There are plenty of books about Bob Marley’s life and music—what makes yours different?
There are good works that talk about Marley and how reggae developed as a specific Jamaican form of music.
But they write about Marley being a “lyrical genius”, as if he was just struck by the muse.
I wanted to show how he was the product of a particularly turbulent time in Jamaican history.
Other artists were doing similar things, but he just did it better and was able to project reggae across the world.
You write a lot about Marley’s relationship with the Rastafarian religion. How did that impact on his music?
It’s important to talk about Rastafarianism, because it came out of the struggle against British colonialism and the disillusion that followed independence. Thousands were looking for an explanation.
But it was contradictory. On the one hand it was about retreat from society with its promise of “Exodus” back to Ethiopia. One of Marley’s albums is named after that.
But it also emphasised resistance to colonialism, and Marley’s take involved a militant demand for equality.
One of the most interesting parts of the book details how Jamaican music developed. How does that fit into the social context you describe?
I try to show how Reggae was linked to political as well as musical changes.
Sound system culture and dance halls were always a big part of Jamaica’s music scene, but most music was imported from the US.
This meant DJs had to find the most obscure tracks to make their dances the liveliest and most exciting. They eventually realised they had to develop their own music.
At this time instruments, such as the electric bass, became more accessible and allowed musicians to experiment.
They developed a form of “off-beat” strumming that first developed into Ska. It was a particularly fast form of music, meaning it was hard to keep going all night.
Rocksteady partly came as a reaction to that—because you could “rock-steady” to it.
But it also reflected the turbulence following Jamaican independence as people began turning in on themselves.
This is when young men labelled “Rudeboys” began taking their frustration out on others in the ghettos.
Reggae finally emerged out of that as the final form of the music.
Marley often talked about “politrix” —does that mean he wasn’t a political musician?
Marley did talk about “politrix” to describe con men who rule over people. But he was interested in political issues, if not “politics”, from the beginning. His first number one Simmer Down was addressed directly to the Rudeboys and expressed young people’s frustration at the time.
Marley was shot in 1976 because he was seen to be aligning himself with prime minister Michael Manley. Was he right to do so?
He always said he wanted to play a concert for Jamaican people, not Manley’s People’s National Party. He was forced to flee to Britain and only returned a couple of years later to a situation of escalating political violence.
Marley played a “peace concert” to bring the rival factions together. While it failed, only he could have attempted that.
What was Marley’s impact on music and politics in Britain?
Marley really captured the imagination of our parents who’d come to Britain and those of us who grew up with racism.
But it wasn’t limited to black people. Punk bands such as The Clash identified with black youths’ experiences and music. And The Specials’ Ghost Town is a classic example—based around Ska it talks about black and white youths’ misery in Coventry.
That’s because Marley wasn’t just a Rastafarian. He encouraged people to stand up for their rights. So as well as enjoying his music we should take that message.