Love, Resistance, and Bob Marley

You hear a lot of Bob Marley on college campuses. Yes, even Christian campuses! Yesterday was the 30th anniversary of Marley's death. I found this article--Free Bob Marley! He's been hijacked by stoned suburban teenagers--by Field Maloney over at Slate to be an interesting read. Particularly his comparison of Marley's American fans and those in the third world:

After all, Marley is an international star with a strong following in the Third World, especially in Africa. There, Marley fandom has a different dimension. Say you're a middle-class American white kid. It's spring term freshman year, and you've just discovered pot, Bob Marley, and ultimate frisbee. You really want to drop that organic chemistry course, but you know your parents will be pissed. In such a scenario, Bob Marley's songs, with lines like "Emancipate yourself from mental slavery" and "No chains are on my feet/ but I am not free," seem to be talking to you in a way that's deeply profound. Sure, that's laughable. But let's take a different scenario altogether. What if you're black? Or from the Third World? Then the lyrics take on a lot more historical force and contemporary urgency.

The problem with Bob Marley in white America is one of perspective. Many of Marley's songs are about resistance and violent revolution. The threat implicit in the lines "Them belly full but we hungry/ A hungry mob is an angry mob" or the song "Burnin' and Lootin' " isn't too far from the surface. But lyrics about armed resistance make America's secular-progressive middle classes—those most responsible for the cult of Marley as a cuddly "One Love" Rastafarian—uneasy. And so does Bible-beating. Marley's music is steeped in the Old Testament, especially the Song of Solomon. Marley sings in "Small Axe":

Why boasteth thyself, O evil men;
Playing smart and not being clever?
I said, you're working iniquity
To achieve vanity …

And whosoever diggeth a pit
Shall fall in it; bury in it
And whosoever diggeth a pit
Shall bury in it; bury in it.

Here, he's plundering from at least four books of the Bible: Psalms 52:1 and 94:4; Proverbs 22:8; Isaiah 59:4; and Jeremiah 2:5.

Often in Marley, militancy and religion are fused in a way that wouldn't please, say, Pat Robertson...
It's an interesting analysis with larger implications for the church and the gospel. It reminds me of Stephen Weather's essay The Predicaments of Praying from Privilege I linked to awhile back.

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2 thoughts on “Love, Resistance, and Bob Marley”

  1. One thing I've always been amazed by, on both a personal and corporate level, is the the appeal of Rage Against the Machine.

    Seriously - their first, self-titled album changed my life, but if I'm being honest (as a middle class white guy), their politics really "shouldn't" speak to me necessarily (with the exception of jumping on board). However, one thing that surprised just about everyone, perhaps most of all the band members, about their appeal was the staggeringly homogeneous crowds of angry white males they were attracting. I think this could be considered analogous, albeit imperfectly, to the appeal of Bob Marley to suburban America.

    Of course we could look at the situation in a number of ways, perhaps most obviously sociologically and anthropologically. However, my personal stake is more about the existential/psychoanalytic bend. There is a something important going on, some legitimate appeal of their words and sound to a people who, by all outward appearances, could be considered more from the fold of the antagonists.

    We can all laugh (indeed I do) and say what we want about the deep irony imbued in the whole situation, but, as William James said, we can't really be the judge over someone's personal experience of what's meaningful to them. Obviously there are plenty of band-wagon jumpers, especially with Marley, but that doesn't mean that there is nothing of importance to search out as to why "the poor man's newspaper" unexpectedly appeals to a demographic. Personally I find the situation incredibly fascinating and deserving of more introspective research. Perhaps we will find that unconscious existential conflicts happen even in middle class America, and, though people may not consciously understand why, a certain kind of music can give voice to the acedia inherent in middle-class life, even when the actual socio-political situation reflected in the music is so far removed from their "outward" experiences.

    Or maybe I'm just trying to justify my own experiences...

  2. Reminds me of the "stuff white people like" series...

    I hadn't thought about the implications of his lyrics, but it's all starting to make sense now.

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