February 14, 2011

Bob Marley: National Hero

On February 6, 2011, Jamaica’s Minister of Youth, Sports and Culture declared her advocacy for naming Bob Marley as a national hero of Jamaica. According to the Jamaica Observer, “Minister Grange told a national radio audience and those gathered at the Bob Marley Museum in Kingston…that Marley was a "great Jamaican" and that she ‘supported the idea of making him a National Hero.’” While some have suggested that this honor is long overdue, others have questioned the merits of bestowing the nation’s highest honor on Marley:By definition a national hero is someone who subordinates their personal interests to the collective interest of a country, I am sure that was not Bob’s intention implicit or otherwise.”

Definitions are important. The reasons for elevating someone to the level of national hero should be based on the values that the person embodies and to which we give our assent. For example, Norman Manley and Sir Alexander Bustamante were leaders of the independence movement that transformed Jamaica from a colony of the British Empire into a politically independent state. In singling out Manley and Bustamante as national heroes, we also honored the many nameless freedom fighters who struggled beside them for many years. In the end, Bustamante and Manley were triumphant, but the process of realizing statehood, becoming Jamaicans instead of wishing to be British, still continues. Transformation takes time and eventually, Bustamante and Manley were named national heroes. So what are the values that Marley embodies? And can these values be applied to the other heroes that preceded him?

"Someone who subordinates their personal interests to the collective interest of a country" is a workable definition. But it is not the only one. Joseph Campbell, author of The Power of Myth, defines a hero  as “someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself” (151). Campbell also outlined the cycle of the “hero journey, (separation, transformation and return) and divides “hero deeds” into two categories: spiritual and physical. Unlike a physical deed in which there are outward manifestations, the spiritual deed has to be recognized by the community as meaningful. Or as Rastafari would say, seen.

The other kind is the spiritual deed in which the hero learns to experience the supernormal range of human spiritual life and then comes back with a message.

The usual hero adventure begins with someone from whom something has been taken, or who feels there’s something lacking in the normal experiences available or permitted to the members of his society. This person then takes off on a series of adventures beyond the ordinary …to recover what has been lost (152).

So what is the “hero deed” to which Marley gave himself and which was also “bigger” than him? The answer comes in the song that Marley recorded near the end of his physical life--an allegory not only about his life, but the story of New World Africans in the Americas: “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery/ none but ourselves can free our mind” (“Redemption Song”). It is worth noting that the lyrics are taken from a speech by the Hon. Marcus Mosiah Garvey, Jamaica’s first national hero, whose career began 
after he witnessed the subhuman treatment of New World Africans throughout the Americas:

I was determined that the black man would not continue to be kicked about, as I had seen in Central America, and as I read of it in America. Where is the black man's government? Where is his King and his kingdom? Where is his President, his country, his men of big affairs? I could not find them, and then I declared, 'I will help to make them.' My brain was afire. 

Marley, as a Rastafari, expanded the work of Marcus Garvey. He also put one of Garvey’s central teachings, self-determination, into practice by founding his own record label, Tuff Gong.

As committed Rastafari, Bob Marley along with Peter Tosh and Neville Livingston, the original Wailers, became the voice of the sufferahs in Trench Town. They had witnessed firsthand the effects of slavery and British colonialism on New World Africans and sought political redress through appeals for equal rights and justice.  Always wary of politicians and the "system,” the Wailers were aware that politics was not the only way to achieve the kind of transformation they were seeking. They knew that Jamaica was a deeply spiritual culture, so the choice for name of the group, “Wailers,” was not by accident.  They were urban prophets crying in the wilderness,” and their music became a sonic representation of the experience of Rastafari.

And what was the genius of Rastafari? Inviolable self-identity expressed as InI. This is a radical idea, especially for New World Africans who were brought to the Americas as property of the Empire and subjected to the worst forms of inhumanity. And yet, they survived.

But surviving is not living. Something had to be done. This was the great truth that Marcus Garvey realized and that Marley expounded in “Slave Driver”:

Ev'rytime I hear the crack of a whip,
My blood runs cold.
I remember on the slave ship,
How they brutalize the very souls.
Today they say that we are free,
Only to be chained in poverty.
Good God, I think it's illiteracy;
It's only a machine that makes money

Slavery and colonialism had placed New World Africans in a state of almost childlike dependency in which the colonized looked to the Empire for approval. Again, Campbell is useful: “To evolve out of this position of psychological immaturity to the courage of self-responsibility and assurance requires a death and a resurrection” (138). Campbell elaborates, “If you realize what the real problem is--losing yourself, giving yourself to some higher end, or to another—you realize that this is the ultimate trial…a transformation of consciousness. You have been thinking one way, you now have to think a different way” (139). Although some may wish to deny it, Rastafari and the work of Bob Marley have helped to shape the modern Jamaican character. For many of the post-independence generation who take their somebodiness for granted--as well they should--this may be a "teachable" moment.

