Tribute: Encounters of the Bob Marley kind – Nwakanma
May 11, 1981, Aba, Imo State: This sad day retains poignant memories. On this day, news of the demise of Prophet, poet, singer, Africanist and lyricist Bob Marley hit the small community of students at the Federal School of Arts and Science, Aba. It was mind-numbing and shattering. We drowned our sorrows collectively, Lower Six students, by gathering at the bedside of Benedict Chidorum Nwakanma.
I had a cassette tape recorder, a bequest from my parents for passing out in Division One in the School Certificate examination in 1980. It was a treasured gift. There was no better way to celebrate this gift and my coming of age. I would go into town and buy tapes. For every three tapes, two would be Bob Marley and the Wailers. In whatever combination. We would go for meals and return to that corner listening to Bob Marley songs and sharing accounts of the man, his exploits, our understanding of those exploits and more. Some of the stories sounded apocryphal now in retrospect. It added to the pathos and the sense of immense loss. Bob Marley was the star at the reggae side of a young man’s initiation into the world of music.
Since 1976, I had followed Bob Marley, as a young secondary school student. Seniors told interesting stories of the man as we sat listening to the music. That was the year he came unto the world stage, courtesy of Island Records. They released his Rastaman Vibrations in London to global acclaim. I was hooked. Here was music that had it all: lyrics, syncopation, yet synchronisation. It was refreshing. Out of this world. Bob Marley spoke to my young soul and still speaks to me now that I understand even more the essence of his music and message.
Bob Marley and the Wailers made the most impact in the 70s and 80s. He released Catch A Fire in 1973, Natty Dread (1974), Live! (1975). Then followed the ice breaking Rastaman Vibration in 1976. Bob surpassed himself the following year with the record that epitomises all of his genius – his spirituality, his Afrocentrism, his humanism- Exodus. The record spoke to various groups of people, touching cords in different soft spots. Kaya followed in 1978, Survival in 1979 and Uprising in 1980. He died in 1981, and they released Confrontation posthumously in 1983.
It was an exciting age. It was also the era that witnessed the blossoming of a young afro-haired black man with legs that made music as he danced. Michael Jackson released Off The Wall in 1979 as his fifth studio album. It was the album that launched his career as a solo artist. He was just 21. Bob Marley was it for me. Once hooked, I stayed on. I bought books on Reggae and Rastafarianism. Thank God for being a bibliophile because one of those seniors at whose feet we sat and listened to Bob Marley, and other reggae greats, took it beyond love for the music. He became a Rastafarian, spirit, soul and body. He smoked ganja.
I had read up on the stuff; nothing would make me touch it. My senior paid a high price then: he rang up a Police number (F9 in all subjects) in his school certificate. It was a cautionary tale. Our brilliant senior recovered himself later, married his teen love and, together, each person in his family had a Rasta number with him as Rasta 1 and his wife as Rasta 2. The children followed sequentially.
Bob Marley’s music transcends generations. My daughter used to make fun of me initially as I played and re-played Bob Marley’s music. Then she became an undergraduate. I return home one day and who do I see listening and gyrating to Bob Marley but Ihuoma. She could now understand the appeal and the message of Bob Marley.
One of the enduring birthday gifts I have received was from my partner at Taijo Wonukabe Limited, Taiwo Obe. You guessed. It was a CD set of Bob Marley’s songs! A Bob Marley CD set counted for much more than all the other gifts. The lyrics of the many Bob Marley songs speak volumes.
First, they are often grounded in the Bible and spiritualism. BBC named his One Love the Song of the Millennium. One Love expressed his faith in people and the Lord. He says in it, “Give thanks and praise the Lord, and I will feel alright.” Then he averred that he would be Forever Loving Jah, a robust defence of his conversion. He spoke to Africa and the Black world.
“Two thousand years of history (history), could not be wiped away so easily.” He talked about Black Emancipation, of the Zion Train of freedom, of African unity, “How good and pleasant it would be to see the unification of Africa”, borrowing the first lines from the Bible. He sang of the independence of Zimbabwe that held so much hope. And spoke prophetically about that country: “To divide and rule could only tear us apart In every man chest, mmm, there beats a heart So, soon we’ll find out who is the real revolutionaries And I don’t want my people to be tricked by mercenaries.”
He rhapsodised about the many challenges of “So Much Trouble in The World” while urging us all not to worry about a thing as “every little thing gonna be alright”. He knew that humanity would be involved in an endless WAR until there is a stop to discrimination, apartheid, inequality, denial of human rights and such other sociopolitical challenges. Listening to many of his songs is like attending a Bible Study session in song. Exodus of course for most people replicates the extraordinary journey of the Israelites.
Bob dramatises it in the lyrics. “Are you satisfied with the life you are living?” There is a conflation of Biblical epochs when he then speaks of leaving Babylon and going to our father’s land. The period of the exodus is many centuries removed from that of Babylon, but the message is clear, as indeed there were two such movements, from Egypt and Babylon. He was the Small Axe, willing and able to cut down the big tree! In the Marley world view, persons who “wake up everyday and quarrel” are “saying prayers to the devil.”
When he sings of “The stone that the builders refused, shall be the head cornerstone”, he is quoting Mathew 21:42 and Psalm 118:22, 23. “The stone which the builders rejected, Has become the chief cornerstone. 23. This was the LORD’s doing; It is marvellous in our eyes.” As a Rasta, Bob smoked cannabis in the belief of the sect that it is in line with the injunction on taking herbs, in Genesis, Deuteronomy and Leviticus. Genesis 1:29 ESV. “And God said, ‘Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food”.
Much more than fame and fortune motivated Bob Marley. He lived for the people and stated once, “If my life is just for me, my own security, then I don’t want it. My life is for people. That is the way I am”.
Experts described Bob Marley as the first superstar from the Third World. It helped that he was handsome, and loved the game with the greatest mass appeal globally, football. Bob was baptised in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church before he died. The Rastas of Jamaica had a deep and abiding interest in Ethiopia, worshipping the late Emperor Haile Sellasie as the biblical Lion of the tribe of Judah. The Bishop of the Ethiopian Church, Archbishop Abuna Yesehaq, spoke of Bob’s deep faith in a 1984 interview with the Sunday Gleaner, a Jamaican newspaper. “I remember once while I was conducting the Mass, I looked at Bob and tears were streaming down his face.
When he toured Los Angeles and New York and England, he preached the Orthodox faith, and many members in those cities came to the Church because of Bob. .. When he was baptised, he hugged his family and wept; they all wept together for about half an hour.”
Judy Mowatt was one of the I-Threes, the famous backup trio of female singers that included Bob’s wife, Rita. She told The 700 Club of Christian Broadcasting Network that Bob’s wife called her while he was dying. “She said to me that Bob was in such excruciating pain and he stretched out his hand and said ‘Jesus take me.’” He answered the eternal call of Jesus on May 11, 1981. Long live, Bob Marley.”
Nwakanma, chief executive of Blueflower Limited contributes this piece from Lagos