Bob Marley Essay - Critical Essays

Marley, Bob


Bob Marley 1945– 1981

(Born Robert Nesta Marley) Jamaican songwriter and musician.

Bob Marley was the leading exponent of a fairly new musical form during his time called reggae. Rooted in the ghettos and the oppression of blacks in Jamaica, reggae is Jamaican soul music, an adaptation of New Orleans rhythm and blues. Marley's political and religious beliefs were the major themes of the music he wrote. As a Rastafarian, Marley believed that the late Emperor Haile Selassie I is Jah (God) and that all Rastafarians will one day be led back to Africa by Jah. Marley's religion affected every aspect of his life, from being a vegetarian and smoking marijuana to politics. Marley used his music to carry Jah's message to the blacks of the world. He infused his lyrics with images of black oppression and with a call, not to arms, but to righteousness. Rastafarians oppose authority, believing it to be the source of all the world's problems. Their dread-locks, long, matted braids, are worn in defiance of values forced upon them through British rule.

With Catch a Fire in 1973 Marley broke into the international market. It was not until 1976 and Rastaman Vibration that he became well-known in the United States. As with all of Marley's music, Rastaman Vibration received criticism from both ends of the spectrum. Some critics viewed it as a weighty comment on the need for unity among races. Marley, the son of a black Jamaican and a white British Army captain, did not consider himself racially prejudiced. Other critics felt that Rastaman Vibration lacked the power with which he dealt with the problems expressed in earlier works and that the lyrics were cliché-ridden and boring.

In late 1976, Marley and some of his friends were fired upon by gunmen who were alleged hired political assassins. Many critics feel that on his 1977 album, Exodus, which was in some respects a celebration of life, Marley was backing down from asserting his political views because of fear for his life.

In Jamaica reggae is considered slum music, not easily lending itself to dancing. Many American and British musicians, however, have sought to capture the reggae rhythm in their own works, such as Paul Simon in his "Mother and Child Reunion" and Eric Clapton in his successful cover version of Marley's "I Shot the Sheriff." Marley, however, does not consider these efforts to be true reggae. For Marley, to play true reggae one must be born Jamaican, with reggae in the soul.

Stephen Davis

Out of [a] soulful anarchomystical murk spring the Wailers and the dark trance rhythms of their reggae music. For more than ten years they have been laying down a revolutionary vision of an imprisoned people in the fetters of an authoritarian and openly corrupt government. Marley's political villains are Jamaican but his images are universal. The Wailers' records, particularly Marley's songs, have been polemical tracts against the harshness of this life and the brutalizing structure that keeps his people down. Marley's social stance is summed up by "I Shot the Sheriff."…

From the beginning Marley distilled the anger of Jamaican youth into the bitterness of his lyrics. The most melodically beautiful of Marley's songs, "Trenchtown Rock," celebrates a particularly violent street riot in Kingston in the mid-Sixties. The uncompromising images of the equally sublime "Kinky Reggae" were of slave ships, cracking whips and crucified souls. Marley's genius was in the irony of these images set to hypnotizing melodies and the irresistable reggae meter….

The new album, Natty Dread, is the culmination of Marley's political art to this point. With every album he's been rocking a little harder and reaching further out to produce the stunning effect of a successful spell. Natty Dread deals with rebellion and personal liberation, using tough and sensual reggae to slam home Marley's bold and dead-serious opinions on...

(The entire section is 407 words.)

Joel Vance

Here comes thin, intense Bob Marley with another set of political songs delivered in the reggae rhythm [on Natty Dread]. Like Mussolini, who also advanced his career through journalism, Marley uses his ditties to celebrate revolution, chic banditry, and killing….

Reggae is one of the cultural glories of the Caribbean isles, and it is distressing to hear it abused and subjected—albeit very cleverly—to political purposes that have nothing to do with music.

Joel Vance, "Popular Discs & Tapes: 'Natty Dread'," in Stereo Review (copyright © 1975 by Ziff-Davis Publishing Company), Vol. 35, No. 1, July, 1975, p. 81.

Ray Coleman

["Rastaman Vibration"] is the most searingly political album issued right across the spectrum of contemporary music in recent years….

This album is perhaps the most vocal and blatant preaching of the need for unity between colours. And aside from his rapidly accelerating personal status as a superstar, Bob Marley has put together here an album of compelling importance at a crucial time in world history….

