Happy Birthday, Brother Bob!

BobWhen I first read VS Naipaul’s Mimic Men, the statement by the protagonist, Ralph Singh, “Why, recognizing the enemy did you not kill him, swiftly?” stuck with me. For just as the phrase from Froude’s The Bow of Ulysses that was echoed in Naipaul’s The Middle Passage, “History is built around achievement and creation, and nothing was created in the West Indies,” became part of Derek Walcott’s creative impetus, so this sentence from Naipaul’s fiction haunted me for over thirty years. It became the spur to many of my poems, short stories, and novels. But this hindsight works like tracing backwards from the solution to an algebraic equation, and makes everything seem intentional and occurring with perfect timing. Yet nothing could have be further from the truth.

I was sixteen and I knew I wanted to write. But write about what? I knew I was angry with Naipaul, and could have built a career on being the opposite of the Ralph Singhs who lived then and now: in a state of perpetual abhorrence of the “native. But good writing, like a good life, cannot be built solely on negation.

But the only voices that I heard coming out of the University of the West Indies and the intelligentsia of Jamaica were a thunderous cacophony of negation. No! to British colonialism. No! to American imperialism. No! to multinational corporations. No! No! No! But where was the Yes! to the joy of life?

Luckily, there were a few affirmative voices in Jamaica: Dennis Scott, Mervyn Morris, and Anthony McNeill. However, at the age of sixteen, the most insistent exhortations came from Bob Marley, the most visible icon of the Rastafari community.

It was through Marley’s work that I learned about the central tenet of the mystic revelation of Rastafari, InI, that proclaimed the one-ness of the individual, community, and the divine. This elegant concept of InI, which can be compared to Indra's net, developed by Mahayana Buddhist school in the 3rd century that emphasizes the interconnectedness of the universe and has been further developed by Thich Nhat Hanh as "Interbeing," was a natural solution to the many problems that Jamaica faced during the seventies: how to deny the sense of unworthiness that plagued the sufferahs and how build a community that had been torn asunder by history. In other words, how to love InI.

And just as InI stresses personal responsibility for one’s actions and with the community in manifesting creation, Bob Marley took the lead in shaping many of the ideas within Rastafari that had been espoused by Marcus Garvey into a coherent vision that affirmed moral values.

But how does one translate ideas into a piece of writing that is not merely a polemic, but which uses the two most persuasive tools in a poet’s arsenal: rhythm and metaphor? Bob showed me how.

In the song, “Is This Love?” Bob demonstrated what Kwame Dawes has dubbed the reggae aesthetica combination of the erotic, social, and divine into a remarkable triplet:
We'll be together with a roof right over our heads;
We'll share the shelter of my single bed;
We'll share the same room, yeah! - for Jah provide the bread.

For many young writers growing up in the seventies, this was groundbreaking for it opened up a new way of seeing our work. our community and our lives. Bob’s work became a model for poetic possibilities and method for evaluating our work.

Bob’s boldness—his claim that anything was possible, if only like the Buddhists claimed we would “Wake up and Live!” and his insistence that we “Put our dreams to reality” became a personal mantra. By embodying Rastafari, Bob proclaimed that InI through renaming an experience had the power to create (I-rate) anything that InI desired (I-sired). It was a powerful idea then. It’s a powerful idea now. And in a land plagued by ideas of lack, limitation, and scarcity, it was truly revolutionary.

Also, Bob’s fearlessness, his willingness to confront Babylon head on as a mature Nyahbinghi warrior, and to change the world without bloodshed, but if necessary, “Brothers you're right, you're right/ You're right, you're right, you're so right/ We'll have to fight, we gonna fight/ We'll have to fight, fighting for our rights (Zimbabwe) became an inspiration for me and many other writers who came of age during the seventies. And if Bob was a “natural mystic,” maybe we could be “cautious mystics”: observing the trappings of Babylon while still seeking union with the divine.

But more than anything else, Bob’s ability to transform through word-power the consciousness of a generation and to show how life-affirming values could be transmitted in poetry through rhythm and metaphor opened up a path that many of us could follow.

And so for this on his Earthday, InI can only say, “Give thanks, Brother Bob. Give thanks!”


The curator of a groundbreaking exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History discusses Rastafarian culture on exhibit until November 2008.

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Excellent exposition on Bob Marley and Happy Birthday to the Buffalo Solider!!RESPECT!!
Esteban, give thanks for the comment and much respect!
susan said…
what Kwame Dawes has dubbed the “reggae aesthetic”—a combination of the erotic, social, and divine.."

Wow! I can't say anything more articulate.

I'm always wanting to learn more, see more and I've found more in your writing.

As a professed lifelong learner, I'm so glad I stumbled into your virtual classroom. Thank you for an informative and inspiring article.
Wow, Susan!

Thank you for this wonderful compliment...

Bob was and is The Man of REASON for me.
Abeni said…
This is wonderful.. A must read for all Bob's fans
susan said…
Hi Geoffrey,

Just a follow, I was struggling with a recent exercise at The Last Piaster. Reading the excerpted lyrics, being reminded of rhythm, metaphor and the intimacy of our lines, helped me decide to revisit an old piece for revision. Thank you.
Dear BarbadosInFocus & Abeni,

Give thanks for the comments. Yes, Bob was truly a legendary person and hero.

Susan, thank you in the old African tradition of call and response so the circle is never broken...

Mad Bull said…
Let I add InI voice to that of the I. Happy Birthday, Brother Bob.

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