Songs of Freedom: The Music of Bob Marley

by Peter Saint-Andre

This appreciation of Jamaican songwriter Bob Marley was first published in the September 1993 issue of Full Context.

The rock group Rush is the most famous libertarian band in the world, and justifiably so. Their drummer and lyricist, Neil Peart, was heavily influenced by Ayn Rand, they recorded a song entitled "Anthem" and an album (2112) not so loosely based on Ayn Rand's Anthem , and their records even get reviewed in Objectivist publications such as Full Context (1/90 and 6/92). But there are other popular musicians who sing songs of freedom, one of the best of whom was the Jamaican reggae singer Bob Marley, who died in 1981. He was the most famous popular artist to come out of the Third World, and the most consistent in his celebration of freedom. The recent release of a four-CD retrospective of Marley's career -- entitled, appropriately enough, "Songs of Freedom" -- gives us the opportunity to evaluate his life's work.

As with most popular singers, Bob Marley's songs cover many subjects (especially love), but one thing that distinguishes Marley from the others is his many overtly political songs (he is similar in this respect to Bob Dylan). Another distinguishing characteristic is that much of Marley's music and thought is bound up with the religion of Rastafari. However, the essence of Rasta (which Marley once said means "righteousness") is substantially political, so that the themes of Rasta and politics are often intertwined in Marley's music.

Marley's earlier political songs are mostly protests against the system. Consider these lines from the song "Slave Driver": "Every time I hear the crack of a whip my blood runs cold/I remember on the slave ship how they brutalized the very souls/Today they say that we are free/Only to be chained in poverty". Or these from "Concrete Jungle", a song about life in a government housing project: "Concrete jungle, where the living is hardest/Man, you've got to do your best/No chains around my feet but I'm not free/I know I am bound here in captivity". Or these from "Rebel Music (Three O'Clock Road Block)": "Why can't we roam this open country/Why can't we be what we want to be/We want to be free".

Another of Marley's early protest songs is "I Shot the Sheriff", which is probably the most famous reggae song ever written (Eric Clapton's cover of the song hit number one on the U.S. charts in 1974). Despite the title, the song is not a musical ancestor of trash like the rap tune "Cop Killer" -- instead it's a cheeky song about a killing done in self-defense, whose refrain runs "I shot the sheriff, but I did not shoot the deputy". And even though the lyrics make it clear that the sheriff was the aggressor, Marley still takes responsibility for the deed by proclaiming "If I am guilty, I will pay!"

Later in his career, Marley's songs became more than mere protest songs, and even evidenced an understanding of the causes of political problems. In "Revolution", he sings: "Never make a politician grant you a favor/They will always want to control you forever". In "War", he expounds on why the world is filled with conflict: "Until the philosophy which holds one race superior and another inferior is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned/Until there are no longer first class and second class citizens of any nation/Until the color of a man's skin is of no more significance than the color of his eyes/Until the basic human rights are equally guaranteed to all without regard to race/There's war". Yet Marley is not anti-Western in his denunciation of injustice -- he explicitly mentions "the ignoble and unhappy regimes that hold our brothers in Angola, in Mozambique, South Africa", which must be "toppled" and "utterly destroyed" if war is to vanish.

One of my favorite Marley songs, and one expressing his belief in human rights for all, is "Get Up Stand Up" (which Amnesty International uses as its unofficial anthem). What I like about it is its secularism, and at the same time its insistence that you demand your rights. Here are some representative lines: "Most people think great god will come from the sky, take away everything and make everybody feel high/But if you know what life is worth you will look for yours on earth/And now when you see the light, stand up for your right/Get up stand up, stand up for your right/Get up stand up, don't give up the fight/Life is your right, so don't give up the fight".

Another of Marley's paeans to freedom is "Redemption Song", which is unique for Marley in its use of simple acoustic guitar and voice. In it, he sings "Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery/None but ourselves can free our minds/Have no fear for atomic energy/'Cause none of them can stop the time". The chorus continues in the same vein by exhorting the listener: "Won't you help to sing these songs of freedom/'Cause all I ever have, redemption songs, these songs of freedom".

As my references to Rastafari indicate, Bob Marley was no Objectivist. He believed that the Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia (whose original name was Ras Tafari Makonnen) was god incarnate. In accordance with Rastafari, he smoked liberal amounts of ganja (marijuana), which is probably why he died of cancer at the age of 36. He sang songs like "Thank You Lord" and "Jah [God] Lives" and "Natural Mystic". But at its best, Bob Marley's music celebrates and argues for freedom in what I find to be an uplifting and inspiring way. Music is a personal matter, and not everyone appreciates popular music (and even those who do don't necessarily like reggae or Bob Marley's style). But if this review has caused you to be intrigued about hearing some of Bob Marley's songs of freedom, I would recommend to you his albums "Natty Dread", which I consider to be his best recording, and "Legend", a greatest hits anthology that includes many of the songs referred to above.

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