[Look] out for richly rewarding aspects of art when a performer is both committed and able to communicate that belief with clear, simple methods—like music….

[Until now Marley's] lyrics have been just a little cloudy when they've hit the chart: "I Shot The Sheriff," "Stir It Up" and even "No Woman, No Cry" have not carried with much clarity the intensity of his real path. And although all Marley/Wailers albums have had plenty of strength, nothing has come near this one for weighty comment; indeed the very title is straight ahead, with the conviction of a movement that's gathering momentum and relevance.

What's especially good about this spectacular album is that while the songs are of much more power than before, the music has, if anything, simplified and thus become stronger….

It's a marvellous album, infectiously articulate in every sense. The huge question facing Marley and his followers is whether they can now expand their message beyond the converts whom they have reached for so long. The indications are bright…. The record confirms my belief that alongside Dylan and Hendrix, both of whom captured a mood and delivered themselves with an irresistible and magnetic force, Bob Marley is placing that rare finger of genius on undeniably vital issues.

Ray Coleman, "Marley's 'Great' Vibrations," in Melody Maker (© IPC Business Press Ltd.), May 1, 1976, p. 31.

Tim White

When questioned about influences, Bob Marley has named such artists as Nat "King" Cole, Brook Benton and veteran Jamaican balladeer Owen Gray…. [But he] has also pointed to Ricky Nelson, Elvis Presley and Jimi Hendrix as sources of inspiration, admitting to a fascination for rockabilly forms and the soul-tinged hard rock of recent years. If there was any doubt (or fear) that Marley would go on to include variations of these styles in his music. [Rastaman Vibration] delivers the solid confirmation.

"Roots, rock, reggae!" shouts Marley on the cut of the same name. "This a reggae music!" The message is both revealing and instructive, the singer informing us that his music is now a well-honed hodge-podge of Jamaican folk music and all the aforementioned bloodlines—plus rock….

From the thunkety-bop drum roll that kicks off the opening "Positive Vibration," to the closing yelps of "Rat Race," the thorough interweaving of reggae and contemporary rock forms emerges as an innovative synthesis better termed rockgae, and it leaves me convinced that the music of Bob Marley and the Wailers is among the most thematically arresting and elementally ingenious being produced anywhere today….

"Who The Cap Fits" and "Want More" are the lp's crowning achievements, containing the most mesmerizing fusion of West Indian body english, rockin' soul and incendiary subject matter….

As he observed in conversation during the making of the album, "De Devil is a generous mon, and dat's why ya must live right and be evar on yar guard." "Want More" is a terse espousal of that belief, and its sheer sincerity leaves the Stones in the lurch when it comes to portraying the allure—and consequences—of evil. (p. 66)

Overall, my qualms are few and my enthusiasm considerable. There are those who will doubtlessly grumble that Rastaman Vibration lacks the roots-conscious tack of Burnin' and Natty Dread, but such attitudes may stem from a certain myopia based on an ignorance of the Wailers' early work…. Comparing the old with the new, Bob's success has been nearly unanimous—and his latest material is stronger than ever. (pp. 66, 69)

Tim White, "Natty Dreadrock," in Crawdaddy (copyright © 1976 by Crawdaddy Publishing Co., Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), July, 1976, pp. 65-6, 69.∗

Ed Ward

One could certainly have hoped for something better than [Rastaman Vibration] after the tuneful, rhythmic, and down-right commercial Natty Dread, the sizzling live album, and the haunting [single "Jah Live"]….

Instead, we got an LP cluttered with re-makes and cliches, containing maybe two or three good tunes and a lot more of the boredom that the Wailers, at their worst, are capable of producing. Marley's super-righteous Nyah-man pose looks pretty silly behind weak lyrics and barely competent tunes. For instance, one big standout is "Night Shift," a weird rewrite of the classic "All Night/All Right" from the Lee Perry days. "Who the Cap Fit," "Johnny Was," "Cry to Me," and "Rat Race"...

(The entire section is 142 words.)

Mikal Gilmore

Rastaman Vibration will reach a larger audience than any of the Wailers' previous efforts …, a sizable portion of which will form their impressions of both reggae and the group based on its weight, factors which Marley has obviously taken into account.

