February 18, 2003

Bob Marley in the 21st Century

If you are the big tree
we are the small axe
sharpened to cut you down
ready to cut you down

from "Small Axe" by Bob Marley and Lee Perry

Warhol's Marley

It was Bob Marley's birthday February 6 so I pulled out some of my old Marley recordings. I also pulled out Peter Tosh's Equal Rights album. Yes, it was a night much like this when Marley passed away.

The corporate record companies have nicely packaged Marley as a product. And given the material they have to work with, it's a great product. They do the typical packaging job, sanitized so as not to offend the sensibilities of the corporate state. The TV biograpies portray Marley as glamorous, talented, tragic, a little funky, very dedicated, but only to his music. They just touch on the political dimension of his life. He is now a Legend, explicitly labeled that by his label on a postmortem greatest hits collection. He may even be portrayed as a great humanitarian. But his importance as a powerful political advocate is glossed over, or mentioned in such a perfunctory manner that it's little more than a symbolic brand name. With such a hole in his biography, all the to-do about his being a legend somehow rings hollow.

In fact his political message was as powerful as his musical message and the two were inextricably bound up together. It was also part of why he joined Abraham, Martin and John in the "good die young" category. Marley was extremely charismatic, for both his music and his humanitarian political message. He was one who could move many people to follow him, and was therefore extremely dangerous to the powers that ruled Jamaica.

That was why he was shot. And though he died of cancer, I have heard allegations that it was artificially induced and they are not incredible. In any case he was shot, and that was certainly not natural causes, and now he is gone and can be sold as a commodity and can be cleansed of all those unseemly political positions he lived and died for.

It's like the Martin Luther King "I Have a Dream" doll. You pull the string and it raises its arms and shouts out, "Ladies and gentlemen, I have a DREAM today!" But King's act of taking a position against Vietnam, the act that brought on his early death a year later, is glossed over in the capsuled TV histories.

Of the recordings I pulled out, one was a cassette made of an LP of the first Bob Marley album I ever heard, Natty Dread. Back in the early '70s I heard the hoopla about Marley. I'd heard the Top 40 covers, "I Shot the Sheriff" by Eric Clapton; "I Can See Clearly Now" and "Stir it Up" by Johnny Nash; and Stevie Wonder's original song "Boogie On Reggae Woman." I'd heard John Lennon tell Dick Cavett that Reggae was the cool new music to check out. So I picked up Natty Dread, which was pretty much the current album at the time. Nothing I had heard prepared me for the real thing. I found out that it was very different from the American and English covers. And I also found out it that "I Shot the Sheriff" and "I Can See Clearly Now" were among the few Marley songs that were relatively neutral in political content and could be easily adapted to the commercial Top 40 context.

But even though I heard a lot of the social content of the songs in those days, I didn't really get it much because the problems of Third World politics were relatively unknown to me at the time, as they still are for most of the Americans who support the presidents' war policies because they believe in their presidents, not because they would like what the president was really doing if they knew. I knew enough then to know that people in the Third World were poor and oppressed, but the nature of it all was still opaque to me. And the involvement of the U.S. government was entirely beyond my frame of reference.

It was not necessary to know anything about it, though, to thoroughly enjoy the music, which was so funky, so original, so soulful and melodic, and so fresh and creative. And the passion that was fueled by the social issues could be appreciated on an intuitive, soul level, whether its content and context were understood or not.

I remember one time when I was grieving painfully after a death, and in dire need of music that could soothe me. Everything I put on failed to comfort me. It all seemed either too harsh, too superficial or just not the right thing for one reason or another. But somehow the Marley music worked. It comforted me. It seemed like a good friend and companion. I think I understand now better than I did then some of the circumstances that contributed to the emotional depth of that music. An understanding of suffering can be communicated in music in such a way as to soothe suffering. That's what his music did for me then.

Lately when his name has come up, or when some phrase brings to mind one of his songs, I recall lyrics that come back to me with new meaning. I have a better understanding of Third World politics now that the practitioners of it are now bringing it home to the United States.

Now I can better understand what Marley was singing about because I have learned something about the colonial activities of the American government and other governments in history and in the present, and because the US itself becoming a colony, a territory ruled and exploited by a small class of people, not by a representative government.

Since the takeover of the US government by an unelected junta in December 2000, I can't escape the realization that I now live in a Banana Republic. The corporate elites that have for generations installed brutal dictatorships in Third World countries to suppress the people while they steal their resources are now trying to apply the same strategies to the homeland. The junta gets more outrageously anti-democratic every day. So when I hear the old Marley lyrics now, I get a new kind of charge from them. They are anthems of struggle against injustice and exploitation.

Many of the people I run into at peace demonstrations or on the Internet tell me they have never been politically involved before, but things have gotten so bad they have felt compelled to take some kind of action. This is a time when it is virtually impossible to be apolitical. Sometimes politics comes crashing your door down. Then political struggle becomes infused in your daily life, gets into your blood.

The politics of Marley's world is infused in his music, inseparable from it, joined at the heart. The struggle of his people was always there. Today as Third World politics becomes World Politics, the music becomes retroactively prophetic. Marley sang to us 30 years ago about the struggles that we in the States would meet head-on in the 21st Century in our own country. The rulers are trying to establish the Third World order globally, and they call it the New World Order, like Hitler did.

When I hear Marley's music in the 21st Century the music sounds even more sophisticated and inventive than I was able to perceive when I first heard it. The melodies are even more soulful and touching. And now the lyrical content tells me much more than it ever did before.

"Half the story has never been told, so now you see the light, you got to stand up for your rights," says the song "Get Up, Stand Up", on the Burnin' album, written by Marley and Peter Tosh.