In sum, what  Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Bunny Livingston, Bob Andy and others did in popular culture, artists such as George Campbell, Derek Walcott, Kamau Brathwaite, Édouard Glissant, Rex Nettleford, Ivan Van Sertima, Albert Huie, and Martin Carter have done in literature, art, and dance: to see with our own eyes and bless with our own hands.

It is a process that the Kenyan novelist, Nguigi wa Thiongo calls, the “decolonization of the mind.” The Indian writer, Namit Arora describes the depth psychological dependency that many in the former British Empire find themselves:

When done right, the native comes to elevate and mimic his master’s ways, to see his own culture as inferior, and to look down on his past as ‘a wasteland of non-achievement’. He begins to defer to the colonizer’s ideas on fundamental things like beauty, art, and politics. In time, he begins to understand himself and his culture through the eyes of the colonizer—using the latter’s concepts, categories, and judgments. Before too long, he turns into a proxy for his master: colonialism with a native face.

How does the colonizer gain such control? The easiest method is to actively spread his language among the natives, and to simultaneously denigrate the language of the natives as crude and unfit for proper education. It is amazing how much mileage this delivers. Make the colonizer’s language the lingua franca of imperial administration, accord prestige and upward mobility to those who learn it in colonial schools, and before too long, there is a feeding frenzy among a native minority. Such has been the way of the great colonialists of history: the Arabs in the 7-8th centuries, the British and the French in the 19th, the Russians with the Baltic States in the 20th.

It is little wonder that the Wailers always heaped scorn on our educational system: “Brainwash education to make us the fool” (“Crazy Baldheads”).  The Wailers also derided the psychological dependency that the “system” produced: “Most people think great God will come from the sky/take away everything and make everybody feel high" (Get up, Stand up”). Rather than wait to go to heaven for the rewards of life, the Wailers asserted, “ Preacher man don’t tell me/ Heaven is under the earth/I know you don’t know what life is really worth" (“Get up, Stand up”).

The teaching of Marcus Garvey and Rastafari returned agency to the individual: “But if you know what life is worth/ you will look for yours on earth/ so now you see the light/Stand up for your right!” (“Get up, Stand up). In other words, InI don’t need to be rescued and there isn't any miraculous help coming from above or anywhere else. InI have to save InI: “Every day is work” (“Work”).

Marley exemplified the human desire for freedom, which is why so many around the world are drawn to his music. But make no mistake, his first audience was always New World Africans, and his refusal of life saving surgery may be viewed as a kind of sacrifice to the idea that Rastafari incarnates: the black body is a holy site (temple) and should not be mutilated (as it had been in the slavedom days) for any reason—even at the cost of saving a physical life. Extreme, yes, but that’s why we have heroes. They do things we wouldn’t.

This is Marley’s hero deed: he transformed our consciousness in the areas of self-determination, identity, and agency. Whatever the reasons for his success, he became the most successful and articulate spokesperson for the Jamaican Boomer generation. He changed how we see ourselves, not as victims of the system, autonomons of the Empire, but as human beings with the ability to chart and live our own lives: "Every man got a right to choose his own destiny" ("Zimbabwe"). But a hero can only take us so far. The rest of the battle is up to us. He wrote psalms to comfort us when we were weary and hymns to lead us into the battle against Babylon.

“Emancipate yourself from mental slavery” or the “decolonization of the mind”  is the great cause to which Bob Marley devoted his life and we now confront the choice--and by doing so we define ourselves--in the fiftieth year of Jamaica’s independence whether his actions were either a colossal failure or triumph. It is one of those generational choices that do not come very often. I know what Bob would say, “Sing along with me children” ("Redemption Song").

Campbell, Joseph. The Power of Myth. New York: First Anchor Books, 1991.  All other quotes in this article that are not otherwise attributed come from this book.

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1 comment:

ackeelover said...

... Great piece on an embraceable issue Geoffery. Whether or not the state places Bob on Jamaica's Mount Rushmore his global heroism is assured. I particularly like the point you made in your most concise statement ... and I quote, "Definitions are important."