Marley as artist and activist

Submitted by Matthew on 20 June, 2012 - 9:23

Jade Baker looks at the life of Bob Marley and how it is portrayed in a new biopic of the musician, directed by Kevin MacDonald.


Bob Marley was and remains one of the world’s most popular musicians. He was also an advocate for the rights of black people, spoke up against poverty and a fighter against western oppression. Bob Marley, the film, tells the story well.

The film touches most poignantly on the conflict Marley’s mixed-race identity posed and the effect it had on his creative output and ideological outlook later on in life. It is also the story of the poverty-stricken and reggae-infused world of the beautiful and historically beleaguered country Jamaica.

The first people to inhabit Jamaica were the Tainos, believed to be of South American ancestry. The island was first colonised by the Spanish, who established settlements in 1509 and brutally enslaved the Tainos; the British then claimed the island as a colony in 1661.

Under the Spanish many Tainos took their own and their babies’ lives. A consequent lack of free labour made Jamaica a financial burden to Spain, and so, African slaves were bought to the island from 1517. The British colonisers made themselves prosperous by using the hyper-exploitation of human slavery to create a thriving agriculture of cacao, coffee and most importantly sugarcane.

Over one million slaves were transported from Africa to Jamaica. Their full emancipation was not realised until 1834.

In 1938, Jamaica experienced “sugar riots”, a huge struggle for rights, improved working conditions and standard of living. After the riots, a new Jamaica and a new politics began to evolve. Two new political parties were born: the social democratic People’s National Party (PNP) and the conservative Jamaican Labour Party (JLP). The country won independence from British rule in August 1962.

It was in receipt of this history that Nesta Robert Marley was born in 1945.

The historical narrative is not explicitly touched upon in the film; viewers are left to draw their own conclusions about how it must have impacted on Bob Marley.

Against a background of lush green forest and the vivid yet warm colours of Jamaica’s run down towns, Macdonald paints a picture of Marley’s poor beginnings in Trench Town, Kingston. The main focus is Marley’s rise to immense fame and stature, from very humble beginning.

Unbeknown to many fans, Marley was mixed race, the son of a white English plantation overseer, Norval Marley. Cedella Booker, Marley’s mother, once said of Norval: “He told me he loved me, and I believe that he did. He was always honest with me in that time. He told me he was the black sheep of his family, because the Marleys did not like black people, but Norval liked them very much.”

Yet Norval just about turned up to name his son at the birth, then absented himself not long after.

At the time of Jamaican independence when Marley was a teenager the country was 77 per cent black, 20 per cent mixed race, 1 per cent white and 2 per cent Asian. Often neither the white nor black community accepted mixed race or “mulatto” people. Black Jamaicans were suspicious of their white roots and the white people did not view them as equals. Marley was exposed to this anti-mulatto prejudice constantly during his youth.

But Marley acquired a unique view of the world, feeling the general oppression of being a poor black person at the hands of exploiters, growing rich off the work of his people. He also felt the utter contempt the black community felt for the white race and all that they stood for. This private pain is said to have inspired Marley’s music.

Marley’s first single written when just 16 years-old (and shown in the film), contains an astoundingly aware lyric for someone of his age. ‘Judge Not’ says, “ I know that I’m not perfect/ And that I don’t claim to be/ So before your point your fingers/ Be sure your hands are clean”.

Marley was conflicted by his racial identity, declaring in 1975: “My father was white and my mother black, you know. Them call me half-caste, or whatever. Well, me don’t dip on nobody’s side. Me don’t dip on the black man’s side nor the white man’s side. Me dip on God’s side, the one who create me and cause me to come from black and white, who give me this talent.”

Some say it was this sense of abandonment and persecution that led Marley into the comforting ideals of Rastafarianism . It was a black religion that believed Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia was a black king who Marcus Garvey prophesied would deliver redemption for the black race. On becoming a Rasta, Marley developed a strong allegiance to black culture and dedication to spreading the ideology of Pan-Africanism.

Marley was introduced to the Rasta belief in the early 1960s by musicians and friends in Trench Town. But Marley was a missionary for a personal and collective identity; for him “Rasta” was a word that signified a history of racial oppression, but also defining a community beyond the language of race.

Although it is commendable, and even a socialist ideal, to live free of the language of race and to want one common humanity, it is a shame that Marley’s ideal is embedded within religion, one which believed one privileged, unelected monarch (or living god as the belief has it), will liberate black people.

And like most religions, sadly, Rasta does not grant freedom and equality to all. It is not free from patriarchy.

The film emphasises the role Marley tried to play in raising the consciousness of black people to their oppression on his tours around Africa. During the Kenya tour in 1978, he began to read large quantities of black consciousness literature, including biographies of Malcolm X and Angela Davis.

Marley emerges from the film as sincerely passionate about his general goal of liberating the global black community from the clutches of the white oppressor but as a little more relaxed about the troubles in his own homeland. He seems to take no stance on either side of the political battle in Jamaica (between social democrats and conservatives).

