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‘In the Abundance of Water, the Fool is Thirsty’: Bob Marley and the Pan-African Dream

In the first part of a series, Yaw Adjei-Gyamfi considers why the music and message of Bob Marley still ring fresh to our ears and minds, many years after his death.

Them Belly Full But Them Hungry

Walk down Seventh Street, Buffalo Soldier

Come Make we Chant Down Babylon (Joseph Hill of Culture, 1989).

The month of May sees the commemoration of one of the events most revered among the Rastafari: the passing of music icon and Reggae legend Robert Nesta Marley, popularly known as Bob Marley. On 11 May 1981, Bob Marley, after battling cancer, gave up the ghost, saying goodbye to the millions of people scattered across the length and breadth of the world to whom he gave hope and inspiration through his sounds of redemption, revolution and emancipation.

Allow me to say that I prefer to refer to the king of Reggae as “Kwabena Marley”. I do so because it offers me a truer sense and appreciation of Marley’s African identity and his appeal to African philosophy. It is also to appease my Afrocentric spirit. For clarity’s sake, taking into consideration my non-Ghanaian brothers and sisters who are reading this, “kwabena”refers to a male Ghanaian born on a Tuesday, as Akan custom dictates.

Bob Marley was indeed born on a Tuesday, in the hills of Nine Mile. He rose to become a music sensation, a world icon and a messenger of peace and harmony. According to Evan Smith, in an article on Jamaicans.com, “Bob Marley’s story is one of the 20th century’s most powerful and compelling human dramas.” In his book So Much Things to Say: The Oral History of Bob Marley, Roger Steffens writes: “Without doubt, Bob Marley can now be recognised as the most important figure in 20th century music… that he is without question one of the most transcendent figures of the past hundred years.”

Marley’s affiliation with the Rastafarians he met in Kingston mightily influenced his consciousness of his African identity.

As a boy in the slums of Kingston, Jamaica, Marley was exposed to excruciating levels of poverty, oppression, privation, crime and, at worst, the pain of sleepless nights induced by hunger. His country had suffered more than 200 years of slavery and colonialism. Coincidentally, while in Kingston, Marley was exposed to Rastafari, a movement that arose in the 1930s in Jamaica, following the crowning of Ras Tafari Makonnen (Haile Selassie) and proclaimed Selassie as the one true king of black people. It was not long after that Marley was fully immersed in the teachings and practice of the movement, under the tutelage of renowned Rasta preacher Mortimer Planno. I highly recommend Leonard E. Barrett’s book The Rastafarians for anyone who wishes to find out more about Rastafarianism. It is detailed, comprehensive and addresses pertinent issues related to the Rastafari movement.

Bob Marley sang about the struggles of African people while suggesting the need for Pan-African unity to overcome oppression.

Evidently, Marley’s affiliation with the Rastafarians he met in Kingston mightily influenced his consciousness of his African identity, style of music and, essentially, his lyrics and message. His experience of racism as a mixed-race person also shaped Marley’s music significantly. He displayed a remarkable awareness of Pan-Africanism and its message of African unity, and of the debilitating socio-economic conditions of black peoples all over the world.

Not only was Marley a “hothead”, demanding equal rights and justice for all people, but some of his songs (as will be seen later) also reveal his softer side, which makes it unsurprising that he was a ladies’ man.

This series of essays seek to explore why Marley’s Pan-African messages and his dream of a free, united and strong African continent, recorded in ghetto studios several decades ago, are even fresher to our ears and minds now and still so relevant to the African struggle in the 21st century. It also passes as a reflective piece and a tribute to the memory of this unapologetic Pan-Africanist and freedom fighter.

I must add that this article makes reference to an array of Marley’s songs, carefully selected for this discussion, and to literature on his life and career. Having acknowledged that, the uniqueness of this article is that it enhances and expands Marley’s works to provide an understanding of its implications for the AU Agenda 2063, which sums up the dream of an African Renaissance (a widely expressed view of Marley’s). The essay, therefore, is divided into three sections: the first section highlights his early years in life and music, the second examines Marley as African philosopher (here, I will depend largely on his lyrics and message from a selected discography) and how his works reflect the aspirations of Agenda 2063 and the Pan-African dream. The third and last section focuses on Bob Marley’s contribution to Jamaica’s soft power through Reggae music, which has made this small Caribbean island a notable name in the international space.

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