cedella Malcolm, Jamaican, descendant of Afro slaves -Caribbeans who worked in the plantations and a white father of British origin, Norval Sinclair Marley, foreman of the plantations in charge of supervising the subdivision of the colonial lands. The result of an atypical union on the background of clandestine love, between an 18-year-old woman and an impetuous and wandering man who was 59 at the time of the birth of his son, Bob Marley lived a childhood filled with neglect, ostracism and prejudice, especially due to the absence of his father, who was always up and down and precarious. “Bob was a wild child. He had to manage to find some plants for lunch and to find something to eat himself. Bob was a kid who didn’t get everything he wanted. He wasn’t entitled to what all the other kids had,” says Bunny Wailer, founding member of The Wailers with Bob Marley.
As a teenager, Bob left Nine Miles with his mother to settle in 1957 in Trench Town, a subaltern district located in the poverty belt of Kingston, capital of Jamaica. It is the ghetto of those left behind by colonization. An unsanitary neighborhood built after Hurricane Charlie in 1951, without running water or electricity, without a sewage disposal system, at the mercy of fires and epidemics. High infant mortality, endemic crime, chronic poverty, alarming unemployment, overcrowding, are the markers of this community-garrison characterized by the homogeneous vote ensured by the use of non-institutional violence on this Caribbean island.
“Trench Town looked like a bombed-out city during the day, with its askew shacks, scratched earth and remnants of tropical vegetation. At night, lit here and there by the flickering light of an oil lamp in a shack window, the resemblance to a battlefield bristling with zinc, concrete and junk, was even more striking,” writes Rita Marley, Bob’s wife.
This “cattle pen” has two particularities. The first is that of being an inexhaustible source of recruitment for the armed gangs of the two rival political parties in Jamaica, the People National Party (PNP) and the Jamaica Labor Party (JLP). The second is to have given birth to Peter Tosh, Joe Higgs, Wailing Souls, Bunny Wailer, and Bob Marley, thus becoming the breeding ground for musical genres such as ska, dub, rocksteady, sound systems and reggae and of the blossoming of many talented musicians.
– The man who “brought the ghetto to the upper class”
In Trench Town, apart from weapons, political shenanigans, and drug trafficking, sports and music serve as a social lift. Bob Marley finds a reason to live in Rastafarianism, drawing inspiration from Leonard Percival Howell, forever the first in this syncretic cult. And for good reason, invented in the early 1930s, Rastafarianism, a movement of religious dissidence and social protest, had everything to provoke the ire of the British colonial authorities. It brings together the descendants of slaves and proclaims the nobility of the black race. His first commandment, which could not be more subversive, particularly displeases the establishment: “Thou shalt not pay taxes to the Queen of England.” In short, the followers of Rastafarianism, with marijuana as a sacrament, no longer address white people with lowered eyes, in the third person, but now they apostrophize them.
Marley grows crazy braids (dreadlocks), which gave him the mane of Lion of Judah, venerates the Negus (emperor of Ethiopia) Haile Selassie I, new messiah of the Blacks, adheres to the theses of his compatriot and black ideologue, Marcus Garvey , founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), the first black international, – which professes “Zionism of the Negro race” and adopts as its slogan “Africa for Africans”, -, and consumes marijuana without moderation, ” this sacred drug that allows you to communicate with God”, in his words. He wears not without pride, the colors symbols of Rastafarianism, red (that of the blood shed by slaves for freedom and justice), yellow (for wealth, starting with the gold looted by the settlers in Africa) and green (a sign of lush vegetation, of the fertility of the land, but still of hope).
Jamaica gained independence in 1962. A year later, Bob Marley founded the reggae group “The Wailers” with Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh. The trio was a hit in February 1964, with the title “Simmer Down” which became number 1 on the Caribbean island.
In 1966, after several stays in the United States and his marriage to Rita, Bob Marley returned to Jamaica. He creates his own label “Wail’N Soul’M”, on which he releases various titles including “Bend down low”, without real success. Despite a collaboration with Johnny Nash – the first non-Jamaican singer to record reggae in Jamaica – which took him to Sweden in 1971 and then to England and enabled him to record “Reggae on Broadway” in 1972, Bob’s musical career Marley struggles to take off.
The man with narrowed eyes, a wide smile and an emaciated face appealed to a white man named Chris Blackwell, English music producer, founder of the Island Records label, with whom he ended up signing a contract which gave birth to the albums ” Catch a fire” and “Burnin” both released in 1973 and which made him known in Europe.
