When Bob Marley went to Africa

Bob Marley, like many other Rastas, also shared a desire to visit the African continent or, if possible, to live there.

Bob Marley in Gabon.

The public persona (and the politics) of Bob Marley–whose birthday it is today–was heavily informed by his relationship with Africa, both symbolically and in a real sense. Director Kevin MacDonald’s critically acclaimed new film, “Marley,” (2012) explores that connection in some depth. In anticipation of Bob’s birthday, I watched the film for the umpteenth time again. Here’s the trailer again.

The film opens on the Ghanaian coast at the remains of a slave post. The camera then pans over the Atlantic and finally settling on the green hills of rural Jamaica (Marley’s birthplace Nine Mile) from where it picks up Bob Marley’s story. The effect is to cement a link between the continent and its new world diaspora.

In his youth, Bob Marley was drawn to the teachings of Leonard Howell, who organized Rastafarians on the island since the 1930s. MacDonald’s interlocutors claim that Mortimer Planno, Marley’s drummer, played a big role in introducing Bob to Rastafari.

Rastafari, a millenarian movement, drew on the Jamaican Marcus Garvey’s advocacy of the repatriation of Jamaicans (and all people of African descent) back to Africa. They revered the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie (who had resisted Italian occupation) as a living deity. In April 1966, Selassie visited Jamaica and ecstatic crowds awaited him at the airport, as the film shows. Bob Marley himself would later record “Selassie Is the Chapel” (his version of the Elvis Presley hit “Crying in the Chapel”), as a homage to Selassie.

Bob Marley, like many other Rastas, shared a desire to visit the African continent or, if possible, to live there. Later on–when he could afford to or was invited–Marley traveled there. The first place McDonald suggests Marley visited was Gabon in January 1980. Then later in 1980 he played at independence celebrations of Zimbabwe from British colonial as well as local white minority rule. MacDonald’s film covers both these trips in some detail. Strangely, MacDonald’s film is silent on his earlier visits to Kenya and Ethiopia in 1978. Nevertheless, the trips MacDonald covers point to some of the contradictory impulses of Marley’s politics.

Back to the Gabon trip. When Marley went to Gabon, the country was a dictatorship. The regime of President Omar Bongo was built on oil wealth and was notorious for its corruption and repression of political opponents.(Bongo had been in power since 1967; by the time of his death in 2009, Bongo had ruled, uninterrupted for 41 years)   BTW, successive French presidents–through France’s unofficial Françafrique policy–propped up Bongo’s rule in their former colony. Bongo in return did not interfere in the business of French multinationals who dominated the economy and funded elections back in France.

Marley, it seems, had fallen for Pascaline Bongo, the dictator’s daughter. They were dating at the time (though not exclusively as Bob often carried on a number of concurrent relationships). In the film, Pascaline paints Marley as some kind of  black consciousness figure. When they first met, Marley scolded her for having her hair processed (he called her “ugly”). Marley then agreed to play a birthday show for her dad. MacDonald’s interlocutors suggests that Marley did not know Bongo was a dictator (for real) and only figured this out once he gets there, but still decided to play anyway since he had traveled this far. (The film, interestingly, spends more time on a sequence of events where Marley and some members of his band confine and interrogate their manager in his hotel room after accusing him of stealing from the band, then on this inconsistency in Bob Marley’s politics.)

In an interview with with Caribbean culture website, LargeUp last year, MacDonald tried to say more about the Gabon trip:

I had been told by a few people that [Pascaline Bongo] had been very important in the last years of his life, in introducing him to Africa. The first time he played in Africa he was invited by her father but her, really. That seemed like a key point in his life. Obviously Africa means so much to him. I thought here’s a bizarre story, a strange individual in this incredibly luxurious environment and you feel like that’s a million miles from Trenchtown, so that appealed to me. They’d had a relationship that went beyond just a girlfriend relationship, I think she’d been also instrumental in a couple things in his life. She visited him in Germany before he died.

BTW, Pascaline Bongo is still around in politics in Gabon. Her brother, Ali (the one receiving Marley at the presidential palace) is President now. The government is still the family business. And musicians and pop stars still go there insisting it is not a one-party state and they still pose for pictures with Pascaline Bongo. Like Michael Jackson and later Jay Z.

The film then turns to Marley’s decision to pay to fly his band at a cost of US$90,000 to celebrate Zimbabwe’s new independence. Marley even specially composed a song for Zimbabwe’s freedom (he had been performing it for a while). Here’s video footage mashing together crowds scenes, performing the song, “Zimbabwe,” in the famed Rufaro Stadium.

MacDonald’s film confirms the story that Marley foresaw the Zimbabwean government’s political excesses and the fate of Mugabe. In “Zimbabwe” Marley sang: “Soon we’ll find out who is the real revolutionary.” During the concert, overzealous riot police teargassed crowds trying to get into a full stadium. Marley refused to leave, braving the teargas with his fans. Apparently Bob, after the teargas attack, turned to his band and said: “Now we know who are the real revolutionaries.”

There’s more evidence of Marley’s attitude towards Mugabe and vice versa not covered in the film. Too bad MacDonald doesn’t spend any time on the story that Mugabe preferred Cliff Richard, the clean-cut British singer, to perform at the celebrations. And last year, around the time the film first hit theaters worldwide, Mugabe in an interview with a Zimbabwean radio station insulted Jamaican men, including Rastafari, for being “… drunkards who are perennially high on marijuana.”

The main takeaway from MacDonald’s film is that Marley was politically naive or got bad advice. I can see Marley’s fans and confidantes disagreeing with such an interpretation. But MacDonald’s film also shows that in the 1970s Marley was naive about Jamaican garrison politics (essentially an arrangement between politicians and local gang leaders to guarantee voting blocs). In fact, the main reason for Marley leaving the island in the 1970s was after a politically motivated assassination attempt at his house where he was shot.

As I mentioned before, one trip that Marley took to an African nation that is strangely not mentioned in MacDonald’s film is Marley’s 1978 visit to Kenya and Ethiopia. This is especially odd given the connection between Rastafari and Ethiopia. As BobMarley.com reports:

During his Ethiopian sojourn, Bob stayed in Shashamane, a communal settlement situated on 500-acres of land donated by … Haile Selassie I to Rastafarians that choose to repatriate to Ethiopia. Marley also traveled to the Ethiopian capitol Addis Ababa where he visited several sites significant to (Selassie’s) life and ancient Ethiopian history.

I may be missing something, but I have not seen anything online where MacDonald explains this omission.

Further Reading

Goodbye, Piassa

The demolition of an historic district in Addis Ababa shows a central contradiction of modernization: the desire to improve the country while devaluing its people and culture.