On Tuesday, May 11, it will be 40 years since legendary musician and Rastafari, Bob Marley, passed away. It’s hard to even begin to summarize the complicated legacy that Marley left behind. While no one questions the brilliance of his musical output (achieved primarily with his band, The Wailers), it is the fact that Marley wasn’t just a musician that leaves us missing not only his eclectic sounds, but wondering about what would have become of his political and cultural trajectory if not for his untimely passing at the age of 36.
Marley achieved an iconography befitting only the legendary, able to transcend the boundaries of the aesthetic, political, and spiritual in his music and life. But this was not without the contradiction which always befalls the greats. As renowned historian of the black Atlantic Paul Gilroy writes, “Marley’s stardom also makes sense in the historical and cultural context provided by the end of Rock and Roll. He was the last rock star and the first figure of a new phase identified as the beginning of what has come to be known as ‘world music’, a significant marketing category that helps to locate historically the slow terminal demise of the music-led youth-culture which faded out with the embers of the twentieth century.”
There was, on one side, the Bob Marley that emerged as a revolutionary symbol, a representative of the Third World that advanced a critique of global capitalism and the imperial domination it depended upon. Especially in the 1960s and 1970s, a real and palpable belief existed that the anti-colonial struggle in the periphery and the militant struggle against white supremacy in the imperial core would be exploitation and oppression’s gravediggers. As Marley declares in War, “Until the philosophy which hold one race superior, and another inferior, is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned—everywhere is war.” Naturally, with an upbringing in this context and explorations in Rastafarian Ethopianism, Africa loomed large in Marley’s life. As AIAC Talk co-host and website founder Sean Jacobs explains, “Bob Marley, like many other Rastas, shared a desire to visit the African continent or, if possible, to live there.” Most etched in our memories, was his performance at Zimbabwe’s Independence Day celebrations in 1980 when British and white minority rule ended.
There is also a Marley, one arriving posthumously, that becomes sanitized, commoditized, and packaged for mass production. This is the Marley coinciding with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of history. Mobilized as the poster boy for liberal multiculturalism, the Marley of “One Love” became “an affecting soundtrack to essentially boring and empty activities like shopping and getting stoned” says Gilroy. Reggae, once a source of not only creative expression but also a spiritual outlook and emancipatory posture, became watered down as just another genre of music for consumers to select from like they do items on a store shelf. What became of the movement of Jah people?
The story of the rebel disarmed is by now familiar to all of us. On the one hand, we can appreciate Marley as the last rock star, as not too far away from us in history for him to still present us with a usable past. But on the other, if he really was the last rock star, how do we make rock intelligible for a post-rock age? Joining us on AIAC Talk to discuss the life and legacy of Marley, are Matthew Smith and Erin MacLeod. Matthew is a professor of history and director of the Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slave-Ownership (previously, he was professor of history and head of history and archaeology at the University of the West Indies in Mona, Jamaica). He is also co-editor of the new Jamaica Reader, forthcoming from Duke University Press. Erin writes and teaches on identity, culture, class race and geography, and is the author of a book about Rastafari who returned to Africa, Visions of Zion: Ethiopians and Rastafari in the Search for the Promised Land (NYU Press, 2014).
The show streams on Tuesdays at 18:00 in Harare, 17:00 in London, and 12:00 in New York on YouTube.
It was Marx’s birthday last week, so we provocatively asked if Africans need him. We were joined by returning guest Annie Olaloku-Teriba and Zeyad el Nabolsy to debate and discuss the questions that always come up whenever Marx is mentioned—was he Eurocentric, is he still relevant, and so on and so forth. On whether Africans need him or not—it could be the other way round! To find out why check out the episode, it is now available on our YouTube channel. Subscribe to our Patreon for all the episodes from our archive.