Where before Marley placed an emphasis on the music's cultural foundations, the Jamaican ghetto plight and the transcendent Rastafarian vision, here the music and production receive the bulk of attention, and the result is a curiously rewarding ambiguity….

Marley's lyrical concerns, however, lack a focus and are notably deficient in dealing with the aforementioned themes of his previous work. The only socio-political...

(The entire section is 354 words.)

Ray Coleman

["Exodus"] is a highly-charged spiritual record by the reggae musician most capable of articulating the mood of his people. It was conceived by Marley shortly after his brush with disaster at the hands of gunmen, and thus there's precious little joy about it.

Even so, Marley sounds his customarily "up" self—and there are fewer more worthwhile sounds around in contemporary music.

Only one song, "Waiting In Vain," comes across as a plain love theme. For the rest, there's either the traditional sensuality we've come to expect from Marley, or the spirituality of the first side. "The Heathen," "Exodus"—an unremittingly powerful track, perhaps the most potent on the LP—and the heavy...

(The entire section is 218 words.)

John Morthland

The first side of Bob Marley and the Wailers's new Exodus is all Rasta anthems; the second is all love songs except for a reworking of "One Love" that's now called "One Love/People Get Ready." Exodus is presumably intended to emphasize that there are two sides to Bob Marley; because the first side is clearly superior to the second, it has rather a different effect. But the problems with this album go even deeper—for all that is good about Exodus, it is not a very satisfying album….

The album starts out beautifully. "Natural Mystic" is as passionate and haunting as anything he's ever done. But the next three songs suffer from singing that sounds either strained or barely...

(The entire section is 282 words.)

Timothy White

[Exodus is the Wailers'] most unified U.S. album. If the preceding Rastaman Vibration was Marley's successful stab at joining the sparse repetition of conventional reggae rhythms with the aural density of hard rock, Exodus is a facile interface of Rastafarian reggae-fired dictums and a tender R&B style similar to mid-'60s Motown.

Sides one and two are thematically discrete; the lp's first five songs evince traditional Rasta concerns (the poor man's struggle against civil injustice; religious humility; temporal and/or spiritual flight) with the able Barrett Bros.' thickest steam-crackle-and-pop! bass/drums dialogue since Natty Dread. Laced, as always, with...

(The entire section is 274 words.)

Lester Bangs

Bob Marley and his Wailers will probably be around long enough that we can afford to wait for his next one, or even the one after that if he keeps screwing up. Nothing would please me more than to be able to tell you that "Exodus," his latest, is a masterpiece. It isn't, though it doesn't reach the nadir of "Rastaman Vibration" either. What it is is a bit schizoid, perhaps from culture shock or too much ganja. Side two sounds almost entirely as if it were made up of out-takes from that previous album—thin little pop love tunes perfectly suited for covers by Hall and Oates. If your idea of heaven is to have somebody crooning about God as background music while you sip piña coladas, you're welcome to it.


(The entire section is 272 words.)

Mikal Gilmore

Perhaps Marley is less resourceful or articulate than many of us originally perceived, or maybe the record business, as I suspect, has a way of diluting fervor. In any case, Exodus is a confused, irresolute effort…. Marley, however, professes that the thrust in his instance is one of spiritual growth; the inscrutable mystic who is in—but not of—the world. To those who demand the fire this time, Exodus will prove disappointing; to those enticed by Marley's reggae cum r&b conjurations, it will likely suffice. But it's hard to imagine anyone finding it vital. Exodus possesses more of an air than any distinct theme, moves with the finality more of a gesture than a blow.


(The entire section is 276 words.)

Roger Trilling

Kaya is, I think, the most international pop album I've ever heard. To Jamaicans, it sounds harder and more roots than anything Marley's done since breaking up with the (real) Wailers, and for Americans, it has a brighter, clearer feel, with more up-tempo hooks and legible lyrics. It avoids the thinness of Rastaman Vibration and the opacity of Exodus….

Exodus was a blurred skein of Rasta maxims underscored by deep personal melancholy, a musical echo of the rootless wanderings that followed his self-exile from Jamaica. Exodus spoke of the personal through the universal; Kaya speaks of the universal through the personal. It is easier for Americans to...

(The entire section is 315 words.)