Most people will think great God will come from the sky
Take away everything and make everybody feel high
But if you know what life is worth
You will look for yours on earth
So now you see the light
You gotta stand up for your rights

Get up stand up
Stand up for your rights
Get up stand up
Don't give up the fight

The many Wailers albums are great inspiration for fighting against the New World Order. Once you "see the light" you begin to see the political message even in songs formerly seen as politically neutral like "I Shot the Sheriff" or "No Woman No Cry."

In many of the songs, the political content is right out front: "Revolution", "Rebel Music (3 O'Clock Road Block)", "Slave Driver", "War", "Rat Race"...

In "Burnin' and Lootin'" we get a picture of the police state:

This morning I woke up in a curfew
Oh god, I was a prisoner too - yeah
Could not recognise the faces standing over me
They were all dressed in uniforms of brutality

(For a lot of good info on Marley's life and music, see

Tosh, or Peter Mackintosh, is worthy of attention too. You can hear his singing, songwriting and keyboard playing on early Wailers albums like Burnin' and Catch a Fire. He was an elder and a mentor to Bob Marley. Marley, Tosh and Bunny Livingstone, or Bunny Wailer, were the original Wailers. But the record executives focused on Marley and pushed the others in the background to simplify the product for marketing purposes.

Tosh's solo work on his Columbia album Equal Rights is as good as the Wailers. His political message is also very focused, very strong. You hear it on songs like "Equal Rights"

Everyone is crying out for peace
no one is crying for justice
I don't want no peace
I want equal rights and justice

His song "Steppin' Razor" expresses his defiance.

If you want to live
treat me good
I'm like a steppin' razor don't you watch my size
I'm dangerous

In "Downpresser Man" he addresses the oppressors

Downpresser man, where you gonna run to?

You gonna run to the rocks,
But the rocks will be melting...
You gonna run to the sea
but the sea will be boiling

Tosh was also a powerful political force capable of rallying many people around him. He was involved in a project of establishing a free radio station in Jamaica when he was shot and killed at his home. The killers were never found. The police called it a robbery, but nothing was stolen from the house. It was clearly a political assassination. So Tosh the political threat was out of the way, but Tosh the product still makes money for CBS.

Researcher John Judge has reported some interesting things on Marley's death. Judge believes that many of the unlikely and untimely deaths of political figures and politically dangerous musical figures are not as random as they are portrayed to be. In the Weimar Republic in the days leading up to Nazi Germany, he says, there were hundreds of political murders that were never solved. The police did not deny that they were political murders, they just didn't find the perpetrators.

Judge has documentation indicating that Neil Bush, brother of George W., "visited Bob Marley in Jamaica after Seaga's men, who were CIA-financed tried to shoot Marley at a rock concert. Marley went to hide in a mountain retreat and Neil Bush, posing as a reporter for Rolling Stone magazine came into the house and was close to him in the days before he suddenly left ill for England and found that he had a brain tumor and died. I believe that that tumor was placed by Neil Bush."

(See Judge For Yourself: A Treasury of Writings and Speeches by John Judge, copyright 1990 by John Judge, published by Last Hurrah. 973 Memorial Ave., Williamsport, Pa. 17701, (507) 321-1150. See more John Judge sources below.)

John Judge, by the way, says a lot of things that rattle the sensibilities of most Americans. However, I have never found anything that convincingly disproves any of his allegations. And many of the things that shocked me when I first heard Judge back around the time of the first Gulf War have proven to be true. Much of what I would never have believed possible in what he said then is now a commonplace to me. I do, therefore, reserve judgment about whatever he says no matter how outrageous it seems at first, because I have not yet found him to be conclusively wrong on anything of significance.

I do not, like many people, reject the proposition out of hand because it is outrageous. I have learned not to do that with the Bushes. I've been surprised many times.

Judge always makes it clear what is documented and what is theory. When he says, "I believe ..." he is stating his theory. Most of his sources are public documents, information from mainstream news media. He just puts it together based on a paradigm that differs from that of CNN or Fox.

(For more Judge material see Assassination as a Tool of Fascism, The Hidden History of the United States, and a selection of John Judge writings at

For some fascinating the hidden history of what the British were doing in Jamaica, see Here's an excerpt:

In 1930, British capital invested in South America greatly exceeded capital investment in British "dominions." Graham, an authority on British investments abroad, stated that British investment in South America "exceeded one trillion pounds." Remember, this was 1930, and one trillion pounds was a staggering sum of money in those days. What was the reason for such heavy investment in South America? In a word it was drugs.

The plutocracy controlling British banks held the purse strings and then, as now, put up a most respectable facade to cover their true business. No one ever caught them with dirtied hands. They always had front men, even as they do today, willing to take the blame if things went awry. Then as now the connections with the drug trade were tenuous at best. No one was ever able to lay a finger on the respectable and "noble" banking families of Britain, whose members are on the Committee of 300.

There is great significance in that only 15 members of Parliament were the controllers of that vast empire, of which the most prominent were Sir Charles Barry and the Chamberlain family. These overlords of finance were busy in places like Argentina, Jamaica and Trinidad, which became big money-spinners for them through the drug trade. In these countries, British plutocrats kept "the locals" as they were contemptuously called, at bare subsistence levels, hardly above slavery. The fortunes extracted from the drug trade in the Caribbean were vast.

The plutocrats hid behind faces like Trinidad Leaseholds Limited, but the REAL MEAT, then as now, was drugs. This is true of today where we find that Jamaica's Gross National Product (GNP) is made up almost entirely of sales of ganja, a very potent form of marijuana. The mechanism for handling the ganja trade was set up by David Rockefeller and Henry Kissinger under the title "Caribbean Basin Initiative."

Back to Home Page