Bob and Rastafarian Beliefs
The pan-African consciousness, progressive political ideologies and deep spiritual convictions heard in Bob Marley's music were derived from his firmly rooted commitment to Rastafarian beliefs and its attendant lifestyle. "The combination of his own inquisitiveness and the profound depth and influence of the Rastafari movement transformed Bob Marley into an artist who reshaped reggae music and the course of world history," says Carlyle McKetty, President of the Brooklyn, NY based Coalition to Preserve Reggae Music. "The intricate relationship between reggae and Rasta is seminal to understanding and preserving the reggae form and Bob Marley's keen understanding and internalization of the tenets of the Rastafari movement have yet to be adequately explored."
Many principles of the Rastafari movement were constructed from the teachings of Jamaica's Marcus Mosiah Garvey. Born in St. Ann Jamaica on August 17, 1887, Garvey was the founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) and a proponent of repatriation to Africa for Africans throughout the Diaspora. Garvey urged his people to know their history lest they be doomed to repeat it. He preached the importance of Africans worshipping God in their own image. "We Negroes believe in the God of Ethiopia, the everlasting God, the one God of all ages; we shall worship him through the spectacles of Ethiopia," Garvey said. Garvey's associate Reverend James Morris Web, a clergyman from Chicago and the author of "A Black Man Will Be the Coming Universal King, Proven By Biblical History" stated at a UNIA convention "look to Africa where a Black king shall be crowned he shall be the redeemer", a prediction that is often attributed to Garvey.
Another primary source from which Rastafari tenets were drawn was The Holy Piby, The Black Man's Bible, a controversial book compiled by Robert Athlyi Rogers published in 1924. Barbadian minister Charles F. Goodridge and Grace Jenkins Garrison brought the Holy Piby to Jamaica in 1925. The Piby's Afro-centric teachings, intended to counteract the distortions allegedly made by white leaders when the bible was translated into English, engendered staunch opposition from traditional Christian church leaders in Jamaica. Goodridge and Garrison faced ongoing persecution for preaching the Piby's doctrines so they eventually fled to the rural interior of the eastern Jamaican parish of St. Thomas. There the seeds of the Rastafarian movement were planted and quickly proliferated through the leadership of Leonard P. Howell.
When Ras Tafari Makonnen the great grandson of Saheka Selassie of Shoa was crowned His Imperial Majesty Halie Selassie Emperor of Ethiopia on Nov 2, 1930 in Addis Ababa, Howell told his followers "the king of all kings has now been crowned in Ethiopia and all tribute is due to him." Howell's followers, Garveyites and others saw Selassie I's coronation as the fulfillment of a prophecy of deliverance.
Born in 1892, Haile Selassie I is the 225th in an unbroken line of Ethiopian monarchs descended from the Biblical King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Rastafarians claim that His Majesty, the Emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974, was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ, and a manifestation of Jah upon Earth. Rastafarians maintain that Halie Selassie I's (supposed) death on August 28, 1975 was a hoax because God cannot die.
Bob Marley wrote the solemn "Jah Live" as a direct response to newspaper headlines announcing the death of His Imperial Majesty: "Fool say in their heart Rasta your God is dead/But I and I know, Jah Jah Dread it shall be Dreader Dread/Jah Live children yeah."
Early Rastafari References on Record
Before the rise of Bob Marley, Rastafari doctrines and practices were sporadically referenced in Jamaican popular music throughout the early 60s. The Jamaican jazz percussionist Oswald Williams, aka Count Ossie, inspired by African burru drumming established several Rastafarian camps in the 1940s where he invited musicians to be a part of his musical experiments. Ossie led a troupe of Rastafarian Nyabinghi drummers on the 1960 hit "Oh Carolina" by the Folkes Brothers, marking the first incorporation of Rastafarian practices into Jamaican popular music.