His lack of position on home-soil politics, issues about for instance the living standards and political ideology of Jamaica, is quite disappointing. And the film is not critical of his laid-back approach — it seems this was permissible for someone striving for the larger goal of liberation for black people.

On 22 April 1978 Marley was “obliged” to play the One Love Peace Festival, an attempt to quell sectarian gang fights in Jamaica, then almost on the verge of civil war.

The film shows scenes from the festival. The show reaches a climax when Marley controversially, and you could argue bravely, drags the social democratic leader of the PNP Michael Manley, up on stage alongside the conservative JLP leader Edward Seaga and makes them shake hands. This action may be politically questionable (why not use the platform to promote the interests of Jamaica’s poor?) but it seems a genuine attempt to help promote Jamaican unity, even for just a short while. The country was in crisis and it seems Marley felt this is what he could offer — the power of music to transcend political hostility for a moment in time. Unfortunately, the event did little to quell the political violence.

What was the political situation in Jamaica?

Michael Manley, the PNP Prime Minister, had had a successful trade union background and attempted to implement a brand of “democratic socialism” within Jamaica.

The positive outcome was a minimum wage; over 40,000 new housing units built; free education; equal pay for women; introduction of maternity leave; increases in pensions and poor relief; introduction of a workers’ participation programme; introduction of free health care; new hospitals; expansion of day care centres; protection for workers against unfair dismissal and a programme against infant mortality.

However, the economy collapsed against a background of world economic crisis: the price of oil increased nearly ten-fold during Manley’s term; the sugar plantations, that the government had purchased, cost far too much to run; many businesses and upper class people left Jamaica in protest against the new left-wing government. Unemployment rose to a staggering 30 per cent by 1980.

Manley was re-elected against Seaga in 1976 but had to resort to a bail out from the IMF. To obtain loans, he promised to reduce the value of Jamaica’s currency. This did not help the economy, and Jamaican living conditions rapidly declined. By March 1988, Manley refused to accept the conditions imposed by the IMF.

As the economy continued to spiral out of control violence broke out between supporters of both political parties. Over 750 died in the conflict.

Ex-member of The Wailers (Marley’s original band) Peter Tosh was more principled on the night of the concert. After performing at the concert he directed anger at both Manley and Seaga: “Me glad all the Prime Minister is here and the Minister of Opposition and members of Parliament. We can’t make the little pirate dem come here and rob up the resources for the country. Because that is what dem been doing a long bloodbath time…I am not a politician but I suffer the consequences.”

“The police are still out there brutalising poor people,” Tosh raged at Manley, who sat in the second row. “This concert here they call a peace concert … but peace is the diploma you get in the cemetery on top of your grave.”

“If I was the authorities I would close all the police stations.”

All of this does not, however, minimise Marley’s performance as an “historic” event in Jamaican culture and in the history of popular music.

From the Jamaica Gleaner, 22 April, 2009: “A packed stadium with over 32,000 spectators will never forget that night when, in a moment, everything halted and peace was no more an illusion. It was a time when our nation reeled under the violence of political war.”

The film is uncritical of the pain Marley must have caused in his private life, in his relationships with many partners and children. The daughter of his first and only wife, Rita Marley, who is featured in the film, is clearly hurt by the lack of relationship she had with her father and his disrespect towards her mother, as she perceived it.

There is a hint of ironic moralism about Marley’s sexual practice; the film is sure to report that Marley had 11 children by many different women.

At the same time, the film reports Marley’s side of the argument — that he could not stay true to his marriage to Rita Marley because the institution of marriage is enshrined with western values; a seemingly legitimate reason which grew with his increasing consciousness. To be fair to Marley, he did marry the pregnant Rita when she was very young on the advice of one of his important father figures, Clement “Sir Coxsone” Dodd, the founder of the famous Jamaican Studio One.

In the end how much of Marley’s promiscuousness and attitudes towards women was to do with “subverting western values”, and how much of it was to do with a little dose of fame and privilege-induced chauvinism, can only be left to conjecture.

Jamaican Miss World Cindy Breakspeare tells the story of how Marley pursued her and asks “how could he not want the girl?” It is cringe-worthy, and particularly painful through any lens of feminist viewing. But we are all products of this society and it is not hard to see how someone riding the waves of extreme fame would be susceptible to the inducement of a mega ego and give in to the temptation of beauty and sex.

Marley is quoted at the end of the film saying that what he wants is for all people to be equal. Does he mean women too? I’m not sure.

Political people are sometimes criticised for not acting in the way they espouse people in society should treat each other. It is something to stew over. However, here it doesn’t delegitimise the overall work and message of Marley.

Bob Marley is an absolute musical legend that, although a cliché, touched the hearts of many and got the hips of many more winding and grinding. It’s also true to say that he did achieve his goal of adding to the black consciousness and liberation movement through the message in his music and he should be commended for that.

The final scenes of the film track his final of fighting cancer and culminates in his funeral. The mammoth size of it, and the clear portrayals of gut-wrenching grief all across Jamaica, stands to show just what an impact he had made and how important he was to people.