We were a few days into February before I even remembered that it is Black History Month, and when I did my first thought was not of Malcolm, Martin or any other typical BHM icon, but Bob. The last time I “did” BHM was back in my undergrad days in Toronto and today the Black Students’ Association would be hosting a $5 lunch in Hart House – jerk chicken, rice and peas, plantain and festival…and of course Bob Marley on full blast.
Today Bob would have been 65. Since he died before I was even born it sounds silly to say I miss him. But I do. Along with various 80’s AM radio hits that would irreparably warp my musical taste, my father also shared with me his Bob Marley collection on vinyl. I don’t remember how old I was when I fell in love with Bob, but it definitely preceded kindergarten (eclipsed only by my unswerving devotion to Michael Jackson but that’s another story). However, despite our decades long love affair the words to express what I feel listening to him elude me.
It wouldn’t be too far off the mark to say that Bob holds near deity status in the Caribbean, nevermind Jamaica. For those of you who know about the extreme nationalism of people from the Caribbean this is fairly miraculous. It may well be the only thing that unites us aside from cricket and soccer. We love him because he made the world come to us, for the first time. Before the modern day cross over success of people like Shaggy and Sean Paul there was Bob, expressing our reality in our rhythm and idiom. And it took over: “Play i on de R&B/ want all my people to see/ we bubblin’ on de Hot 100/ jus’ like a mighty dread”.
Bob was the exemplification of what Kwame Dawes would later define as reggae aesthetic. The guardian of Caribbean cool. But he was also a crucial part of how we in the region recognize, define and identify ourselves. Reggae as a mindset and philosophy has forever changed how we talk about ourselves. Coming from a fractured colonial past that often pits us against each other, Bob’s music has allowed us to locate a Caribbean universalism. With lyrics ranging from the personal to the political and the spiritual to the sensual, Bob accesses our shared spirits of rebellion and subversion. And underneath all this is the “one drop”: the syncopated off-beat that defines reggae. Our resonant frequency. There is so much in that pause, such beauty in the anticipation of waiting for the bass to drop back in, that rhythm we all intuitively understand.
This phenomenon is not only spatial but temporal. Bob transcends generations as well as national borders. I have a friend who has two copies of the “Songs of Freedom” box-set. One is still shrink wrapped; intended he says, for his first child. Bob Marley’s music is part of what we pass down. His songs have become a part of the conversation we have with ourselves about ourselves. Even as dancehall becomes ever more explicit and distasteful to some and our cultural expressions evolve in a direction which makes them increasingly unrecognizable to older members of our society, we can always come back to this place. Appreciation and reverence for the work of Bob Marley is constantly being rediscovered and integrated into the conversations shaping our ideas about who we are. That’s where his legacy lies.
Anyway, enough of my clumsy talk. Happy Birthday, Bob. I’m thinking of you.