March 29, 2010

Bob Marley and the Hero's Journey

During the eighties when I was in graduate school, a friend of mine, Jeffrey Knapp, handed me a copy of Joseph Campbell’s, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, and it was a godsend. Although many critics still argue about the universality of Campbell’s thesis, what intrigued me was Campbell's incorporation of Jung's archetypes of the "collective unconscious" *(masks)--those powerful unconscious forces (e.g. Trickster) that have been shaping human behavior for millenia. Besides, as a storyteller, I'm more interested in the plausibility of the pattern which has been used most recently in films such as Wanted and I am Legend. Many other artists, musicians, poets, and filmmakers, including Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison, and George Lucas, Mickey Hart, Bob Weir and Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead  and Christopher Vogler would seem to share this opinion. (Wikipedia: The Hero with a Thousand Faces)

In fact, Vogler was so impressed, he championed Campbell’s work:

[Vogler] wrote a memo for Disney Studios on the use of The Hero with a Thousand Faces as a guide for scriptwriters; this memo influenced the creation of such films as Aladdin, The Lion King, and Beauty and the Beast. Vogler later expanded the memo and published it as the book The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure For Writers, which became the inspiration for a number of successful Hollywood films and is believed to have been used in the development of the Matrix series.” (Wikipedia: The Hero with a Thousand Faces)

The myths captured my imagination and The Hero With a Thousand Faces became a major influence on my work. My first novel, Benjamin, my son, was patterned on Campbell’s work. In writing the novel, I could have followed the path toward Greek and Roman mythology, but after I read The Arrivants by Kamau Brathwaite, Trickster Makes This World  by Lewis Hyde and The Signifying Monkey by Henry Louis Gates, I began research on Yoruba-based archetypal figures such as Erzulie,  Ogun, Xango, Marassa Jumeaux, Oshun, and Papa Legba, the “wise old Rastaman" in Benjamin, my son. Since the novel signifies on the moral framework of Dante's Inferno, it may be also described as a syncretic Caribbean text.

And the more I read Campbell’s books, the more I also began to notice the connections between the Campbell’s monomyth and the life and work of Bob Marley. Many of Marley’s songs reflect the pattern in The Hero With a Thousand Faces, and although the composition dates may not match the chronology of the Marley’s discography, we should not expect them to.

An artist’s life and the insights she gains are rarely coterminous. In many cases with artists such as Marley, whose work reflects the prophetic voice of a community, their earliest works often prefigure the “boon” that they have discovered.

Here, then,  is a brief outline from Vogler’s The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure For Writers Following Vogler’s example, I’ve adapted the list to also show the insights of Syd Field, Changing MindsCarol Pearson, and the Hero’s Journey: Summary of Steps to demonstrate the ubiquity of the pattern.

Bob Marley and the Hero’s Journey

1. The Ordinary World. The hero, uneasy, uncomfortable, or unaware, is introduced sympathetically so the audience can identify with the situation or dilemma. The hero is shown against a background of environment, heredity, and personal history. Some kind of polarity in the hero’s life is pulling in different directions and causing stress.

This is the stage of the Innocent (Archetypal Child) who lives in a  prelapsarian environment. In “Sun is Shining,” Bob describes an idyllic world in which everything’s is Irie: “Sun is shining, the weather is sweet/Makes you want to move your dancing feet.” Bob would revisit this theme in "Three Little Birds."

Compare this stage with the Archetypal Orphan (Belly of the Whale).

2. The Call to Adventure. Something shakes up the situation, either from external pressures or from something rising up from deep within, so the hero must face the beginnings of change.

After the post-Independence festivities in Jamaica died down, the “rude boys” and their political gang warfare (Archetypal Herald) threatens the stability of the island. At that time, Bob did not have the skills nor the spiritual depth to handle the situation in Trench Town and Jamaica. He can only plead in “Simmer Down”:

Chicken merry, hawk de near
and when him de near, you must beware, so
Simmer down, oh control your temper
Simmer down, for the battle will be hotter
Simmer down, and you won't get no supper
Simmer down, and you know you bound to suffer
Simmer down, simmer, simmer, simmer right down

3. Refusal of the Call. The hero feels the fear of the unknown and tries to turn away from the adventure, however briefly. Alternately, another character may express the uncertainty and danger ahead.

