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Bob Marley: Fight the System


By Hunter Loncar


    Robert Nesta Marley was a singer-songwriter from Jamaica that achieved international fame in the late twentieth century by combining reggae, ska, and rocksteady into his songs. Marley’s father was a white Englishman from Sussex, England who worked for the Royal Marines before becoming overseer of a Jamaican plantation. As an overseer Norval met Cedella Booker, a young Afro-Jamaican woman. Thus, on February 6 th , 1945 Bob Marley was born in Nine Mile, Jamaica. Growing up in Nine Mile Marley met Neville Livingston, later Bunny Wailer, and the pair began experimenting with music in junior high. In the early 60’s Marley and Livingston formed “The Wailers” and became incredibly popular. Over the following decades Marley would create iconic songs that celebrated freedom, protested against the system and advocated human rights. Marley’s work is still used to promote these core values to this day.

    A recurring theme in several of Bob Marley’s songs is a protest against the system, or government oppression. Jamaica has a long history of government oppression. The nation was originally colonized by the Spanish, later to be captured by the English in 1655 and converted into sugar cane plantations. The British began importing large amounts of African slaves to work the plantations over the next century. When slavery was banned throughout the British Empire in the mid 19 th century Jamaica was freed. The new nation struggled for several years under a poor economy, the international sugar industry was declining, and long held racial divisions plagued government. Marley was born into a society still held down by effects of European colonization. In Bob Marley’s songs “Slave Driver,” “Concrete Jungle,” and “Rebel Music,” he examines the world around him, urges the listener to break free from the shackles of past colonial oppression, and to fight back against oppressive government.

    “Slave Driver,” by Bob Marley, examines the roots of poverty in Jamaica and urges the audience to fight back against the system that oppresses them. In “Slave Driver,” Marley uses an analogy to convey his message:

Every time 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. (line 6)
Marley is comparing slavery during the colonial era to extreme poverty in modern times. The author is referencing the journey of African slaves from Africa to the Caribbean aboard slave ships. The slaves were starved, whipped and treated incredibly cruelly during the voyage to the new world. Marley draws the comparison to modern times when he compares government oppression today to slavery in the 18 th century when he states, “Today they say that we are free/Only to be chained in poverty” (line 10). The government, “They,” tells the people they are free to live their lives, despite creating a vertical hierarchy that keeps people of African descent in poverty. Poverty is to the modern man as chains were to the African slave. Poverty is intentionally created by the government to hold the people back and control the masses. The writer is uses a metaphor to convey the fear that slavers and the government inflict upon people. That “Every time I hear the crack of the whip/ My blood runs cold” (line 6). The feeling cold is associated with depression and fear. Cold portrays an image of helplessness, an obedient slave to government. Further in the song Marley urges the listener to break free, “y'all (Catch your fire) so you can get burn, now (catch your fire)” (line 15). Marley is using an extended metaphor, alluding to the previous verse, “Every time I hear the crack of the whip/ My blood runs cold.” The contrast between cold and fire is a call to action for the audience. Marley is urging the listener not to fear and shy away from the powerful, but to “catch your fire,” rise up and ignite a revolution against the system.

    “Concrete Jungle,” by Bob Marley, characterizes life in government housing and how it elevates the government into a position of power over the individual. In an excerpt from the song the author uses symbolism to examine the effects of living in the projects: C

oncrete jungle, where the living is hardest
Man, you've got to do your best
No chains around my feet but I'm not free
I know I am bound here in captivity (line 12).
Marley is drawing on themes similar to those in “Slave Driver.” The government sets up housing for the poor but doesn’t properly maintain it and allows the apartments to fall into ruin. The writer declares that there are, “No chains around my feet but I'm not free/I know I am bound here in captivity" (line 14). The government has created the illusion of freedom by creating a place for the poor to live, but still holds them back. The “Concrete Jungle,” Marley refers to in the title is symbolic of a zoo, where the government sets aside land to build cages and keep the poor controlled. Citizens are not free but rather, “Bound here in captivity.” People in government housing are physically living, but mentally caged like animals. The government creates institutions that reciprocate poverty, such as the projects, to keep the elite class wealthy. Later in the song Marley uses irony to elaborate on how government neglects the needs of the poor, “now I've never known happiness;/I've never known what sweet caress is/Still, I'll be always laughing like a clown” (line 17). The speaker is listing the human rights he lacked whilst living in the Concrete Jungle. He repetitively states “I’ve never known…,” before dramatically shifting to a cheerful tone when referencing laughter. This is ironic however, because a clown is paid to act friendly, make children laugh, and appear upbeat. Marley is conveying the government’s attitude towards the poor. The elite is trying to appease the lower class by providing housing, but continues to neglect the real problem such as opportunity to accumulate wealth and rise in the social hierarchy. They are denying them happiness, the ability to accumulate personal wealth by western standards, and “sweet caress,” access to health care. Still the poor accept it, “always laughing like a clown.” Marley is putting the crimes of the powerful on display, urging the audience not to settle for government housing, but to strive for economic equality.