Timothy White

Kaya [is] a bit of dreadlocked deja vu with an intriguing twist. Their seventh Island lp contains two selections that appeared previously on Soul Revolution (and the British African Herbsman package): "Sun is Shining" and "Kaya." (p. 74)

Seems there's nothing new under the Caribbean sun—but guess again. Where the original "Shining" was an ominous, melodica-paced ballad about desperate love, the revised treatment is a steamy dance track…. [Similarly, Kaya has] been supplanted by a full, celebratory sound. Here, the intoxicating joys of kaya (ganja) are touted, rather than its mystical fringe benefits.

Throughout Kaya, the dark, menacing...

(The entire section is 396 words.)

Lester Bangs

[Kaya] is quite possibly the blandest set of reggae music I have ever heard, including all the Engelbertisms of would-be crossover crooners like John Holt. It's pleasant enough if you just let it eddy along, but nothing on the ten cuts pulls you in like the hypnotic undertow of Burning Spear's Marcus Garvey, haunts like the best from The Harder They Come soundtrack or churns up the guts and heart like Toots and the Maytals. (p. 56)

In the past, though his delivery arguably lacked the force and intensity he seemed capable of, Marley always delivered concise, sometimes devastatingly understated, sometimes brilliant lyrical turns. Most of the words on Kaya apparently deal...

(The entire section is 332 words.)

Simon Frith

The best record Bob Marley ever made was the live single version of "No Woman, No Cry." The reasons for its success were complex, but its chorus was simple: "Everything's gonna be all right!"

"All right" is the most important lyrical concept in rock. It was the key-word of the hippie Sixties. It summed up laid-back tolerance—"that's all right, man"—and nodding self-satisfaction. "I don't care because I'm all right," were Randy Newman's words, "I'm all right because I don't care."

Marley's "all right" reflected hedonism and apathy—ganja is dope, after all—but it made other references, too. "No Woman, No Cry" was a religious song…. And "No Woman, No Cry" was a political...

(The entire section is 526 words.)

Timothy White

[Reggae], as played by Bob Marley and the Wailers, is both a well-spring of homespun adages and a canny cultural tool with great facility for adaptation and innovation…. [The] band's evolution is so dramatic that one realizes the music has never lingered in any stylistic camp for more than two years. In fact, the Wailers are the only group to have thrived during these many phases…. Still, it's surprising to find Marley, on the live Babylon by Bus, turning a new musical corner with an altogether buoyant sound that's religious in its life-affirming Rastafarian underpinnings and universal in its romantic longing….

Despite the sternness of the material, Rastaman Vibration was Bob...

(The entire section is 513 words.)

Chris Bohn

Some people mellow as they get older. Bob Marley gets angrier and wiser. Following the relaxed, self-fulfilled "Exodus" and "Kaya", "Survival" marks a surprising but welcome return to the frontline of political entertainment with a passion strengthened by reasoned analysis….

"Survival's" firm grounding in the three Rs—Rasta, Rebellion and Rhythm—informs without preaching and entertains without condescension. It's a fiery mix and a potentially difficult one, but it's made possible by the Wailers' oozingly confident playing and the expressive simplicity of the songs.

If the language is readily comprehensible, the songs themselves fall into a larger, complex framework which...

(The entire section is 389 words.)

Georgia Christgau

Last year's Kaya was the first Bob Marley and the Wailers album I liked since Natty Dread, but they were very different records. Marley the shouter, the budding international pop star whooping and hollering revolution in 1975, had become Marley the crooner, the established international pop star missing his girlfriend and writing beautiful songs about the weather. Kaya is music anyone could like. But because the lyrics are dippy compared to Marley's eloquent reports on the life of the Jamaican poor—waking up in a curfew, sharing cornmeal porridge, making love in a single bed—a lot of his old fans don't like it. Marley doesn't write about being poor in Jamaica anymore; his condemnation of...

(The entire section is 299 words.)

John Orme

[A] slender acoustic piece called "Redemption Song" puts the seal on "Uprising" as a Marley album of great worth after a patch of direct commercial flirtation and attempted American radio seduction.

The track comes at the end of the album as a wistful perspective on the Black move from physical and mental slavery to the potential redemption through religion, and offers a cool tranquility after nine tracks bulging with a mix of irony, hope, history and fate, woven together with a subtly powerful musicality.

The immediate impact of "Redemption Song" is reminiscent of early Dylan songs, presenting a neat twist of fate—Dylan's supposed rediscovery or fresh declaration of religion has...

(The entire section is 347 words.)