According to Garry Steckles in Bob Marley, The Wailers were recording, but they weren’t making any money. Bob decided to seek fame and fortune in Delaware (Unwilling Hero) effectively turning his back on the music industry. Usually when the hero refuses the call, s/he suffers all kinds of setbacks. Bob laments in “Night Shift”:

Working on a forklift
In the night shift;
Working on a night shift,
With the forklift,
from A.M. (Did you say that? Why did you say that?)
to P.M. (Working all night!)
Working on a night shift, yeah!

4. Meeting With the Mentor. The hero comes across a seasoned traveler of the worlds who gives him or her training, equipment, or advice that will help on the journey. Or the hero reaches within to a source of courage and wisdom.

Bob had many mentors in his life, most notably Joe Higgs whom Marley recalls on Talkin’ Blues taught The Wailers (Bunny, Peter, and Bob) harmony. But as Garry Steckles contends in Bob Marley, it’s not until Bob meets the legendary Lee “Scratch” Perry (Archetypal Mentor--one who is aware of his `ashe and Trickster/Fool) who alters the “rude boy” fad into a revolutionary stance (the corrective reorientation which all mentors provide) that Marley’s songwriting begins to have clear direction. 

Steckles also maintains that “Scratch” also taught Bob how to transform contemporary events and personal conflicts into transformative lyrics. It is from Perry that Bob learns how to write songs such as “Mr. Brown,” “Duppy Conqueror,” and “Small Axe,” his proclamation of judgmant against the big t’ree record producers (Threshold Guardians) in Jamaica:

If you are the big tree,
We are the small axe
Sharpened to cut you down, (well sharp)
Ready to cut you down, oh yeah!

5. Crossing the Threshold. At the end of Act One, the hero commits to leaving the Ordinary World and entering a new region or condition with unfamiliar rules and values.

a. Belly of the Whale: The hero enters the zone of danger. This may start immediately after the first threshold or may require some travel.

In the Orphan stage, the individual is subject to unrelenting victimization. If s/he does not ask the right questions such as "What can I learn from this situation?" or "How can I grow from this experience" (Archetypal Seeker) instead of "Why me?" s/he is liable to become stuck in the Victim mode (Archetypal Shadow) and will expect to be rescued by some outside power of person. Bob recognizes the danger zone in “Babylon” and his immediate surroundings of Trench Town and writes “Concrete Jungle”:

Darkness has covered my light
And has changed my day into night
Where is the love to be found?

b. When Bob embraces Rastafari (archetypal Warrior or Xango), this signals a new stage in his life and writing because in Rastafari (with the Garveyite emphasis on self-reliance and community responsibility--InI) he has found a means of defeating Babylon (Archetypal Dragon). Although many of the songs from Burnin’ show his new found commitment with his locks as his talisman or special weapon against Babylon, “Revolution” from Natty Dread speaks volumes:

It takes a revolution (revolution) to make a solution;
Too much confusion, so much frustration, eh!
I don't wanna live in the park (live in the park);
Can't trust no shadows after dark (shadows after dark)
So, my friend, I wish that you could see,
Like a bird in the tree, the prisoners must be free, yeah! (free)

End of Act One
6. Road of Trials (Tests, Allies, and Enemies): The hero is tested and sorts out allegiances in the Special World.

