Thursday, February 18, 2016

Bob Marley: A Voice of Hope when Things Fall Apart

I went to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens with my daughter during its first week at the box office. I had been a big fan of the first trilogy, but I was not as thrilled by the prequel trilogy that came some twenty years later. This newest Star Wars adventure, as others have already said, had the feel of the original, and it was great to see our old heroes back on the screen. It may come as a surprise to some that I was hit with a Bob Marley excitement during one scene in the movie.

In The Force Awakens, we find the heroes of the original Star Wars trilogy scattered and taking refuge as the powers of the old Empire have set about reclaiming their dominion. A cantina scene recaptures the one in the first Star Wars movie. There were unusual beings gathered together at an intergalactic “watering hole.” Only this time, instead of music that resembled some roaring twenties speakeasy that we heard in Star Wars: A New Hope, the music had a distinct reggae beat. It wasn't a Bob Marley song, to be sure. The music was written by Lin Manuel Miranda and J.J. Abrams, but it was the reggae tempo that caught me. My mind went immediately to Bob Marley. I said to myself, “Yes! This is what it's all about! Those who are down will find a way to get back up!” 

The Reggae Beat

I was not very familiar with the music of Bob Marley until the early 1980s even though reggae had already made a significant impact on the airwaves of broadcast radio. I was teaching English at Hong Kong Baptist College (now Hong Kong Baptist University) when I learned about the music of Bob Marley and the Wailers from a high school student who was the son of one of my colleagues. Years later, that same young man would recall in a conversation with me, “His music was very relaxing, yet so revolutionary!”

Mikal Gilmore of Rolling Stone magazine wrote something similar in The Life and Times of Bob Marley:

Marley wasn't singing about how peace could come easily to the World but rather how hell on Earth comes too easily to too many. His songs were his memories; he had lived with the wretched, he had seen the downpressers and those whom they pressed down.

…He was a superb melody writer, and his songs' insinuating pop hooks pull the listener into the realities Marley was describing. It's a wonderful yet subversive device: Marley sang about tyranny and anger, about brutality and apocalypse, in enticing tones, not dissonant ones.  

Bob Marley certainly had a profound impact upon the world of music and his influence was felt far beyond his Jamaican homeland. In his music he found a source of hope, but it was also a way to give voice to the struggles that so many endure. He so skillfully used that reggae beat that is able to incorporate both slow and fast rhythms at the same time. Perhaps the form itself is a metaphor for our times.

Meanwhile at Movie Galaxies Far Away

It was that profound hope and joy that I felt while viewing The Force Awakens, and it was evoked by a few strains of reggae. Upon reflection, I was reminded of another Marley reference at the movies. The 2007 post-apocalyptic film, I Am Legend, starring Will Smith, gave Marley much more overt recognition. In that story, an outbreak of a genetically engineered virus has wiped out most of humanity, and the few survivors are trying to make their way. Will Smith’s character, Robert Neville, finds himself having to explain the music of Bob Marley to his new-found survivor friend and plays “Three Little Birds,” a selection from a Bob Marley CD he describes to her as “the best album ever made.” He then tells her of Marley’s radical idea that you could “cure racism and hate by injecting music and love.”

Every age has its oppressive Babylon, and every era has those who have been pressed down under the hand of the ruling elite. Every age also has people who are conscious of the end of their own era. Those who are conscious during pivotal times can see the collapse of one era and the dawning of another. Finding hope during uncertain pivotal times can be crucial to one’s well-being when things seem to be falling apart.

Another Soundtrack for our Day?

Politicians are in the business of selling hope and solutions for the problems that besiege us and the uncertainties that plague the populace at large. Recently, I was among the many who took delight at Bernie Sanders’ campaign ad that made effective use of  Simon and Garfunkel’s song, “America.” I loved the positive message of hope that countered so much negativity that has been offered up on the other end of the political spectrum. Bernie was tapping into the soundtrack of my generation and it struck a chord with us.

Maybe Bob Marley's hard-won optimism in the midst of poverty and oppression is one that can resonate with more of us during these uncertain times. My daughter tells me that everyone in her age group is expecting an apocalypse, which is why she and her friends are attracted to post-apocalyptic films and TV shows about zombies. In our current political mix we are seeing on the one hand a politics of fear tapping in to a base of xenophobic climate-change deniers. On the other hand we have those who want to see a more equitable landscape and a greater effort for the common good.

I am thinking we all need to add more songs of hope to our own personal soundtracks. As Mikal Gilmore said, "Marley sang about tyranny and anger, about brutality and apocalypse, in enticing tones, not dissonant ones." Maybe we need some reggae to bring it all together for us. I would love to see a new Bernie Sanders campaign ad with a little reggae in the mix. He is, after all, calling for a revolution. We could use that reggae ability to incorporate both slow and fast rhythms into our lives. We need a word that speaks of a new day, letting us know that “every little thing’s gonna be alright.”






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