Don Drummond the acclaimed lead trombonist with Jamaican super group The Skatalites is credited with introducing Rastafari to ska, the dominant music genre of the early 60s and the precursor to rocksteady and reggae. The titles of some of the Skatalites' greatest instrumentals recorded between 1964-1965 including "Addis Ababa"and "Tribute to Marcus Garvey" reflected Drummond's Rastafarian faith.
In 1966 The Wailers released the single "Rasta Shook Them Up" their earliest recorded reference to Rastafari, written about His Majesty's visit to Jamaica in 1966. But it was Bob Marley's Island Records releases throughout the 1970s, commencing with "Burnin" and "Catch A Fire" (both recorded with Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer and released in 1973) and subsequent albums with the Wailers band that brought Rastafari to an international audience. Burnin' featured the traditional "Rasta Man Chant", its worshipful lyrics adapted from the Holy Piby.
Rastaman International Vibrations
The title track to "Natty Dread" (1974) the first Bob Marley album to chart in the US, provided an affirmation of Bob's unyielding faith: "Don't care what the world say (Natty Dread) I'n'I couldn't never go astray (Natty Dread)". "Rastaman Vibration" Marley's highest US charting album (at no. 8) rightfully proclaimed Rasta as offering "a new time, a new day" on its title track. Released in 1976, "Rastaman Vibration" also included "War" a stirring equality anthem, its lyrics taken from an address by Haile Selassie I to the United Nations' General Assembly in 1963. "War's" globally pertinent lines ("until the color of a man's skin is of no more significance than the color of his eyes...until the ignoble and unhappy regime that holds our brothers in Angola, in Mozambique, in South Africa, in subhuman bondage, have been toppled and utterly destroyed everywhere is war") and the reverence with which Marley regarded His Majesty's words transformed his performances of the song into spellbinding displays. The title track of 1977's "Exodus" was a clarion call to heed the guidance of Rastafari: "Many people will fight ya down when ya see Jah light/let me tell you if you're not wrong then everything is alright".
Bob Marley's most overtly political album "Survival" released in 1979 offers several direct references the Rastafarian way of life. "One Drop" advocates for "the teachings of His Majesty, a we no want no devil philosophy"; "Africa Unite" champions oneness among the Diaspora, declaring: "How good and how pleasant it would be before God and man to see the unification of all Rastaman…We are the children of the Rastaman". Although it is common nowadays to see people from various walks of life wearing their hair in dreadlocks and donning the red, green and gold colors of the Ethiopian flag, these representations of an uncompromising African identity developed by Rastafarians were once contemptuously viewed as deviations from accepted cultural norms. "Survival's" "Ride Natty Ride" details the opposition Rastafarians have endured: "all and all you see a-gwaan/is to fight against the Rasta man so they build their world in great confusion to force on us the devil's illusion".
Bob Marley reaffirms his adherence to Rastafari on "Forever Loving Jah" from "Uprising" the final album released during his lifetime. "Uprising" features the acoustic "Redemption Song" which implores the listener: "emancipate yourselves from mental slavery none but ourselves can free our mind", reiterating the self-empowering convictions that Rastafarian tenets have sought to establish."
"Blackman Redemption" from the posthumously released "Confrontation" album summarizes Halie Selassie's royal lineage, "coming from the root of King David through to the line of Solomon, His Imperial Majesty is the Power of Authority". On "Rasta Man Live Up" Bob encourages his Rasta brethren and sistren to "keep your culture, don't be afraid of the vulture/grow your dreadlocks/don't be afraid of the wolf pack".
When Rastafarian identity first emerged in Jamaica it allowed displaced Africans to connect to their ancestral homeland despite the persecution they faced for such practices. Today, thirty years after Bob Marley's passing his enlightened lyrics, accompanied by the Wailers' powerful drum and bass driven reverberations continue to provide a voice for the suffering masses, the injustices of political corruption and the indignities of racial oppression, in the all-encompassing spirit of "one love".