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Bob Marley: The Rasta Wizard Puts on Ivy

you belly full

By J. WYATT Emmerich

If you block out all the answers and reasons and verbal explanations and just concentrate on the pure contradiction, it could ruin the concert: Bob Marley, the king of reggae, singing "You Belly Full, But We Hungry" before thousands of Bostonians who were able to fork-out ten to 12 bucks for the ticket. Add to this, Harvard's Soldier Field Stadium. This is the same place thousands of graying, pudgy Harvard and Yale alumni sit each year in racoon coats drinking Johnny Walker Red, restraining their sphincter muscles and occasionally letting out quiet moans of excitement as they relive their repressed and dignified college days.

Reggae. No one really knows what it means. In interviews, most reggae stars define the word like Joe Higgs--the man who trained both Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff and can claim with some legitimacy that he invented the music form. Reggae, Higgs said in a recent interview, is political. "Reggae means comin' from the people. Everdy t'ing, like from the ghetto. When you say reggae, you mean regular, majority. It means poverty, suffering."

Sure. The concert's a benefit performance. The money's going to aid liberation movements in Africa. It's going to help Nkomo. It's going to help ZAPU. Perhaps $100,000. Sure. There's a song that Bob Marley sings called "No Woman, No Cry." It's a sentimental, almost maudlin song. It is about a poor man who must leave his home to escape poverty. He leaves behind a woman who shared his poverty, his street fighting, his love for life. But the song promises that he will return one day. In that song are the lines:

I remember when we used to sit in the government's yard in Trenchtown Observing the hypocrites, mingling with the good people we meet.

I would like to know what will go through Marley's mind as he sings those lines, especially the third. He will have to feel some sense of irony as he sings that line to the thousands of guilt-ridden observers--thousands of full-fledged members of the system he has condemned over and over again in his songs with fiercely religious righteousness.

But then again, it's hard to know what ever goes through Marley's brain. He smokes enough ganja each day to send his mind into a permanent orbit around Neptune. In interviews, he is often incoherent. In a new book called Reggae Bloodlines, Stephen Davis, former associate editor of Rolling Stone, asked Marley how he felt about his Rastafarian friends who point to Marley's car as a sign of Marley's increasing materialism. Marley responded, "Well, BMW not the system. Babylon the system. some say BMW mean Bob Marley and Wailers. BMW mean...British Made War car or something like that. This car doesn't belong to me. This car belong to the road. That who the car belong to. Better than the donkey. It don't feed all night and mosh up the bush and in the morning it don't bray and make noise. Hyuh hyuh hyuh hyuh hyuh. (He takes a swooping draw on his joint.) I and I prefer donkey. If ya see a goat ya supposed to start communicating with the goat. A goat smart, y'know...."

That's what you call easy parody material. I have a friend who makes fun of reggae by saying, everytime I put on a Marley record, "Heh, mon. I believe in Art Linkletter, mon. Because y'know mon, Art Linkletter is de lord man because with Art Linkletter you get life insurance mon, y'know."

But Marley's music makes a travesty of our culture's respect for articulate seriousness. Put him on a stage or in a recording studio and he is a genius, a great humanitarian, a poet, an outraged preacher, and a clear-thinking, astute political leader. Not to mention his astounding ability to create some of the finest music from a strictly instrumental standpoint. You can never understand Marley until you listen to his music. The music makes the insanity intelligible. It makes normally inscrutable human beings--Marley--and his Rastafarian brethren--seem like prophets in a sea of herecy.

"Marley sings about his life and the lives of his parents, friends and family in the poverty-stricken, politically-torn wasteland of Jamaica--where music and ganja are the accepted antidotes for hunger, humiliation, wage labor and police brutality. He comes from Kingston, more specifically, Trenchtown--a filthy oasis of life in Jamaica's post-colonial, morally-bankrupt desert.

Bob Marley gives substance to the detractors of B.F. Skinner, who say that there would be no art, no beauty in his perfectly conditioned world. Marley does indeed fit the trite metaphor describing how the beautiful marigold grows out of a heap of cow dung. Marley is one of the finest songwriters-singers-musicians alive today, even if he believes that deceased Ethiopian head-of-state Haile Selassie is God.

Marley, you see, is a Rastafarian--one of about 144,000 in Jamaica, or so they claim. Rastas believe, as Marley sings, that "life is worth much more than gold, it's pathetic the whole world is in a rat race, talk is cheap," that ganja is the healer of nations and the oppressors of the Rastas are devils. He also believes that he and his fellow Rastas are the lost tribes of Israel and that one day they must return to Ethiopia, their homeland, to live in peace.

The Jamaican nationalists, however, believe the Rastas are lazy, drugged-out, and beguiled by illusions verging on mass hysteria. In fact, one Jamaican psychologist addressed an international psychology conference about the problem of the culture they find so bizarre. The Rastas are a national disgrace in the eyes of middle-class Jamaicans. They believe the Rastas are threatening their dream of a unified Jamaica. The Rastas, on the other hand, refuse to participate in politics. They believe that the Jamaican elites must repay them for 400 years of slavery, and send them back to Ethiopia. Harvard's Orlando Patterson, professor of sociology, believes the Rastas can't make it in mainstream Jamaican society, so they isolate and console themselves with a religious illusion which makes them the victims of a corrupt system.

The conflicts continue. The Jamaican elite tells the Rastas they can get jobs if they cut their dreadlocks and quit smoking ganja. The Rastas refuse and, consequently, remain hungry. Even if they did cut their locks it is questionable whether there are enough jobs in Jamaica. Instead, the Rastas try to survive in communes. There they can smoke dope all day as long as they aren't caught by the police; they can sing beautiful songs; and occasionally riot over their squalor.

Marley sometimes drops his refusenik anarchism. Take for instance the 1976 elections. Michael Manley, the socialist leader, talked Marley into giving a free concert in his behalf. Three days before the concert Marley was relaxing in his mansion-commune with the whole band, friends, family and hangers-on, when two cars drove up and unloaded several men armed with sub-machine guns and automatic pistols. A bullet grazed Rita Marley's head as she tried to escape with five children in tow. One gunman, a young and jittery kid of about sixteen, pointed his weapon at Marley and sprayed. One bullet grazed Marley's heart, one pierced his arm. Don Taylor, Marley's manager, was between the gun and took five bullets in the groin. Others were injured but, miraculously, on one was killed. He gave the concert anyway.

The concert Saturday should be a good one. Marley and his band are flying up especially for the occasion. They won't be weary of touring. They will also be more sincere, because, to be sure, the concert is for a good cause. Early reports are that the concert will be packed. People everywhere. Teeming, swarming hordes of people. And if anybody can cut through the special American brand of cynicism and make people feel good because they are one in thousands instead of omnipotent, it will be Bob Marley.

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