The Radical Reggae Moment

Colin Grant, The Natural Mystics: Marley, Tosh, and Wailer (New York: W. W. Norton, 2011); 305 pages; ISBN 978-0-393-08117-6 (hardcover)

• February 2012

Over the last twenty years or so since the passing of Bob Marley and of Peter Tosh in the 1980s, there has been a veritable industry about the Wailers: Bob, Peter, and the only living Wailer, Bunny. Academic texts on Marley abound, and range from those that examine Marley’s life alongside the lives of Ralph Ellison and Frederick Douglas to the 2004 Every Little Thing Gonna Be Alright: The Bob Marley Reader.1 Then of course there are the numerous books by music journalists and others, including Timothy White’s biography on Marley, Rita’s Marley’s No Woman No Cry: My Life with Bob Marley, and Roger Steffens et al.’s Bob Marley and The Golden Age of Reggae, and last year Cedella Marley published the children’s book One Love, based on one of Bob Marley’s most popular singles.It can be said that many of the books about the Wailers pay enormous attention to Bob, and that the iconic “screw-face” of the dreadlocked Rasta Man is recognized by millions all over the world.3 Marley became, after the split of the Wailers—he is reported to have said long after the split, “Up to now, I still don’t know why we is not together”—the international iconic figure of rebel reggae music and Rastafari.

This was a result of a cultural process in which liberal hegemony worked to tell an individual story of musical genius, plucking Marley from the context of TrenchTownand black redemptive postcolonial Jamaican politics and making him a fangless Rastaman. Today, within the context of so many books on Marley and the Wailers, one can legitimately ask, Another book on the Wailers? If such a question leads us to pass over Colin Grant’s The Natural Mystics, we would miss a book that is useful in deconstructing the notion of the individual genius and captures in fine bits of writing the extraordinary life of many Black Jamaicans in the 1950s and ’60s in the that urban space called Trench Town.

If one can get past some of the frills in the book reminiscent of the travel writing genre, then we can say that Colin Grant has written an interesting book about slices of Jamaican cultural and social life. There are many things about the Wailers reported in this book that we already know, but its main strengths are its descriptions of urban life in Jamaica and its portrayal of some of the leading musical personalities at the time. However, some things Grant simply gets wrong, or while the evidence points him in other directions he does not travel down those roads. Two instances in particular stand out to me. The first is the discussion about the “rude bwoy.” This is a crucial male figure in early Jamaican postcolonial society, and even though Grant gives us very good descriptions of the figure and allows observers to speak, we do not get anything about the political significance of this figure as male rebel. Second is Grant’s general claim that “one of the peculiarities of Jamaica is that both main political groupings, the People’s National Party (PNP) and the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), make the claim that they are a workers party” (197). This is an inaccurate statement, historically and politically. Both parties claim to be a mass parties, but neither of them ever give themselves any workers designation, and a careful research of the island’s political history would have revealed that. While one may not wish to make heavy weather about these deficiencies, Grant does claim to be an historian as well as a writer.

As I read this book, I was transported to the urban center of TrenchTown, the personalities, the streets, the yards. Grant’s descriptive writing is evocative and charged. His montage style, which cuts from driving to the country to interviews with leading Jamaicans and then returns us to the scene, to the lives of the three Wailers as they attempt to carve out musical niche for themselves, is successful. The story he tells is one that has been forgotten and is in danger of being erased. It is a story of deep friendship between three young men drawn together because of circumstances and a profound love of music. Theirs was a radical musical project shaped within the cauldron of TrenchTown, Rastafari, and the search for redemption in a postcolonial Jamaicathat was at that time constructed on the edifices of colonial plantation economy race and color domination of the black majority. Grant’s book allows us to enter that world, giving us glimpses of ordinary Jamaicans navigating their lives in such a society. His focus on the individual lives of the Wailers and then their life together allows us to see how their musical project was born and nurtured. By the time the Wailers entered the offices of Chris Blackwell in the early 1970s, after the usual difficulties with other Jamaican producers, from Coxsone to Leslie Kong to Lee Scratch Perry, this musical project had been honed to a fine edge. The consequences of the London meeting were not that the Wailers were brought to world attention, as is the typical narrative but rather that they were given the conditions under which they could produce a masterpiece. The tracks on Catch a Fire tell us that story.

Grant is a good storyteller and allows Bunny Wailer great latitude in telling the Wailers’ story. In response to the question of what it was like to sing with Bob and Peter, Bunny replies, “It was like the Children of Israel gathered around the Ark of the Covenant. It doesn’t happen every day, but when it does, it is something to write about” (265). Something to write about. For the Wailers, reading was a key element of their own self-training. Grant tells us how they read constantly and reveals what each read on tour and how Bunny in particular was critical of band members who read only comic books. For the Wailers, the word was crucial, and if the major book was the Bible, then for the word to be written is for it to become history. The Wailers were a rare historical moment, one intimately tied to reggae as a radical musical and political project to redefine the lives of the Jamaican “sufferer.” We return all the time to this project because its radicality—in its musical forms; in the relationship between voice and instruments; in its rootedness in subaltern life; and in its extraordinary creativity—announces to us deep possibilities for imagining another world. What Colin Grant has done for us is to make the social and cultural moment that shaped the radical moment of reggae come alive. In doing so, he has brought to the fore a different story of the Wailers and their relationship to each other.

Let us end with Bunny: “Bob Marley and Peter Tosh will be here for posterity[,] as their messages are prolific and eternal” (270). If the work of the radical imagination is about a creative working through of the past to a present and possible future, then the legacy of the Wailers is to be found not only in black Atlantic musical history but in the creative push to, in Frantz Fanon’s words, bring “invention into existence.”The Natural Mystics is very able text that illustrates how the Wailers engaged with the practice of invention.

 

Anthony Bogues is currently a distinguished faculty fellow atStanfordUniversity. He teaches regularly atBrownUniversity, is a visiting humanities professor atAddis AbabaUniversity, and is an honorary professor at theUniversity ofCape Town. He is currently working on a book on freedom and the radical imagination and a project on Haitian Art.

 


 See, for example, Gregory Stephens, On Racial Frontiers: The New Culture of Frederick Douglas, Ralph Ellison, and Bob Marley (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999); Hank Bordowitz, ed., Every Little Thing Gonna Be Alright: The Bob Marley Reader (Cambridge,MA: Da Capo, 2004).

2 Timothy White, Catch a Fire: The Life of Bob Marley (New York: Owl, 1983); Rita’s Marley, with Hettie Jones, No Woman No Cry: My Life with Bob Marley (New York: Hyperion, 2004); Jeff Walker, Cameron Crowe, Roger Steffens, Jeff Walker, and Kim Gottlieb-Walker, Bob Marley and the Golden Age of Reggae (London: Titan, 2010); Cedella Marley, One Love, illus. Vanessa Bradley-Newton (San Francisco: Chronicle, 2011).

Of course, there is Chris Salewicz’s biography of Peter Tosh (Reggae Rebel: The Life of Peter Tosh [London: Omnibus, 2002]), and then there is the French edition of a book on Bunny Wailer, edited by Norton Fausto Garfield (Bunny Wailer: The Wailers, Bob Marley, Peter Tosh [n.p.: Anim, 2011]).

4 Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (New York: Grove, 1967), 229.

 

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