Bob Marley begins to approach the universal. In 1974, Eric Clapton resumed his title “I shot the sheriff”, but above all, he recorded “No Woman No Cry” which appears on the album Natty Dread (1974), but it is the version of the album “Live ! recorded in London in 1975, which will become an essential piece of reggae. The international career of the mulatto was definitively launched in 1976 with the album “Rastaman vibration”, by Bob Marley and The Wailers.
The child of the ghetto who was beaten up, now on top of the world, will eventually take up residence at 56 Hope Road, where Michael Manley, the Prime Minister of Jamaica, lived. In this former property of Chris Blackwell, boss of Island Records, the singer-songwriter and Jamaican musician, Bob Marley, provides rehearsal sessions, plays football and receives his compatriots who ask for his advice or help. material, all between two puffs of ganja.
Before the apostle of reggae set up his headquarters there, the “street of hope” was quiet, a little too much even, since it was impermeable to the gears of Trench Town, the slum-garrison located a stone’s throw away. To an indiscreet neighbor who wanted to learn more about his domicile three numbers from the Prime Minister in this district of “exquisite class” long forbidden to rastas, Bob Marley retorted: “I brought the ghetto to the people of the upper class” .
– Africa, a promised land, conquered by Bob Marley
What remains of the three stays of the pope of reggae on the Dark Continent? History and memory. Starting with this mnemonic photograph taken at the foot of the Lion of Judah monument in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital. In the foreground, Bob Marley dressed in red-yellow-green Pan-African colors. In the background, placed high on its base, the statue of the lion wearing a crown and holding a scepter in its front left paw.
The return to Africa, the promised land where his ancestors deported during the time of slavery came from, was marked by Bob Marley’s pilgrimage to Ethiopia. Before setting foot in the original and sacred land of the black people in November 1978, the messenger of reggae, with more than 200 million albums sold worldwide, had to wait a few days in Nairobi, Kenya, before obtaining a visa for Ethiopia. He who had received, four months earlier, from the hands of the Senegalese ambassador in New York the United Nations peace medal “in the name of 500 million Africans”.
It must be said that the provisional military government of socialist Ethiopia, of Soviet obedience, which had overthrown the “King of kings” in 1974 before assassinating him in 1975, did not see favorably the coming of the Jamaican artist. The text of “War”, a key title interpreted by Bob Marley, is none other than the word-for-word reworking of the speech of Emperor Haile Selassie I, delivered at the United Nations tribune in 1963: “Waiting for the philosophy that holds one race superior and another inferior is finally and definitively discredited and abandoned, everywhere is war. I say: war. And as long as there are first and second class citizens in every nation, as long as the color of a man’s skin has no more meaning than the color of his eyes, I say: war! “.
It was also during this stay that he began to compose his opus “Zimbabwe”, a hymn to the independence of Rhodesia, which was under the rule of the segregationist white power.
Bob Marley and his group of musicians will travel to Libreville, Gabon in early January 1979 at the invitation of Pascaline Bongo, daughter of President Omar Bongo, at the head of this Central African state since 1967 (until 2009).
The paradox between a music advocating equality and the Bongo regime, which paid little heed to this value of human rights and little inclined to democracy, had damaged the credit of the committed artist, who never ceased to inspire the oppressed to fight for their rights through the lyrics of his other opus “Get Up, Stand Up”.
After the Gabonese tribulation, Bob Marley and The Wailers were invited to perform at Rufaro Stadium in Salisbury (renamed Harare in 1982) in April 1980 as part of Zimbabwe’s independence ceremonies. The piece of the same name (Zimbabwe), taken up by the black communist guerrillas fighting the government of Southern Rhodesia during the Bush war, already sounded like a premonition for the victory of the insurgents against the white minority, then in power.
Having once escaped death, following an eminently political assassination attempt on December 3, 1976 in his sanctuary on Hope Road, Bob Marley will be mown down in full ascent by his melanoma, a skin cancer. Disfigured by chemotherapy, considered lost, the one who resisted all adversities throughout his life, will be repatriated to Miami, to his mother’s house, where he will die on May 11, 1981, at the age 36 years old. The man is dead, the legend is born.
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Red, Yellow, Green: Bob Marley Forever (Portrait)
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