Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Bob's Story: Started Out Cryin'

Title: Bob Marley: The Biography
Author: Stephen Davis
Pages: 248
Publisher: Arthur Baker Limited London
Reviewer: Mwesigye Gumisiriza

Much has been written about Robert Nesta Marley, mostly known as Bob Marley, whose name and music is synonymous with the breaking out of reggae music from the confines of Jamaica to a worldwide phenomenon and a movement of millions of people on all continents. But there is something uniquely appealing about Stephen Davis’ book; the simple story-telling format, the way he weaves the historical, political and socio-economic backdrop that formed the rise of reggae and its enduring icon plus the frankness and balance with which he addresses the virtues and flaws of the characters.

There is a poem by Chinua Achebe and the quotation from Genesis 49 at the beginning; a technique that Davis applies consistently throughout. At the start of each chapter, there is an excerpt from an interview or from one of the Wailers’ songs that encapsulates the theme of a particular chapter. For instance, the first chapter, it is “Started out Cryin’”, in which the authors paints a milieu that helps us understand the country in which Marley was born and bred: the cultural mix of different peoples, slavery, rebellion, colonisation, struggles for freedom and independence, wealth of a few versus the poverty of many plus the influence of persons like Marcus Garvey.

Bob Marley was born in Nine Miles, St. Ann’s Parish; his mother, Cedella, was still in her teens while his father, Norval Marley, was an aging white man. He was rejected by the white side of the family tree and as such raised at the homestead of his maternal grandfather, Omeriah Malcolm. Years later, his mother moved to the capital, Kingston, to seek better opportunities and this is where her son joined her. While living in the Trenchtown ghetto, Marley linked up with other youths like Bunny Livingston and Peter McIntosh to form the base of the group—The Wailin’ Wailers, later Bob Marley and the Wailers.

Davis deftly chronicles the struggle to achieve recognition, amidst exploitation, in the music industry and the impact of record producers or mentors like Coxsone Dodd, Lee Perry, Leslie Kong and Joe Higgs on their careers earlier on. Significant among these is Chris Blackwell, a wealthy owner of Island Records, under whose guidance, Bob Marley and the Wailers became world famous, touring US, UK, Europe and other parts of the world. We also get the stories behind the albums like Catch a Fire, Uprising, Survival, Exodus and Rastaman Vibration and the songs like War, Natural Mystic, Zimbabwe, One Drop, and Redemption Song.

There are significant events that helped define Marley’s outlook and the themes covered in his music. His conversion to Rastafarianism, marriage to Rita Anderson as well as liaisons with women who were the mothers of his other children, an assassination attempt, his identification with the anti-colonial struggle in Africa, and battling cancer. Though he was in the States when Haile Selassie visited Jamaica in 1966, Marley regularly talked and sung about the special position of the Emperor and the Ethiopian nation in Rastafarianism. This association earned him the name Berhane Selassie and the ring that was the Emperor’s. Those who have wondered about why Haile Selassie is thus revered, Davis reveals it comes from Garvey’s prophecy about a black king who would deliver the Negro race and a quote from Revelation 5: “Weep not; behold the Lion of Judah, the root of David hath prevailed to open the book, and to loose the seven seals thereof”.

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