The band began as The Wailers and they saw their role as the voice of the sufferahs (Creators) to "chant down Babylon"--the forces of capitalism, imperialism, and colonialism that would keep New World Africans in "slavery"--the grand lie of Babylon issued as a challenge, "Who the hell do you think you are?"  or simply in the statement: "You are nothing."The agents of Babylon would take many forms and unless the Rastaman kept his eyes open, "conscious," he could be duped into the ways of Babylon. He had to be on guard as to who was a friend and who was an enemy. Many of Bob’s songs confront these issues of the “open road” which he visits and revisits throughout his career:

Friends/Allies: “No Woman, nuh Cry”

Hypocrites: “Who the Cap Fit”

Shapeshifters: “Bad Card”

Babylon: “Crazy Baldheads” “We and Dem,” "Chant Down Babylon," and "Buffalo Soldier."

7. Approach to the Inmost Cave: More thresholds with their guardians encountered and overcome on the way to the stronghold containing the most necessary thing--a person, object, or idea needed for reestablishing balance and harmony in the world or the psyche.

a.         The Meeting with the Goddess: The meeting with the goddess represents the point in the adventure when the person experiences a love that has the power and significance of the all-powerful, all encompassing, unconditional love that a fortunate infant may experience with his or her mother. It is also known as the "hieros gamos,” or sacred marriage, the union of opposites, and may take place entirely within the person. In other words, the person begins to see him or herself in a non-dualistic way. This is a very important step in the process and is often represented by the person finding the other person that he or she loves most completely. Although Campbell symbolizes this step as a meeting with a goddess, unconditional love, and /or self unification does not have to be represented by a woman.

Bob falls in love (Archetypal Lover) and begins a whirlwind romance with Cindy Breakspeare (Sacred Union) with songs such as “Turn Your Lights Down Low”:

Turn your lights down low
And pull your window curtains;
Oh, let Jah moon come shining in -
Into our life again,
Sayin': ooh, it's been a long, long (long, long, long, long) time;
I kept this message for you, girl,
But it seems I was never on time;
Still I wanna get through to you, girl
On time - on time.
I want to give you some love (good, good lovin');

b. Woman as Temptress: At one level, this step is about those temptations that may lead the hero to abandon or stray from his or her quest, which as with the Meeting with the Goddess does not necessarily have to be represented by a woman. For Campbell, however, this step is about the revulsion that the usually male hero may feel about his own fleshy/earthy nature, and the subsequent attachment or projection of that revulsion to women. Woman is a metaphor for the physical or material temptations of life, since the hero-knight was often tempted by lust from his spiritual journey.

“Pimper’s Paradise” in particular takes a nasty swipe at an unnamed woman and stands out conspicuously among Bob songs which are usually seductive and in praise of women. In this song, he complains:

A pimper's paradise, that's all she was now
A pimper's paradise, that's all she was
A pimper's paradise, I'm sorry for the victim now
A pimper's paradise, soon their heads, soon their
Soon their very heads will bow

8. The Ordeal: Near the middle of the story, the hero enters a central space in the Special World and confronts death or faces his or her greatest fear. Out of the moment of death comes a new life.

a.         Before the “Smile Jamaica” concert, Bob faces death at the shoot out inside his home and begins a new stage of his life. He feels divinely protected in “Ambush in the Night”:

Ambush in the night,
All guns aiming at me;
Ambush in the night,
They opened fire on me now.
Ambush in the night,
Protected by His Majesty.

End of Act Two
9. The Reward: The hero takes possession of the treasure won by facing death. There may be celebration, but there is also danger of losing the treasure again.

a.         Bob realizes that his life has been spared at the shootout (Archeypal Destroyer) and he has been protected, but he is not taking any chances. He leaves Jamaica on a self-imposed exile which will take him out of Jamaica’s fratricidal Babylon. He proclaims his intent in “Exodus”:

Open your eyes and look within:
Are you satisfied with the life you're living?
We know where we're going;
We know where we're from.
We're leaving Babylon, y'all!
We're going to our Father's land.

b.         Atonement with the Father: In this step the person must confront and be initiated by whatever holds the ultimate power in his or her life. In many myths and stories this is the father, or a father figure who has life and death power. This is the center point of the journey. All the previous steps have been moving in to this place, all that follow will move out from it. Although this step is most frequently symbolized by an encounter with a male entity, it does not have to be a male; just someone or thing with incredible power. For the transformation to take place, the person as he or she has been must be "killed" so that the new self can come into being. Sometime this killing is literal, and the earthly journey for that character is either over or moves into a different realm.

