Bob Marley and Liberation
Rhythm and Hope: Bob Marley, Identity, Scripture, and Song
by Nathan Byrd
Tom Browne sang a song called Jamaica Funk in 1980. The song said, “let the groove get into you.” Indeed, Jamaica has impacted the African diaspora in many positive ways. We recall Jamaican Marcus Garvey and his words, later quoted by Jamaican singer Bob Marley: “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery.” These are powerful words of empowerment and identity formation. This essay discusses some of the theological and biblical themes in selected Bob Marley songs as a way to elevate an organic, contemplative, identity-affirming spiritual awareness, particularly among those of African descent.
This is not a prescription. Most of us are done with spiritual prescriptions. This essay hopefully gives us some things to think about as we journey forward in this generation, and perhaps gives us some open windows for the spirit to do its thing with us.
I particularly want to focus on identity, because as one African Methodist Episcopal preacher said, the number one issue in the Black community is confusion. The opposite of monolithic, the African diaspora finds itself in a sometimes toxic conversation about how much to buy into the majority culture and how much to distance itself from the dominant culture. This reeks of the need to claim an identity that encourages and strengthens its people for the stony road they trod. Bob Marley’s music and ideas are helpful here.
The album Exodus, by Bob Marley, received acclaim as the album of the century by Time Magazine. Marley drew upon the Exodus, the central event in the Old Testament, also called the Hebrew Scriptures. This part of the Hebrew Scriptures describes the journey of God’s people from slavery to freedom. Yet, one popular theological model for understanding the whole of the Christian Bible, both the Old and New Testaments, is the “Creation, Fall, Redemption” theme. To encapsulate it, God creates, humanity falls -- as seen with Adam and Eve in the Hebrew Scriptures -- and then Jesus redeems. This is a popular way of appreciating the biblical story in its entirety. However, many who use this model underemphasize the Exodus in the biblical narrative; specifically, that God hears the cry of oppressed people and mightily responds. It is no wonder those with power and influence in the United States “other” Black people so easily, for they don’t appear to value the Exodus in the way Scripture does, or value the Exodus as many Black preachers have throughout time. What I mean when I say “value the Exodus”, I mean in that God hears the cry of the underdog and what that might mean for a culture, a society, or a community.
I will give examples of how Bob Marley alluded to such things in some of his songs .
In Bob Marley’s song Exodus, he talked about movement of the people. He saw a parallel between the freedom of the Hebrew slaves and the ongoing struggle of African people. Reading the Scriptures was not an academic exercise for Marley; he saw the struggle of his people in the text as if it were written for them. When Bob Marley sang, “send us another brother, Moses”, many felt and continue to feel the hope and desire of a confused people in need of leadership, even God-inspired leadership. As Marley demonstrated in other songs, this was not a “fold your hands and wait” kind of faith. He asked the question: ”Are you satisfied with the life you are living?” In other words, the people are on the move, do you want to remain in oppressive circumstances, or do you want to go with the energy of the people?
Bob’s song, Buffalo Soldier, talked about the Middle Passage in an interesting way. Marley sang, “Stolen from Africa, fighting for survival,... trodding through the land.” Here, the superstar singer took a theme from the tradition of the United States Army -- the rich history of the 9th and 10th Cavalry -- and universalized it as a statement on the history of African diaspora.
Originally, the 9th and 10th Cavalry Regiments were mostly Black troops, authorized by Congress, to fight in the Indian Wars for the United States. The story was one of a formerly enslaved people fighting for and working for, the government that permitted its past enslavement. The song, Buffalo Soldier, captured the irony well.
As we talk about identity, it is important to recognize this irony and its role in adding to the confusion mentioned earlier. The way out of the confusion today is to free ourselves of mental slavery. Free, we can better move on to be the people we were created to be.
Get Up Stand Up
Free, we can get up and stand up. Bob Marley sang, “Stand up for your rights.” In a world that created conditions that facilitated the majority culture to control or limit those of the African diaspora -- be it with phrases like “shut and dribble,” or ordinances that said use the other water fountain, or notions of you will pay if you don’t fit into conveniently defined stereotypes -- the call to get up and stand up for your rights resonates.
Bob warned those who find their hope in the established order. He sang, “Preacher man, don’t tell me heaven is under the earth, I know you don’t know what life is really worth.” There are profound things the faith has to say about the self, and a lot of that is missed if we only focus on heaven and hell. There is a lot of living to do now. Because there are those that prefer otherwise, descendants of the confused need to get up and stand up for their rights.
Redemption Song revisited the theme of the Middle Passage, saying, “pirates yes they sold I.” “I” in such usage alters its use from the standard English, and becomes spiritually significant as a pronoun that places the individual as central in the relationship with the creator and creation. For example, “yes, I” or, the plural, “I and I” (we) sing these songs of freedom.
Redemption Song went on to say, “these songs of freedom are all I ever had.” I am led to think of the Negro Spirituals and how they were sung with the double meaning of freedom now and in the hereafter, in full knowledge that the hope celebrated in the songs might not ever be realized by the people who sang them. These songs of freedom are all many in the diaspora ever had. “Othered”, boxed out of participation in the larger culture in so many ways, the songs of freedom have been the only thing of real value folks of the African diaspora have ever had.
Brother Marley asked in the song, “how long shall they kill our prophets?: The weight of struggle is strong. The loss in leadership over the years has been so heavy. In the midst of struggle, the request is to help sing these songs of freedom. In such an environment, it is the determination of the people, many times expressed in song, that can free minds.
What can we say of these things? Bob Marley brought the rhythm. This rhythm was appreciated worldwide. I recently encountered a young family in a colonia (an unincorporated neighborhood, usually poor) in Tijuana, Mexico, and was delightfully surprised to see they had a Bob Marley poster in their house in 2020. Bob Marley died in 1981. The rhythms he brought impacted the world. They continue to connect with people everywhere.
The lyrics to these rhythms illustrate that Bob was not only a singer, but something of a prophet in many ways. His words hit both the head and the heart. His words moved people to think about something larger than self. His words gave hope for a better humanity. He spoke truths that transcend the limits of any one community. He spoke truths that transcend time. The power of his lyrics endure.
Looking at the trance he sometimes entered as he shared these universal truths on stage, it is possible to call Bob Marley something of a mystic. In Natural Mystic, he sang, “there is a natural mystic blowing in the air.” Indeed, as a prophetic mystic, Bob Marley sang to the world for the life of the world, to the rhythm of the heartbeat of the world. He presented a history lesson about oppression and a route out of that oppression, even if that oppression was simply found in the suppression of thought. Poet Diane Di Prima said the only war is the war against the imagination. The struggle is real. The normalization of the majority and its ways, particularly in the area of theology, are psychologically destructive to many.
We are all on a path. May we forge our identity in the Scripture-fed rhythm and hope reflected in song. May we be free from the ancient Egypts of our minds.
Bob Marley gave us the opportunity to fill that path with items from Scripture, history, and offered notions of a positive spiritual identity. These were the driving themes behind the rhythm. These are the ingredients of our hope. Exodus, movement of the people, continues in this generation and beyond. And for those who get in the way, Bob Marley sang in Small Ax, “if you are a tree, we are a small ax.” We continue forward, reimagining our reading of Scripture, freeing our minds theologically, and the conscience of our history singing along with Bob Marley, “We will be forever loving Jah.”