Bob Marley is the world’s most well-known reggae artist of all-time. Despite the deeply political, radical, and pro-Black roots of reggae music, general negative stereotypes about Rastafari and reggae have reduced Marley’s, and many other artists’, legacy to little more than being a mascot for hippies and weed-smoking culture – many readers will no doubt remember the proliferation of Snapchat’s insensitive “420 filter” of Bob Marley (a lot of which was, surprisingly enough, to do with whomever was in charge of the Marley Estate).
This post brings just 10 (there are many more!) of his particularly powerful lyrics to the table in order to remind people of the real message in Bob Marley’s music.
1. Rat Race (Album: Rastaman Vibration, 1976)
“Political voilence fill ya city, ye-ah!
Don’t involve Rasta in your say say
Rasta don’t work for no C.I.A.”
Recorded in the year of the failed attempt on his life in December, the “voilence” of which Marley speaks was prevalent and rose scarily during the late 1970s in Jamaica. The CIA saw the People’s National Party (PNP) of Jamaica, headed by Michael Manley, as a potential threat to the United States and American business ventures, as Manley embodied socialist values, and had also built strong ties with Fidel Castro’s Cuba. Via Edward Seaga of the Jamaican Labour Party (JLP), the Leader of the Opposition, the CIA systematically destabilised the country, through the supply of money, drugs, and military grade weaponry, the negative effects of which still plague Jamaica today. Throughout this saga near the elections, both political parties aimed to gain a public endorsement from Bob Marley, both of which he declined. Instead, he brought them both on stage at the One Love Peace Concert in 1978 and got them all to hold hands as a call for unity. As a believer of Rastafari ideology, Marley assured people in Rat Race that he would not have his morals corrupted, or his voice co-opted, by dishonest politicians and government officials.
2. Africa Unite (Album: Survival, 1979)
‘Cause we’re moving right out of Babylon
And we’re going to our Father’s land
How good and how pleasant it would be
Before God and man, yeah
To see the unification of all Africans, yeah
As it’s been said already
Let it be done, yeah
We are the children of the Rastaman
We are the children of the Iyaman”
In Survival, Bob Marley & The Wailers’ message was overtly revolutionary and radical. In Africa Unite, he shows his appreciation for Pan-African values; those values being the escape from “Babylon”. In Rastafari vocabulary, Babylon is the name given to oppressive societal environments and practices (so, in many cases, this is an apt description of the Western world); many followers of Rastafari claim they will never fully escape Babylon until they, as displaced Africans (“the children of the Rastaman”), make their return to Africa, “our Father’s land”.
3. Burnin’ and Lootin’ (Album: Burnin’, 1973)
“This morning I woke up in a curfew
O God, I was a prisoner, too – yeah!
Could not recognise the faces standing over me
They were all dressed in uniforms of brutality.
(That’s why we gonna be)
Burning and a-looting tonight
(Say we gonna burn and loot)
Burning and a-looting tonight
(One more thing)
Burning all pollution tonight
(Oh, yeah, yeah)
Burning all illusion tonight”
In an evidently radical track, Tuff Gong addresses a situation in which he awakens to discover he has been taken prisoner by some unknown group of people. However, he describes them as “dressed in uniforms of brutality”, which suggests these may have been police officers, or members of other governmental enforcement bodies. This is a very subtle, but strong, message. Marley says these uniforms are not simply clothes to him, but are rather inherently indicative of brutality against the vulnerable and the oppressed. In the chorus, he speaks on behalf of the people who believe that enough is enough, and who are going to be physically “burning and looting”, as well as “burning all illusion/pollution tonight” in a more figurative sense; the “illusion” being the false notion that people are all treated equally, and the “pollution” being the pernicious, harmful aspects of the oppressive world he inhabited as a person of African descent.
4. I Shot The Sheriff (Album: Burnin’, 1973)
“Sheriff John Brown always hated me
For what, I don’t know
Every time I plant a seed
He said kill it before it grow –
He said kill them before they grow.”
This song is undoubtedly powerful in its underlying message. As one of his most popular songs, all reggae fans will know the line, “I shot the sheriff, but I swear it was in self-defence”. Well, what exactly is that “self-defence”? The above section of lyrics is a good indicator of what the answer would be. Sheriff John Brown represents those in society who dislike Bob and others like him, on what would most likely be racial or classist grounds, and is clearly very afraid of the “seeds” that Marley is planting in the minds of his fellow people. Society fears the seeds of the revolution maturing and thus posing a threat to the status quo, hence the haste of the “Sheriff” to “kill them before [the seeds] grow”.
5. Zimbabwe (Album: Survival, 1979)
“To divide and rule could only tear us apart;
In everyman chest, mm – there beats a heart.