Bob’s story, like the story of so many fatherless boys in Jamaica, could be likened to the Greek myth in which Telemachus, according to Joseph Campbell, is told: “Go find your father.” In Bob’s case, he found his father in the figure of His Imperial Majesty, Emperor Haile Selassie--Jah Rastafari (Archetypal Father--the principle of Being). With the news of his cancer and possible death he can proclaim in “I Know”:

Many a time I sit and wonder why
This race so - so very hard to run,
Then I say to my soul: take courage,
Battle to be won,
Like a ship that's tossed and driven,
Battered by the angry sea, yea-eah!
Say the tide of time was raging;
Don't let the fury fall on me, no, no!

(I) 'Cause I know (know) -know:
Jah will be waiting there.

10. The Road Back: About three-fourths of the way through the story, the hero is driven to complete the adventure, leaving the Special World to be sure the treasure is brought home. Often a chase scene signals the urgency and danger of the mission.

Bob realizes that his gifts need to be shared with the community and from his self-imposed exile in London, Paris, etc. and begins to make arrangements for a possible return in “Coming in From the Cold”:

In this life, in this life, in this life,
In this, oh, sweet life,
We're (coming in from the cold) from the cold!
We're coming in (coming in), coming in (coming in),
coming in (coming in), wo-o! Yea-ea-eah!
Coming in from the cold

11. The Resurrection: At the climax, the hero is severely tested once more on the threshold of home. He or she is purified by a last sacrifice, another moment of death and rebirth, but on a higher and more complete level. By the hero’s action, the polarities that were in conflict at the beginning are finally resolved.

Bob becomes aware that he may never live in Jamaica nor in Africa, but the way that he has lived his life is an assurance of a having lived a “good life"and achieved material success (Archetypal Ruler). He has defeated the archetypal Dragon (see cover of Confrontation) and has gone through symbolic resurrection (cover of Uprising). In “Rastaman Live Up” he submits his testimony:

Saw it in the beginning, so shall it be in this iwa;
And they fallen in confusion,
well-a just a step from Babel Tower
Rastaman live up!
Congoman, no give up!
Rastaman live up, yeah!
Congoman, no give up!
Grow your dreadlocks;
Don't be afraid of the wolf-pack!

12. Return With the Elixir: The hero returns home or continues the journey, bearing some element of the treasure that has the power to transform the world as the hero has been transformed.

Bob has fought the good fight and he has seen how his life now fits into a grander pattern of Black liberation (Archetypal Sage) in “Redemption Song”:

Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery;
None but ourselves can free our minds.
Have no fear for atomic energy,
'Cause none of them can stop the time.
How long shall they kill our prophets,
While we stand aside and look? Ooh!
Some say it's just a part of it:
We've got to fulfill the book.

Bob Marley’s life and work present a rich field of inquiry for any storyteller. It’s also one of the reasons for his continued popularity because his songs, which use quotes from the Bible and Black Atlantic folk wisdom, imparts metaphorical answers to the challenges on the “road of trials." Bob’s life truly was a “hero’s journey.”

* The "collective unconscious" is an unfortunate term because it resembles what J. G. Frazier in The Golden Bough calls "Sympathetic Magic." In my view, the "collective unconscious" may be no more than those  primitive impulses deriving from the reptilian brain of our evolutionary past.
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Kathy Stanley said...

Geoffrey, thank you for sharing this fascinating and insightful application of Campbell (and Vogler's) work as a reflection on Bob's life. Yes, I agree with you - Bob's life exemplified the "hero's journey."

Geoffrey Philp said...

Give thanks, Labrish.
This post has been a long time coming.