Bob Marley Mikal Gilmore - Essay

Mikal Gilmore

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 exhortation here, War, is a rather stodgy rendition of a speech by Haile Selassie, while the most potent track, Johnny Was, is a sketchy, mysterious account of a man's death by "stray bullet," one of the finest things Marley has ever recorded. For the most part, though, he is content to write moral commentary (Who The Cap Fit, Want More, Rat Race), long on warning, short on solution.

The import Live album is an excellent sampling of the Wailers' revolutionary and apocalyptic legend, including masterpieces such as Them Belly Full, I Shot The Sheriff, Get Up, Stand Up, and Burnin' & Lootin'…. It is an important and substantial companion piece to their studio albums.

The time has come, though, to raise some questions about the relevancy and impact of reggae: Is its value ultimately musical or socio-political? Are such distinctions separable in its case? And if it's inviolably aligned to Rastafarianism, as some claim, how far can its commercial exploitation go? Is it a music of revolution, acquiescence, or neither? Bob Marley has already encountered some of these concerns, but soon he must deal with his own role as a rock-star Rastafarian. Rastaman Vibration stakes out the perimeters of his dichotomy. I have every reason to believe that his future proclamations will be among the most important in modern music. Like Rastafarianism, it's ultimately a matter of faith.

Mikal Gilmore, "Record Reviews: 'Rastaman Vibration' and 'Live!'" in down beat (copyright 1976; reprinted with permission of down beat), Vol. 43, No. 15, September 9, 1976, p. 24.