So soon we’ll find out who is the real revolutionaries;
And I don’t want my people to be tricked by mercenaries.”
In this show of support for the fighters struggling against the Rhodesian government in the Zimbabwean War for Liberation, Marley says that Africans must ensure to stay aware of the oppressor’s methods of divide and conquer in order to avoid being tricked, and to rather keep their minds and efforts focused on the real revolution at hand.
6. Get Up, Stand Up (Album: Burnin’, 1973)
“Most people think great God will come from the sky
Take away ev’rything, and make ev’rybody feel high
But if you know what life is worth
You would look for yours on earth
And now you see the light
You stand up for your right, yeah!
Get up, stand up, stand up for your right
Get up, stand up, don’t give up the fight
Get up, stand up. Life is your right
So we can’t give up the fight
Stand up for your right, Lord, Lord
Get up, stand up. Keep on struggling on
Don’t give up the fight”
Get Up, Stand Up’s bold message certainly made several listeners feel uncomfortable when it was first released. Marley confidently criticised the passivity in religious circles (his focus was particularly Christian, given his Jamaican upbringing), in which he felt too many Jamaicans (and others of African descent) were simply content with being mistreated and abused on Earth, because they were comforted in their belief of inheriting a beautiful life after death. Marley argued, equally on his religious grounds, that life had much more worth than that, and standing up for equal human rights and an appropriate quality of life on Earth was an absolute necessity; to do otherwise was to impose a restrictive interpretation of religious doctrine upon oneself, and to do a disservice to the movement to liberate both oneself and one’s own people.
7. Crazy Baldheads (Album: Rastaman Vibration, 1976)
“I and I build a cabin
I and I plant the corn
Didn’t my people before me
Slave for this country
Now you look me with that scorn
Then you eat up all my corn
We gonna chase those crazy
Chase them crazy
Chase those crazy baldheads out of town”
With this song, we hear Marley’s disgust for the mistreatment of African people in Jamaica at the hands of “baldheads”; baldhead being a word that Rastafari often use to describe those without dreadlocks, but in this case, it is a reference to the whites. He says I&I (a Rastafari equivalent of “we”) slaved for this country (both literally and figuratively), but white people still treat him as lesser, then steal his corn, which is an important motif as it represents a staple food for many poorer communities on the island. Marley then calls his fellow Africans to rise up and “chase them crazy baldheads” off their land.
8. Rebel Music (3 O’Clock Roadblock) (Album: Natty Dread, 1974)
“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
Three o’clock roadblock, curfew
And I’ve got to throw away
Yes, I’ve got to throw away
Yes, I’ve got to throw away
My little herb stalk”
In Rebel Music, we hear Bob’s frustration with the state’s unfair control of his movement. He believes one should have the right to roam as one sees fit, as well as the right for one to determine one’s own identity and worth without being forced and restricted to conform to prescribed paths. He finally alludes to the Jamaican government’s crackdown on, and persecution of, drug users, which has especially harmed the Rastafari, whose spiritual and religious beliefs describe the importance of smoking ganja (marijuana) in order to feel in contact with Jah. Rastafari have had a long struggle in Jamaica for respect and for equal rights for many years, and these lines in Rebel Music are a show of Marley’s solidarity with the fellow Rastafari who have been singled out by law authorities.
9. Revolution (Album: Natty Dread, 1974)
“Never make a politician (aaa-aaah) grant you a favour
They will always want (aaa-aaah) to control you forever, eh
These lines are a clear call from Bob Marley to the people to tell them to be aware of politicians bearing false gifts. He knows how the system will “grant” favours to the most vulnerable in an attempt to gain their support, and will then turn and use their dominant position to unscrupulously control and exploit said supporters. These small snippets of knowledge are examples of the “seeds” that Marley spoke of trying to spread in I Shot The Sheriff.
10. Slave Driver (Album: Catch A Fire, 1973)
“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
Slave driver, uh! The table is turn, baby, now; (catch a fire)
Catch a fire, so you can get burn, baby, now. (catch a fire)
Slave driver, the table is turn (catch a fire)
Catch a fire, so you can get burn, now. (catch a fire)”
Slave Driver was recorded in Bob Marley’s early days of The Wailers, when he was in close contact and collaborated with the legendary Peter Tosh, who was also a Wailer until his departure in 1974. The message here is clear. It’s a crime in Bob’s eyes for Black people to believe that they are now free, simply because slavery has been abolished; there are several new factors still “chaining” our people down unfairly, such as abject poverty. He says, however, that now the “table is turn” on the slave driver, as the people are waking up from their “illiteracy” in a revolution against the system, and the driver is going to “get bu(r)n” for their continued mistreatment of African people over centuries.