I have a friend who is a big reggae fan. Recently, we were chatting about our favorite Toots & the Maytals album, when I casually brought up Bob Marley’s name. My friend had suggested Toots Hibbert as the greatest reggae artist of all time, and I’d countered with Marley. He groaned.
“I can’t go there, man,” he said. “He’s just a poster they sell at the mall for some suburban kid’s dorm-room wall.”
I cried foul, but nonetheless, my friend’s point resonated a few days later, when I was perusing the drink selection at a mini-mart and noticed Marley’s face peering back at me from a can of what purported to be “Marley’s Mellow Mood,” a concoction boasting certain vitamins and minerals that would, I presume, chill you out and get you in the mood for some easy skankin’.
I grinned, grabbed the can and headed for the counter. There, I noticed a display of cigarette lighters emblazoned with Marley’s dreadlocked visage. I bought one of those, too. And no, to answer your question, I have no shame when it comes to this sort of thing. I’m a sucker for it.
Marley would be turning 67 on Wednesday. His message of “One Love” has become a commercial slogan, and his face is everywhere, still. So is my friend right? Is Marley today simply an image, a representative of some vague notion of Rasta-hippie Zen?
I’d like to think not. Just the same, it seems necessary to separate the man and his music from the image beaming back at consumers from the packaging on a soft drink. We need to steal Marley back from the relentless forces of commercialism. He still means too much to let him go.
In Marley’s native Jamaica, the man is certainly more of a spiritual figure than he is a commercial image. An article posted on Jamaican-Gleaner.com this week called upon the country’s citizenry to take Marley’s birthday as an opportunity to practice his message of unity. Jamaica’s Living Values Education organization head Sharon Parris-Chambers spoke in the Gleaner article of the continued relevance of Marley’s message of “acceptance, universal brotherhood, forgiveness and respect,” and urged others to practice what Marley preached.
“Jamaica has given birth to one love, a message of unconditional love and acceptance for all,” Parris-Chambers said. “It has been spread throughout the world through the music and vibrations of reggae, a spiritual music that uplifts and empowers.” Marley is widely regarded as reggae’s prime ambassador to the world, and the creation of a music that “uplifts and empowers” must be credited to him. That’s a pretty heavy gig.
Marley preached nonviolence, and he practiced it, too. Jamaica has a gun problem to rival our own, and gang warfare in the streets of Kingston almost claimed Marley’s life. He clung to his pacifism and the tenets of Rastafarianism in the face of these threats to his corporeal being. That should be remembered.
The music, though, is what needs to be celebrated, on Marley’s birthday, and every day.
There’s a reason that no reggae artist rushed into the void created by Marley’s death, that no one has come along to craft reggae music of equal musical heft and sociopolitical-poetic relevance. First of all, Marley came from Motown, doo-wop and even R&B. He had an ear for vocal harmonies, and he had an ear for a hook, and that ability never failed him. With the help of the Barrett brothers – bassist Aston “Family Man” Barrett and drummer Carlton Barrett – Marley crafted the tightest, most soulful and eminently funky rhythm section in the genre. No one has topped it. Listen to live renditions of “Trenchtown Rock,” “Them Belly Full,” “Stir it Up,” “Exodus” – no one is really matching the soulful strut of Marley and the Barretts today.
Marley’s greatest gift may have been the manner in which he was able to marry his message to indelible grooves and simple, efficient and incredibly effective chord progressions. He could take a minor 7 chord and, with the help of the Wailers, vamp on it until the music became trancelike, transportative and transcendent. When this happened, it was as if Marley became a shaman, one capable of urging us to become reacquainted with our own bodies, and to enter that space where mind and body meet and mingle – commonly referred to as “the soul.” Watch a Marley & the Wailers concert performance on YouTube or on DVD, and you’ll see that Marley led by example – he let the music take him “out there” first, and urged those in attendance to follow. This was beyond the conventional notion of “performance” – it was more communal ritual than mere entertainment.
Is it really offensive to see Marley commodified on so many commercial products these days? One doubts he would have approved. That said, if “a kid from the suburbs” wants to put a poster of Marley on his dorm-room wall, isn’t that a good thing? Shouldn’t we encourage the spreading of Marley’s influence to new generations? By any means necessary? I believe we should.
There are two Marley birthday celebrations slated for Buffalo clubs this week. Neville Francis & his Riddim Posse will be joined by the Dreadbeats at 9 p.m. Saturday in Nietzsche’s (248 Allen St.) for an evening of Marley music. And Bob Marley’s FunkyReggae Birthday Party, featuring DJ Universal of Steppin’ Out Sound, takes place at 9 p.m. Wednesday in Duke’s Bohemian Grove Bar (253 Allen St.).