    “Rebel Music,” by Bob Marley, tells the story of an African American man being harassed by a police officer, and how the government uses law enforcement to oppress people both physically and mentally. The artist uses an allusion when pondering, “Why can't we roam this open country/Why can't we be what we want to be/We want to be free" (line 3). Marley is alluding to government legislation that has segregated people by race such as Jim Crow laws in the United States and apartheid in South Africa. When Marley asks “Why can’t we roam this open country?” he is referencing the laws the government put into place to oppress minorities and the poor communities. Furthermore, that people of African descent are denied from being, “what we want to be,” because the government does not grant equal opportunity to all citizens. The government is using the legal system to oppress the people. As the song progresses the author exemplifies a police officer abusing his position of power by using an anecdote. Marley tells the officer to:

Check my life if I am in doubt
Three o'clock, roadblock
And, hey, Mr. Cop, ain't got no
(What you say down there?) Hey Mr. Cop
Ain't got no birth certificate on me now” (line 22).
The writer retells the encounter in the first person to convey to the reader the injustice he experienced at the hands of a government official. When the speaker is asked for proof of his citizenship at a roadblock he responds, “Ain't got no birth certificate on me now.” Shakedowns like these are used by government to inflict fear in the population, to remind the people who is in charge. The officer asks for proof of citizenship to convey to the speaker that he does not belong, or that he is invaluable and can be removed if necessary. The rich use institutions such as the police force to oppress the poor and maintain their wealth. Despite Bob Marley’s powerful humanitarian themes, some in the academic community argue that his growth in popularity caused him to adjust his music to dilute his original message.

    In "Blackness, Resistance and Consciousness in Dancehall Culture," Angelique V. Nixon argues that Marley’s adherence to Jamaican dancehall culture has diluted his original message as he has grown in popularity as an artist. Nixon argues that what originated in, “internalization of liberation,” has since transitioned. That as a result of Marley’s popularity, reggae’s “current manifestation directly engages in these [original] foundations but has also evolved out of and been influenced by the dancehall space,” (Nixon 5). Dancehall space as defined by Nixon is the influence of youth culture and deejays. The further reggae was pulled into popularity by Marley, the flashier the performances became, the more dance oriented the melodies became and the original message was diluted. Nixon believes that Marley’s original themes exist but carry less weight in his newer songs, and thereby are less persuasive for the audience to fight back against an oppressive government. Other critics argue that Marley’s message is sound, but incomplete.

    In “An open letter to Bob Marley: time to create reggae dialogues,” Deanne Bell advocates that although Bob Marley’s work helped spark revolution, his songs left out critical elements to instilling real change. Deanne believes that it is time, “to put ideas from liberation psychology… together with conscious reggae music to carry on the unfinished business of decolonization” (Bell 5). The author of the letter is embracing Marley’s founding principles of fighting back against government oppression but urging modern reggae artists to take his message a step farther. Bell is focusing on the psychological effects of decolonization, as opposed to the mostly physical equality that Marley expresses in his songs.

    Bob Marley used his platform as a prominent reggae artist to promote decolonization, and urged listeners to rebel against government oppression. This is displayed in several of his works including “Slave Driver,” “Concrete Jungle,” and “Rebel Music.” However, some question his later works as holding to his original themes as he was effected by rising stardom. Other critics emphasize that his message needs to be extended to include the psychological effects of decolonization, not just the physical oppression. Robert Nesta Marley was one of the most influential singer-songwriters of the twentieth century.

Works Cited

Bell, Deanne. "An open letter to Bob Marley: time to create reggae dialogues." Obsidian: Literature in the African Diaspora, vol. 41, no. 1-2, 2015, p. 107+. Literature Resource Center, go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=LitRC&sw=w&u=paci91811&v=2.1&id=GALE%7CA450 329920&it=r&asid=d1de11f9b2fc76fe086e0b6f4cc47719. Accessed 10 Nov. 2016.
Marley, Bob. Complete Lyrics of Bob Marley: Songs of Freedom. London: Omnibus, 2001. Print.
Nixon, Angelique V. "Blackness, Resistance and Consciousness in Dancehall Culture." Black Renaissance/Renaissance Noire, vol. 9, no. 2-3, 2009, p. 190+. Literature Resource Center, go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=LitRC&sw=w&u=paci91811&v=2.1&id=GALE%7CA271 406208&it=r&asid=8357ce284b5cde70209f1172ca08a4b1. Accessed 10 Nov. 2016.

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