King of reggae Robert Nesta Marley was great and remains so 26 years after his death. What would have been his view of the world today?
Michael Elliot, a former law professor at London School of Economics and Political Science, now editor of Time International, understands arts well.
"If you are a writer on contemporary issues," he says, "and aspire to immortality, then your pen better have something special in it."
King of reggae Bob Marley had a magic pen that tapped from his fine artistic mind that had something special—and great. He had a special voice, too. His music remains popular 26 years after his death. He sung about peace and justice, equality and fairness. He died young at 36 from a cancerous brain tumour on May 11, 1981, in Miami, Florida.
Bob was born on February 6, 1945, to an English father and a Jamaican mother, but he chose Africanness and grew up in Trenchtown, an impoverished yet comfortable community near Kingston.
Along with Peter Tosh, Bunny Livingston, and a few others, Bob went on to form the Wailers in 1964. By 1970, the group was an international success. Some left the group but Bob continued his career rising as an ambassador of peace. He rose while his health was failing him, especially from May 1977. He had cancer. Yet in that pain he was for peace. The National Stadium in Kingston was the place on the night of April 22, 1978, when Bob brought two Jamaican sworn political enemies, Prime Minister Michael Manley and leader of opposition Edward Seaga, on-stage.
Then Jamaica was in turmoil with political violence and bloodshed. Members of the warring factions of both parties formed a peace committee and Bob was part of the process. He staged the Bob Marley One Love Peace Concert.
Bob, like a joke, invited the two leaders on stage and told them to shake hands and forget political hatred. From that day, violence stopped and the two political foes became friends. Just two years on, in 1980, Bob was in Zimbabwe performing at the country’s independence. He had a special song titled Zimbabwe.
Every man gotta right to decide his own destiny,
And in this judgement there is no partiality.
So arm in arms, with arms, we’ll fight this little struggle,
'Cause that’s the only way we can overcome our little trouble.
Every man got a right to decide his own destiny? This is a powerful line, meaningful too. And philosophical. What would Bob have said if he saw a ruined Zimbabwe? What would Bob have said of the March 29 presidential elections whose results have not been released? He would have cursed Robert Mugabe.
Bob would have campaigned for land to black people. But he would also have wondered; he would have asked President Robert Mugabe: What is it you are doing to your country? Why are you clinging to power when people want change?
That, though, would not have been the end. Bob would have performed a peace concert where sworn enemies like Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai would have embraced and buried the past for the sake of Zimbabwe and Africa.
Bob thought of Africa as his home. He understood that slavery separated him from his ancestral land. He knew that there were white slave buyers and black slave sellers, hence he believed that Africans didn’t need to betray each other anymore. Africans, in the view of Bob, didn’t need to kill each other.
This is the reason he sung War. He starts by quoting Emperor Haile Selassie in the first stanza and sung it well.
Until the philosophy which hold one race superior
Everywhere is war
Me say war.
Bob hated killing. If he were around, he would have reproved the black people who shot Lucky Dube in South Africa. Bob would have asked the killers to respect life.
Elsewhere, Bob would have failed to understand Osama bin Laden for killing thousands on September 11, 2001. But Bob would have gone ahead to tell President George Bush that he is no different from bin Laden because he, too, is killing thousands in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Bob would have told Osama and Bush that they are killers. He would have said: "Osama, stop de killing in the name of religion coz Rasta say no." And turning to Bush, Bob would have said, "No murder in de name of spreading demon class [democracy]. Jah rule is peace. I ‘n’ I, Rasta."
In Malawi, Bob would have told President Bingu wa Mutharika to rule this Jah (this is God in Jamaican creole, nothing wrong) land with honesty in all matters. He would have gone on to tell Muluzi to respect the will of the people by leaving politics.
Bob would have further told artists to leave arts once they go into politics. He would have urged musicians and dramatists never to abuse their talent for the sake of politics because politicians die but artists live on after their death.
To Mo Ibrahim, the Sudanese-born telecommunications entrepreneur, Bob would have told him to spend his money on health as Bill Clinton is doing, not awarding retired presidents as a way of encouraging good governance on a continent blighted by corruption and a frequently loose adherence to democratic principles.
Instead of giving winners $5 million over 10 years and then $200,000 a year for life, with another $200,000 annually for "good causes" they espouse, Bob would have proposed that this money be used to reconstruct ghettos like Ntopwa in Blantyre and Mgona in Lilongwe.
The world today longs for a person with Bob’s senses, a man who saw the past and discussed the present for the sake of the future. That is what Michael Elliot, that fine writer of Time Magazine, calls "something special in a pen."