Link to this page: http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/548/6417
Bob Marley by Jason Toynbee
Reviewed by Dave Gorton
Over the past 50 years of music history only a few artists have a legacy which lives on and whose influence is easily seen in successive generations. Such artists are often dubbed 'worldwide' superstars. Most of us living in western Europe and America, in particular, would probably attribute such a status to people like Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones whatever our individual views of their music.
But is this true? Is Dylan listened to amongst the masses of the African continent? Do hundreds of thousands in South East Asia await with anticipation the 734th world tour of the Stones? Jason Toynbee's book argues that Bob Marley transcends continental boundaries and is probably the only musician who deserves such an accolade.
Bob Marley was an integral part of my teenage years. From that first appearance in 1973 on The Old Grey Whistle Test, I was hooked! I had the fortune to see him play live twice before his untimely death (the first time cost £1!). 1975's Bob Marley & the Wailers Live! is still one of the best live albums for actually capturing the excitement of a live concert.
But do we really need another book about Bob Marley? Surely everything's been written ten times over? Having read Jason Toynbee's book, it is quite clear that there is ample room for it, in what may be an overcrowded market. Because this book isn't just a potted history of Marley's recordings and already well-documented incidents. Indeed, its sub-title is 'Herald of a Postcolonial World?'
It is the politics expressed in Marley's music and lyrics but also how they awaken consciousness in the listener that stands out as a central theme of this study. Jason recalls for the reader the first time he heard the opening track on the Burnin' album in 1973:-
"Get up, stand up
Stand up for your rights
Get up, stand up
Don't give up the fight."
"It just wallops you. The incredible skank of it and those unbelievable words: he keeps on repeating them. Surely you can't sing that on a record? Bob Marley is advocating revolution right here and now with complete confidence and conviction. And we're all loving it, thinking this is the best music we've heard. Then I notice a cowbell. I keep hearing a cowbell in the middle of a hole in the rhythm. It's magnetic. Soon the whole track starts to revolve around the cowbell beat."
But more than just reflect on the politics of Marley's recorded output specifically, Jason succinctly charts the origins of reggae music in Jamaica and its relationship to the political situations unfurling at various junctures in the twentieth century. And as a Marxist, Jason is able to put such events in a context which enables readers of the book to view Bob Marley's music as stemming from and reflecting the struggles of the oppressed.
Music and politics
For a book of just 230 pages, the number of issues that Jason covers is quite remarkable and the bibliography highlights the excellent research; I doubt there will be many other books written on Bob Marley which cover 19th century slave revolts, mento and nyabinghi musical styles and unemployment and police harassment in Birmingham - well not all of them anyway!
One word of warning - Jason is a sociology lecturer and he adopts a sociological approach to the subject. As he admits in the introduction, the language and concepts in the first chapter in particular may prove heavy reading for readers, like me, not versed in theories such as 'critical realism'.
But don't let this put you off; I persevered - getting the general gist of what Jason was writing - and was very glad I did. I fully recommend the book to anyone who has spent any length of time listening to Bob Marley, or to anyone who has an interest in the origins and spread of reggae music.
In The Socialist 17 September 2008:
Socialist Party editorial
Socialist Party campaigns
Labour Party conference protest
Privatisation and closure
Socialist Party feature
Socialist Party workplace news
International socialist news and analysis
Socialist Party review