In picture above: Bob Marley in 1979, before the Reggae Sunsplash concert in Montego Bay, Jamaica. Photograph: Denis O’Regan/Getty Images
One day I shall always remember is May 11, 1981. Nigeria was in turmoil. There were protests across the country while some cities were deserted. Factories were closed as were offices. There was hope in the streets and fear in government houses. The country was in the grip of a general strike organised by the Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC for the establishment of a National Minimum Wage.
Then there was a news break. Bob Marley, the international soldier of oppressed peoples worldwide, tireless fighter for human rights, Pan Africanist and humanist was dead at 36! It was unbelievable. If there is a thing like being too young to die, that was it. But it was true, Bob the husband of Rita, father of Ziggy and millions of young people all over the world, had departed, strumming his guitar and singing liberation songs as he crossed the river of no return.
On that day, I felt how conscientious persons in the world might have felt back in 1961 when psychiatrist, philosopher and humanist, Franz Fanon – author of famous books like ‘The Wretched of the Earth’ and Black Skin, White Masks’ – passed on at the same youthful age of 36.
The news of Bob Marley’s death was greeted with widespread disbelief; how can such a young, energetic and courageous person simply pass away, reportedly of brain and lung cancer? Not a few believed that he might have been killed by the vampires of the Babylon system.
Those were tumultuous times with revolutionary larva still flowing in post-Shah Iran and post-Somoza Nicaragua, Africa knocking on the very gates of Apartheid South Africa and youths across the world responding to Marley’s call to rebel against the system of inequality, exploitation and repression.
Yet it seemed Bob had envisaged his end was near or been told his illness was terminal. The year before he left, he worked hard at a loaded album titled ‘Uprising’ which appeared to be a last testament and a farewell statement to the world. The ten songs were well arranged with loaded messages that were evocative, declarative, advisory, defiant and prophetic.
He began by stating categorically that we were ‘Coming in from the cold’and asked why people are looking so sad and forsaken, reminding them that when one door is closed, another is open. He pointedly asked if we would let the system make us kill our brother?” His answer was , no, no, no!
Then he asked us to check out the real situation with nation war against nation. To him, it seemed the only solution is total destruction. He warned against the political elites and the powerful countries saying if you give them an inch, they will take a yard.
He warned that this exploitative group will draw bad card and that he does not know how the rich and powerful will work things out but insisted that someone must pay for the blood of the innocent being shed daily. He sang that men had lost their faith and warned the poor that they do not have friends in high society.
Bob Marley, while calling for the people to unite announced that Zion train is coming our way and advised we got on board. In going to catch the train, he admonished that we shouldn’t gain the world and lose our soul as ‘wisdom is better than silver and gold.’
He assured humanity that where there’s a will, there’s always a way and was confident that two thousand years of Black history, could not be wiped so easily, so the future is assured.
The revolutionary advised against the pimper’s paradise and asked could you be loved and be loved? In one of his last admonitions, he advised we should not allow the powerful miseducate or fool us. Turning to the oppressors he declared: “ We’ve got a mind of our own, so go to hell if what you’re thinking is not right! Love would never leave us alone. A-yin the darkness there must come out to light.”
Bob Marley warned his followers that the road of life is rocky and only the fittest of the fittest shall survive. As for himself and his household, he said they shall be forever loving Jah adding that; “ only a fool lean upon his own misunderstanding.”
Bob Marley’s last communication with the universe in that album, was to sing the Redemption Song. In it he plainly told the downtrodden: “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery; None but ourselves can free our minds. Have no fear for atomic energy, ‘Cause none of them can stop the time. How long shall they kill our prophets, While we stand aside and look? Ooh! Some say it’s just a part of it: We’ve got to fulfil de book. Won’t you help to sing These songs of freedom? ‘Cause all I ever have: Redemption songs.”
Four decades ago, for many of us students, our guiding spirits as we confronted the system of underdevelopment, were Fela Anikulapo-Kuti at home in Nigeria, and Bob Marley abroad. In the mornings we woke up to their music which contained their philosophy and teachings, and retired at night with their redemption songs; songs of freedom. They were all we wanted to hear in our herculean and historical duty to emancipate ourselves and peoples from mental slavery.
My generation rejected our parents life of smiling and suffering , waiting for people who know all the books, but know not love to give us human rights when we knew that human rights is our natural property; our inalienable rights.
We knew the future battles will be full of sorrows, tears and blood and that for us to attain true independence by chasing those crazy bald heads out of town, there would be war. War in the East, war in the West, war up North, war down South and until that day, we knew the African continent, will not know peace. But we were confident of our victory over evil.
The last four decades Bob Marley left us has borne out his message that we would have a hard road to travel. In fact, the world has turned upside down with nation rising against nation, terrorists hoisting their flags, pharmaceuticals ripping off humanity, affluent countries adding vaccine imperialism to economic imperialism, the big trampling on the small, the powerful grinding the weak into the dust, individualism overriding the collective, Presidents of countries revelling in falsehood and promoting fake news, and the club of the nuclear boys expanding.
Today, one of the primary duties of conscientious humanity, is how to turn the world back on its feet and get humans to walk towards a world built on social justice as Bob Marley envisaged.
- Owei Lakemfa is a journalist, activist, and socio-political critic