On February 6th, 11 years ago and at school in Barbados, I was sitting down on the floor with my classmates, swaying and singing along to Bob Marley’s, ‘3 Little Birds,’ followed by an eyes closed rendition of ‘Emancipation Song’. Everyone was feeling it – no matter their background, we feel like we know him.
He’s a formative part of our upbringing and our education: his songs are discussed in Social Studies, his lyrics interpreted in our Literature lessons.
I couldn’t believe it when I learned that he had passed away before we were even born. He was after all, ‘Uncle Bob’. To us, he was still a low-key figure: believed in the simple life close to nature as a Rastafarian, loved his football, enjoyed a spliff, but had powerful messages to share.
So accustomed are we to hearing his music in bars and cruises, we forget how intense and political many of his songs are, centering around: social and racial equality, freedom of the mind and of expression, fighting the system, spirituality, poverty, religion, revolution, violence, love, war and the lyrics go on. But on a global scale, he is a legend, an icon, a face…a brand.
So there I was a few years ago, walking through a supermarket in my own Concrete jungle when I spotted something that perplexed me in the Caribbean food section – a Bob Marley energy drink, “Marley’s Mellow Mood.”
Growing up in the Caribbean…wait, growing up anywhere you can’t turn the corner without seeing a Bob/One Love/We Jammin/whatever t-shirt, key chain, lighter, the works and usually in green, red, yellow and black. Yet this made me pause.
Is this what he wanted us to do when he said, “Rise from your sleepless slumber” in Wake up and Live? When he sang, “Chase those crazy bald heads out of our town/Build your penitentiary/ we build your schools”, did he really mean, “Buy them one of my stylish Bob Marley beanies for just 10.99”?
Then again, would he disapprove of my defensive/possessive attitude when non-Caribbean people dance along to his songs? Would he be glad that these products contribute to Jamaica and the wider region’s tourism economy? But who am I to judge? I live ‘happily’ in the commercial world, I don’t start campaigns, I speak up but I don’t stand up.
I get some perspective from an English friend, Sam, who thinks that Bob Marley – as a commercial property and as the ‘cliched Rasta’ in pop culture – distracts from what little the Western world knows about what he went through and what he stood for.
Still, we agree that there was a light-hearted side to his music, that encouraged everyone to enjoy life. So would the spread of his relaxed expression and words of ‘one love’ on everything be okay as long as we believed in it? Is the irony in the eye of the wearer?