To many the name Bob Marley is notorious. Notorious for his contribution to reggae and the Jamaican cultural surgency in the 1960s, for his Rastafarian beliefs, and for his call for love, peace, and equality. However, not many also know that Bob Marley was a refugee.
A few months after the release of his debut solo studio album Natty Dread, on December 3 1976, Marley, his wife, and manager Don Taylor were wounded for their perceived support for the Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley. Bob Marley was exiled from Jamacia and permanently relocated to London.
Marley’s experience of exile in London directly inspired his album Exodus which incorporated elements of blues, soul, British rock, and funk. The album explicitly dealt with issues of religion, politics, sex, and change. The title track, Exodus reflects the Biblical story of Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt to the plight of Rastafarians for freedom. It also parallels Marley’s forced political exodus from Jamacia just one year earlier. Although Marley was almost murdered for supporting Jamaican politician Michael Manley, in Exodus, the lyric “we know where we’re going” is a direct nod to the slogan of Manley, who had recently won the Jamaican election. Marley was able to demonstrate his defiance in the face of political persecution through his music. Our understanding of Marley as a musician before a refugee helps us to appreciate that Marley was not a victim but exercised important musical and political agency.
Decades after his death, Bob Marley has become infamous for his One Love, peace, and Rastafarian message, but to reduce him to simply an advocate for world citizenship would be to deny the complexity of Marley’s experience and message. His music channels the brutality of life and poverty, and the use of violence to reach emancipation and revolution away from an imperial and capitalist society. Exploring political themes like social transformation and revolution, along with ideas of devotion and self-emancipation, Marley became an icon for both dissent and spiritualism. As Dave Thompson in his book, Reggae and Caribbean Music states “Bob Marley ranks among both the most popular and the most misunderstood figures in modern culture”.