August 17, 2012

Marcus Garvey's Words; "Redemption Song."

The history of Jamaica in the popular imagination does not begin with Christopher Columbus planting the standard of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand in the wet sand of Discovery Bay while the indigenous Taino peer through thick, leathery leaves of sea grapes. Rather the story begins in overcrowded barracoons surrounded by human filth and waste, and this memory has always been an insult. 

The challenge for many Jamaican leaders such as Marcus Garvey whose movement began in Jamaica and eventually spread to Harlem, New York, has been to devise methods to overcome the trauma of slavery and colonialism. At the height of his popularity, Garvey’s admonitions, “Always think yourself a perfect being,” raised the consciousness of blacks in the Americas, but after his imprisonment on trumped up charges, the movement lost its impetus until Rastafari, spiritual heirs of Garvey, took up the mantle of black liberation.

The central tenet of Rastafari is the inviolability of the personal, indwelling God—the true “I” which is connected to the “I” of the universe or I-niverse. This mystic connection is expressed in the Rastafari concept of InI. (I have to do a little Rasta Speak here.) For Rastafari, the individual, “I” is at the center of all experiences. Therefore, if everything flows out of the individual I-consciousness, then “I” should not fear any experience, nor should “I” think of “I” as a victim because the individual, “I” working with the universal “I” consciously, unconsciously or by acceptance of the default agreement of whatever name we have given ourselves or others, I-rated “I” I-niverse.

In other words, one way or another we are creating our stories and we can either tell it as victims or victors. With this act of renaming, Rastafari created its own vocabulary and by relying on Old Testament narratives, changed the way that many of its adherents viewed history, I-story, and Bob Marley, one of the primary proselytizers of Rastafari, illustrates the complex mythology in Redemption Song”:

Old pirates, yes they rob I
sold I to the merchant ships
Minutes after they took I
from the bottomless pit.

From the first lines of the song, Bob not only recounts the memory of slavery, but he also inserts his story into the historical narrative. The double entendre of “old pirates,” refers not only to the slavers, but also to the recording merchants who “pirated” Bob’s songs throughout his career and drove him from Jamaica to abandon his musical career and work in a Chrysler plant in Wilmington, Delaware (Catch a Fire: The Life of Bob Marley). 

The "bottomless pit" may refer to Bob's appellation as a member of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, Joseph, the dreamer, who was sold by his brothers into slavery in Egypt. Or it may also refer to the despair of living in Trench Town’s “Concrete Jungle”: “No sun will shine in my day today; / the high yellow moon won't come out to play:/I said darkness has covered my light, / and has changed my day into night.” In the early days of his career, Bob was facing downpression everywhere, as he explains in “Duppy Conqueror,” which describes a brief time spent in jail:

The bars could not hold me;
Force could not control me now.
They try to keep me down, yeah!
But Jah put I around. Yeah!

Yes, I've been accused many a times
and wrongly abused, now.
Oh, but through the powers of the Most-I,
They've got to turn me loose.

Nothing could hold him back. The "I" and the “Most I” had I-rated the situation, so one way or another, it could be overcome. But the “I” must be strong as he proclaims in “Jammin'":

Ain’t no rules, ain’t no vow,
we can do it anyhow:
InI will see you through…
No bullet can stop us now,
we neither beg nor we won’t bow…
We jammin’ till the jam is through.

In the next few lines, Bob locates the source of his strength, “But my hand was made strong/ by the hand of the Almighty/ We forward in this generation triumphantly.” The ability to overcome the bottomless pit is credited to the hand of the Almighty and Bob’s identification with Haile Selassie, Ras-Tafari, almost childlike at times, “My father is the richest man on the earth,” (Talking Blues), yielded powerful results.

Also as a member of the Twelve Tribes of Israel and belonging to the tribe of Joseph, Bob felt a strong affinity with this Biblical character, who was also placed in a bottomless pit by his jealous brothers.

In the next stanza, Bob repeats Marcus Garvey’s words, “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery/ none but ourselves can free our minds,” and he links his calling to the larger message of black liberation. In the philosophy of Garvey, which Marley adopted, the key to freedom lies in our minds, individually and collectively.

But fear keeps us from achieving freedom. Bob admonishes, “Have no fear for atomic energy.” Not even the bleakest fear of atomic annihilation should be contemplated, “for not one of them can stop the time.” This is not a fatalistic view about the end-of-times, but is in accordance with the tone of Ecclesiastes, “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.” But then Bob displays one of the hallmarks of his songwriting career: he balances received beliefs against his own experience, so we have the very human cry, “How long shall they kill our prophets/ while we stand aside and look.”

Nearly every biography of Marley describes his daily habit of reading the Bible, but another habit becomes clear. Unlike many literalists who would accept a fatalistic point of view based on received beliefs, Bob never accepts anything on blind faith. It is these literalists who use the Bible to endorse nihilism, ethnic and deistic tribalism, and acceptance of the status quo, that he derides in the next line, “Some say it’s just a part of it/ we’ve got to fulfill the book.” Bob’s use of the word “some," is the equivalent to “they”--another of his favorite words when he chooses to distance himself from beliefs derived from “folk wisdom.”

Throughout his career of bringing “new wine,” Bob was often at odds with the commonly held beliefs of Jamaicans--“they,” who were chained to the beliefs of the plantation, “Today they say that we are free,/ Only to be chained in poverty” (“Slave Driver”). Although his songs are punctuated with folk sayings, “Every day the bucket a go a well/ One day the bottom a go drop out” (“I Shot the Sheriff”), Bob explores the tension between what we think to be real and what really is.

For if there is an inevitability to certain actions, then it is fruitless to complain. Change the situation. Like many Rastafari who are engaged in discovering the difference between the eternal and the ephemeral, Bob questioned the validity of commonly accepted beliefs, which are dependent on changing perceptions, against “knowledge” which is unchangeable.

Many of Bob’s songs wrestle with folk beliefs and the interpretation of collective memory. And as Bob demonstrated in the first stanza by his own life story, even the most debilitating memory and experience can be overcome. He repeats this idea in the line, “So won’t you help to sing/ these songs of freedom/ cause all I ever had redemption songs”

At the heart of the liberation theology of Rastafari is the knowledge that the individual, I-man, shapes and controls his destiny. By integrating his story and the Biblical narratives that have become part of the personal and collective story of Jamaicans, Bob demonstrated that the temptation to accept failure can be overcome by emancipating ourselves from the mental slavery of fear and fatalism.

Bob’s life, like the life of all heroes who convince us to live for purposes larger than our individual lives, showed that change is possible, but we have to change how we view these experiences. Rastafari teaches that we are equal to any experience, and no matter how horrific it may seem to be—it must be overcome. Only by giving up negative beliefs, will we be able to “forward in this generation, triumphantly.” It is an invitation to freedom.

We are petitioning President Barack Obama to exonerate the Right Honorable Marcus Mosiah Garvey.
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