January 31, 2020
THE celebration of the 75th posthumous birthday of the reggae icon Robert Nesta Marley at the 62nd Grammy Awards in Los Angeles last Sunday is a fitting tribute to an individual whose significance extends far beyond the narrow limits of popular music.
In an age dominated by the ludicrous ostentation and crass materialism of so-called musical superstars, Bob Marley is a reminder of the incredible social significance of music, especially its power to say what has been left unsaid and give substance to the aspirations and yearnings of the vulnerable, the violated and the voiceless.
The Grammy commemoration sought to bring together the various strands of Marley’s life: his family, the artwork used in his albums, his recording company, and artistes whose work has been influenced by his music.
It was an opportunity to examine Marley in a holistic context, viewing his life and art from contemporary perspectives while remembering the circumstances in which they emerged and the issues that gave them substance.
As the world’s first-ever musical superstar from the Third World, Marley symbolised the notion of art as engagement and music as socially relevant.
Although he realised that music was fundamentally entertainment and did not dismiss its more pleasurable aspects, he was able to combine enjoyment with social consciousness and political relevance in ways that had been rarely seen before or since.
Drawing upon the powerful beliefs and symbolism of his Rastafarian religion, Marley and his group The Wailers took reggae to unheard-of heights of global popularity and acceptance.
Songs like “Redemption Song,” “One Love/People Get Ready,” and “Get Up, Stand Up,” spoke to the revolutionary instincts of those who fought oppression and injustice wherever they were. In “Could You Be Loved,” “Waiting in Vain,” and “No Woman No Cry” he reinvigorated the worn-out conventions of the love song.
In “Trench Town,” “Bad Card” and “Buffalo Soldier,” he engaged with historical and social issues, demonstrating how a consciousness of the past is crucial to a proper understanding of the present.
This was music as mobilisation, rhythm as revolution, and song as sedition. Unlike much of today’s musical offerings, it was not egotistical in intention: it was not about self-indulgent adventures in alcoholic and sexual excess; it did not seek to detail the personal likes and dislikes of the musical artiste, or the ridiculous “beefs” engaged in with other artistes.
Marley’s music reflected the major concerns of his day, especially the racism, colonial domination, poverty and misrule which characterised far too many nations at the time.
Because these issues are sadly extant, it is no surprise that his songs are still popular more than four decades after his death.
Such was Marley’s significance that he rivalled contemporary heads of state and government in influence. His personal example helped to calm the violent partisan politics of his native Jamaica, particularly the rivalry between opposing candidates for the office of Prime Minister.
His continual emphasis on peace and justice became a byword for the youth of the world as they sought to grapple with the social, political and economic questions of the time.
As the world celebrates the life and times of a truly remarkable individual, it must be wondered where reggae music in particular, and music generally, will go from here.
Reggae does not appear to have built upon the foundations laid by people like Bob Marley; it is much less socially relevant than it used to be. Artistes seem to be more concerned with commercial success than in speaking truth to power.
Indeed, it cannot be said that there is any living musician who combines artistic ability with moral authority in the way that Bob Marley did.
It is to be sincerely hoped that a new Bob Marley emerges for the 21st century and has a similarly positive impact on the world in the way that the reggae icon did in the 20th.