The following is a part one of three part article I have written on Bob Marley. It deals with his life, culture, and a lot with the symbolic and hidden meanings of his lyrics. Please subscribe to the RSS feed for updates to this blog.
Bob Marley arrived in Trenchtown at twelve years old. It was 1957. His mother decided he should move there, to one of Jamaica’s many shantytowns where she had been residing for the past two years due to job prospects. His time in Trenchtown provided his “youthful consciousness with a fledging form of precise ideological context.” In the midst of his later fame as a reggae musician, Marley claimed “My life is only important to me if me can help many people. If me my life is just me my own security then me no want it.” Marley witnessed an extremely oppressed people and wanted to help them cast off their oppressors. Marley’s lyrics communicated and reflected the oppression of the poor in Jamaica which existed since slavery and came with post-colonialism. He sang about freedom from economic exploitation, physical degradation, and moral debasement.
Marley said of his lyrics, one “thing you must know about yourself listening to me is the words are tricky. So when you know what me stand for, when me explain a thing or two to you, you must never try to look ‘pon it a different way from what me stand for.” His lyrics spoke most directly to the Jamaican population. He believed he could “free the people with music” by educating them as to how they were being oppressed, and telling them to rise up against it.
In 1974 he released a song, entitled Small Axe, whose meaning would have been unapparent to almost anyone outside of Jamaica. While it seems to be about a woodsman explaining to tree it is about to be felled, its underlying meaning is a warning to oppressors everywhere that people of the Third World will one day cut them down to size. The central image is a look back to the old plantation order, when slaves were ordered to topple the island’s gigantic silk cotton trees, which they held sacred. With this in mind, and the fact that the words are in present tense, it becomes obvious that the big tree he sings of is symbolic of oppressors he is calling the Jamaican people to rise up against when he sings,
If you a big tree
We are the small axe
Sharpened to cut you down
Ready to cut you down.
Small Axe sums up the tone and content of Marley’s early anti-colonial and post-colonial work. It is boldly confrontational. “Small Axe” is a metaphor for the structurally disenfranchised in Jamaica – a threat that although Britain thinks they have gutted them of any power, they are still capable of not only challenging but also overthrowing the status quo. This power was gained, ironically, in no small measure from the ways in which poverty, anger, and hunger “sharpen” the appetite for change. “Small Axe” throws down the gauntlet – it is an unambiguous warning to the Jamaican State.
Marley believed the Jamaican fight against oppression should be more mental than physical or violent in nature. In a 1979 interview he stated, “Me no want fight no guy with no guns … You stand up for your right, and don’t give up the fight, but you don’t (use physical violence to) fight for your right.” He felt Jamaicans were under “mental slavery” and had to look to themselves to free their minds.
To deal with physical hunger, Jamaicans were encouraged by their then Prime Minister, Michael Manley, to develop a share-pot culture in which “families whose providers are in jobs share their food with less fortunate neighbours.” Marley uses this situation both literally and metaphorically in Them Belly Full (But We Hungry) when he sings of how:
Them belly full be we hungry
A hungry mob is an angry mob
A rain-a-fall but the dirt is tough
A pot a-cook but the food no ‘nough …
Now the weak must get strong
Marley saw his fellow sufferers as a community without adequate resources, and as victims of almost unbearably harsh living conditions for which the share-pot philosophy was an inadequate solution. Even with the attempt to share food there was not enough to go around. The “dirt” is at once an obvious metaphor for ghetto poverty and a critique of the uncaring elite of the country. Because he does not condone violence, he is encouraging the “weak” to get “strong” in mind, will, and spirit. The lyric, “A hungry mob is an angry mob” is a warning to the elite that violence could emerge.
Jef Kearns is a Soul Flautist proving that the flute can get down-and-dirty.
Check him out at www.jefkearns.com