Towards the Highest Region: Bob Marley’s Liberation Music

These comments were given at the Bob Marley Symposium, during the launch of Review 81 – “Bob Marley and His Legacy” at the Americas Society in New York on 18 November 2010. Portions of this address also appear in the writer’s introduction to the academic section of the issue (permission credit below). 

• December 2010

It is really a great honor for me to be here with all of you tonight.  If I use the word “humbled” in this context, it is not out of false modesty, but a sense of responsibility. What we’ve seen here is something perhaps we’ve always known, but it is no less moving when it emerges in a public forum like this one: that Bob Marley’s music and lyrics – expressions of word-sound-power – are at once old, more ancient and powerful by far than those rapacious “old pirates (yes they rob I)” and as urgent and burningly contemporary as at the moment of their composition.

When Dan Shapiro approached me to work on this issue of Review as guest academic editor in collaboration with Lorna Goodison, whose poetry I’ve admired immensely and taught in my classrooms over the years, I confess I was a bit surprised, even intimidated at the prospect, even as I already knew what a warm and generous person Sister Lorna is. But Marley’s music has been an important part of my life – and indeed I saw him in performance three times, once in a club and twice in larger venues.  I didn’t see him as an icon, but as a master musician, a “master blaster” in Stevie Wonder’s phrase; to see him close up in The Boarding House, and not only him but Peter Tosh and Joe Higgs (deputizing for Bunny Livingston), was nothing short of a revelation.  It was around the time of Burnin’, but I don’t remember specific songs as much as the vibe, the natural mystic, the bass, and Marley’s concentrated intensity (in larger venues, he would dance more frenetically, gesture more broadly to project to the upper balconies, but in the club he focused his energy with laser-beam precision, and took us all somewhere else).

During the preliminary discussions for the issue, Lorna and I came up with four names for the academic section, and it’s a measure of Bob Marley’s continuing importance that all four of them responded immediately to my requests for contributors.  I wanted a mix of articles from a variety of perspectives, avoiding hagiography, so that the whole would be more than the sum of its considerable parts.  So, thanks and praise to Professors Nadi Edwards, Robert Hill, Hugh Hodges, and Michelle Stephens, all of whom produced outstanding, revelatory, and – my highest accolade – creative articles that surpassed my already high expectations. 

What I’d like to do now is venture a few thoughts about what Marley’s music says to me.  Black diasporic music communicates the wail of a specific historical experience: enslavement, struggle, and the arduous task of building pathways to a freedom to come.  And surely one of Marley’s major preoccupations was that this historical experience never be forgotten; that, indeed, it is the key to collective self-knowledge – “2,000 years of history / could not be wiped away so easily” (“Zion Train,” Uprising).  In his essay, Nadi Edwards describes Marley’s stage persona at the 1976 “Smile Jamaica” concert, held two days after an unsuccessful attempt on his life, as “taut, tense, and defiant,” adjectives that indeed express the quintessence of the sound of his rebel music and poetry.  As Kamau Brathwaite states in “The History of the Voice,” “[Nation language] may be in English, but often it is in an English which is like a howl, or a shout, or a machine-gun, or the wind, or a wave.”1  Think of Marley’s stunning ululation and vibrating wail that open “Lively Up Yourself” and the Natty Dread album, the scat-singing into which he breaks during (among other songs) “Crazy Baldhead” (Rastaman Vibration) and the wordless croons, calls, and cries, the “oohs” and “woy-yoy-yoys,” with which he and the I-Threes punctuate his compositions. But Marley’s individual sound, for all its undeniable primacy, remains part of a larger group sound.  From the spare, funky instrumental backing and the high harmonies of Burnin’ – in particular Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingston’s ground-dove coos winding around Bob’s lead vocal on “Duppy Conqueror” and the in-the-pocket bass-drums postlude to “I Shot the Sheriff” – to the solemn annunciations of the brass on his later records (trumpets of Jericho, maroon eketeh horns); from the rolling groove of “Rebel Music” (Natty Dread), whose harmonica obbligato perfectly conveys the “open country” through which the song’s narrator is traveling, to the irresistible rushing momentum of “Exodus” punctuated by the repeated “Move!” of the musicians, Marley’s songs are meticulously orchestrated.  Much can be said about the contribution of the I-Threes to the dramatic force and beauty of his work as well as the musical textures, ironically yet movingly counterpointing his anguished outcries on “Ambush in the Night” (Survival) and the defiant “So Jah Seh” (Natty Dread) with plaintive “shooby-doos,” anticipating as well as echoing or singing in unison his words, and sometimes commenting on the singer’s words (“why did you say that” on “Night Shift” [Rastaman Vibration]). 

Both Geoffrey Philp and Hugh Hodges present an image of Marley as avatar of Legba, the Vodou lwa who opens the way and presides over the crossroads between worlds.  Legba is associated with the number three, which can be heard in the three strong staccato beats that emerge in various Marley compositions – e.g., the blows of the “Small Axe / well sharpened to cut you down,” the articulation of “Ex-o-dus,” the opening of the posthumous “Chant Down Babylon” (Confrontation) – and in the reminder on “Coming in from the Cold” (Uprising) that “when one door is closed/ don’t you know another is open” (the second time this thought appears, the open door has become, through an act of compassionate trickster rhetoric, many doors).  But Shango and Ogun also manifest themselves in the image and sound of the Zion train coming our way – the same train whose arrival Mayfield announced in “People Get Ready,” and which accelerates its speed in “Exodus” – and in the rude-boy warrior figure of the “Duppy Conqueror” who’s “got to reach Mount Zion / the highest region.”

The whole of Marley’s work bespeaks an ethic of reciprocity: the “we” he invokes reminds everyone listening that they are immediately and inextricably involved in what he is singing about at that moment.  So when we hear him sing “woman hold her head and cry” at the violent death of her son from a stray bullet “just because of the system,” (“Johnny Was,” Rastaman Vibration), how can we not think of the youths not only of Tivoli Gardens, but also of the Gaza Strip, Ciudad Juárez, Cité Soleil?  When Marley defiantly tells “Mister Cop” that he “ain’t got no birth cerfiticate on me now” (“Rebel Music,” Natty Dread), the plight of undocumented immigrants in the United States is not far away.  And when he snaps at an officious TV interviewer that “Babylon nah bear no fruit,” the massive oil pollution in the Gulf of Mexico, the Nigeria Delta, and Ecuadorean Amazonia, the coal mining disasters worldwide, and the persistent state of “war in the East / war in the West” (“War,” Rastaman Vibration) tragically and enragingly bear him out.  The deep listening to Bob Marley and the Wailers that the contributors to this issue invite might, however, help to ensure that, as Amiri Baraka promises in his tribute-poem to Bob Marley, “When the world change / We wailing be in it, help make it, for real time."2  After all, time, which “none of them can stop,” is longer than rope.


Christopher Winks is Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature at Queens College/CUNY and the author of Symbolic Cities in Caribbean Literature (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).


A longer version of this piece was originally published in Review 81 (Bob Marley and His Legacy, November 2010).  Reprinted by permission.  Copyright © 2010 Americas Society, Inc.


Kamau Brathwaite, “The History of the Voice” in Roots (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1993), 266.

Amiri Baraka, “Wailers (for Larry Neal and Bob Marley,” in Eulogies (New York: Marsilio, 1996), 22.


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