Friday, February 6, 2015 is the 70th birthday of reggae star Bob Marley. The milestone is likely to pass on the national stage – even among most progressives – as a nonevent. Celebration concerts planned in various locations around the world, headlined along the lines of the title of this essay, are likely to attract the attention of few beyond the devoted reggae fan. Bob Marley, in the West, is largely dismissed as something of a freaky dread from the Islands, great smile, some cool songs, stoned on marijuana half the time (well, closer to all the time). But then, heroes have always been dismissed by the Establishment, by those who cling to the lies and half-truths of life in the mainstream.
Two of the greatest noble heroes of the 20th Century were Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, Jr. Even to mention Bob Marley in the same breath as these iconic figures is to invite laughter and derision. It shouldn’t.
As Marcus Aurelius was not just a Roman emperor, but also a Stoic philosopher, Bob Marley was not just a musician, but also a champion of human rights (we might say “liberty and justice for all”). In Marley’s case, the two avocations melded into one.
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To be a hero means, in a nutshell, to devote and often sacrifice oneself to a greater cause. Bob Marley devoted himself to his cause just as much as King or Mandela; he was just working with different tools, in a different genre, so to speak. Everything was about the music and getting the message out. To this end he ate healthy I-tal food and took care of his body; football was not only for the love of sport but to keep himself strong for the work. Even his notorious ganja smoking, a sacred rite in his religion, was intended to help him learn about himself and see Truth, which in turn would inform and deepen his music. His dedication to getting the music right led to a perfectionism that saw him demand yet another rehearsal when everyone else was far beyond ready to call it quits.
Music for Bob was never about making a lot of money or inflating his ego. Music was the medium by which to further his cause. As his wife Rita has said, when Bob was singing, he was fighting a war. The pure love of music was always there, of course, but the songs he wrote (almost all Wailers songs were penned by him) and the incredible intensity of his performances were part of his moral crusade.
On a personal level, Bob’s lack of materialism and his generosity toward the sufferah, struggling to get by in third world Jamaica, are well acknowledged by those who knew him. He returned from overseas trips with basically what he left with – no splurges on the West’s glitzy baubles for him. His charitable heart is legendary: Some have claimed he was giving a helping hand to literally thousands. This alone qualifies Marley as a hero but it is barely a footnote in his story.
The core of Marley’s moral crusade was his religious mission to spread the word that God was a living man – Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie – and bring “black man redemption” to his brothers and sisters of Africa and the African Diaspora. This was the heart of it, but there was so much more; the spiritual message extended beyond only Rastafarians and indeed only blacks to anyone who, turned on by the music, came to appreciate the meaning of the lyrics that floated along on the riddims. The One Love vibe that characterized Bob’s music was infused with the spirit of unity between and among all peoples of good faith. Bob became not just a spiritual inspiration for Rastas, Africans and sufferahs but to all disenchanted with the outrages of “the system” that left children dying in the streets in hunger or as victims of greed-driven wars while others lived in walled palaces. Middle-class kids in the suburbs and ivied halls of academia found in his positive vibrations an echo of the chords of Woodstock. Bob became not only the Voice of the Third World but a sage to much of the White Counterculture as well. Jack Healey, former head of Amnesty International, remarked that everywhere he went in the world, Bob Marley was the symbol of freedom.
Marley’s religious crusade, then, carried with it a larger moral mission to fight against “Babylon’s” oppression. His lyrical descriptions of the sufferah’s life were extremely rich documents of struggle in the street beyond any anthropologist’s field study. Consider:
“Woman hold her head and cry
’cause her son had been shot down in the street and died
just because of the system…
‘Can a woman’s tender care,’ she cried
‘cease toward the child she bear?'” (Johnny Was)
Bob frequently stepped into the role of big brother-advisor to his bredren and sistren:
“Would you let the system make you kill your brother man?
No, dread, no” (Coming In From The Cold)
“Pimper’s paradise that’s all she was now…
don’t lose track of yourself…
don’t be a stock on the shelf” (Pimper’s Paradise)
Bob’s lyrics went beyond mere cataloging of injustice to indignant demands that changes be made, urging people to stand up against the system and fight for their rights. Songs like Zimbabwe gave inspiration to freedom fighters in southern Africa waging a war of liberation against the apartheid regime. Africa Unite expressed a deep yearning that blacks come together in the struggle. Bob was a spiritual brother of the priests of 1970s – 1980s Central America whose adherence to liberation theology found them standing up against a system of injustice and oppression.
In mythology, culmination of the hero’s journey is the sacrifice. Knowing he had cancer, Bob refused on religious grounds the operation that might have saved his life and pushed himself to get his message out before he expired. If it is true, as some allege, that near the end he took cocaine, it was to this end and this end only. There were souls to save, wrongs to right, injustice to fight, and Bob would carry on to his last breath. As he said himself, his life was for people. If that’s not heroism, what is?
Why, thirty-four years after Marley’s passing, should this matter “now more than ever?” Ancient Greek wisdom teaches to “Know thyself” and “The unexamined life is not worth living.” From Carl Jung we learn that enlightenment comes not from meditating upon images of light but peering into the darkness of the Self. Bob Marley looked inside himself and transcended whatever bitterness and hatred that came from growing up a street tough in a third world ghetto to become not just a symbol of freedom, but a herald of a One Love Revolution. In the United States, at official levels of policy, there remains little inclination toward honest self-examination and confession of wrongdoing, horrible crimes written off, at best, as “mistakes” and repeated over and over again. It is difficult to see this lead anywhere other than to more suffering and very possibly ultimate catastrophe. Voices like Mandela and King and yes, Bob Marley, are needed now more than ever.