Bob Marley enigmas & two new movies

Kevin MacDonald’s  Marley (2012) and Esther Anderson & Gian Godoy’s Bob Marley: The making of a legend (2011) don’t really add a lot of new material to the Marley story, I imagine (speaking as an observant fan rather than an informed Marley-sleuth). But the passage of time and advances in two debates – about race and about globalisation – make it easier to discuss the sorts of things which have always lain a little beneath the surface in discussing the man. They would also have forced or encouraged change in Bob Marley himself.

Nothing I learn about Bob Marley diminishes my pleasure in his music (as I have tried to describe before here). More surprisingly, perhaps, nothing I learn makes me feel less confident that he was a remarkable man, and probably a sort of spiritual figure. I suppose the long and short of it is that I am pretty sure he was always interesting and would have become more and more so had he lived.

From my recollections of a brief conversation with him, I am confident that Marley was capable of accepting that Marcus Garvey was not an amazingly useful figure and that Haile Selassie may have been interesting or admirable but was hardly likely to be somehow divine. I know next to no Jamaican history or sociology and yet I feel able to doubt that Rastafarianism was a terrifically useful creed. (Kevin MacDonald’s film includes one intriguing passage in which Chris Blackwell, Marley’s most important mentor, implies that Rastafarian doctrines proved hazardous to Marley’s health.)

All in all, I wonder what Bob Marley would have become had he lived.

As a middle-aged man, would he have been able to sustain the promotion of ganga? Would he have remained committed to the idea that the white world was Babylon? I wonder too how Marley would have responded to the rap and hip-hop movements with their messages of black supremacy, alienation and entitlement and their call to separateness and violence.

My feeling is that Bob Marley was already, towards the end, aware of the contradictions in his life and thought and would have addressed them, perhaps really well.

The two newish films reinforce the crucial ways in which Marley’s world – the Jamaican world in general and his in particular – was richly complex. The essence of this is that Marley began his career riffing on the iniquity of slavery but actually himself benefitted from, depended on and was an exemplar of, the hybrid vigour of an island where globalisation’s collisions were all around. Marley wanted global success and he knew – probably from the start – that he needed the help of people who understood – were from – the very Babylon he was railing against. Esther Anderson was one such and so, of course, was Chris Blackwell. Both were authentically Jamaican, and neither were of slave lineage – indeed, one supposes they came from the island’s upper classes. Marley came from the class of exploiters and exploited – to use a horribly simple way of putting it. He was clear that he was comfortable with that confluence, but it is also clear that he hadn’t really worked out what it meant intellectually – except perhaps in his very, very important willingness to appeal to all. After all, his musical appeal and I would say his spiritual reach were cosmopolitan and therefore not ethnic, exclusive or cultish.

It’s a small, elegant, counter-intuitive footnote to the whole reggae story that a white Roman Catholic nun, Sister Mary Ignatius Davies, was invaluable in enthusing several tyro reggae stars and Marley collaborators (though not, directly, Bob Marley himself): I always love it when white Roman Catholic Europeans turn out to have been useful to indigenous people (see, for instance, the missionaries referred to the film, Lucky Lady).

To his consternation (it is often noted), his years of success took Marley further and further from black audiences. The admiration he garnered from white audiences, even if they were imagining themselves as liberationists, would surely, sooner or later, have melded with other facts about his life to make him come out of the ghetto. The world stage he craved and achieved would have been a very weird pulpit from which to expound the sort of victimhood which is seldom liberating. Would he have been thrilled to see the use of patois – the language of his psalmody – hobbling generation after generation of African-Americans?

Of course we can’t be sure. Bob Marley might have continued to inhabit a simplistic political and cultural parallel universe. He had already turned it into wonderful sounds and songs, and they were and remain convincing, just as David’s psalms remain marvellous now, even for religious sceptics who may also reject the Biblical account of Jewish history.

I prefer to think that Bob Marley would have blossomed in more interesting and sophisticated ways.

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Publication date

27 August 2013


Mind & body; On movies