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Celebrating Marcus Garvey in Song

Updated: Oct 22, 2021

In previous columns, I have looked at the issue of the lack of a cohesive cultural ethos which is needed to drive the country to facilitate the necessary development both socially and economically. This does not mean that we have not developed the philosophies which can guide us to realise our dreams and aspirations. In fact, the philosophies of Marcus Garvey, the quintessential Jamaican, presents a clear vision as to what Jamaica can be for people of all colours and from various classes.

Garvey’s message has not been given any prominence, nor has it been adopted in any meaningful way. Over the years, the strongest supporter of the philosophies of Marcus Garvey have been our musicians. Winston Rodney, aka Burning Spear, has led a crusade from the 1970s to educate the world about the contribution of Garvey.

Other luminaries such as Culture, Big Youth, Bob Marley, Third World, Steel Pulse, Dennis Brown and The Mighty Diamonds are but a few of reggae’s messengers who have kept the Garvey fire burning.

A lot of people are not aware that Bob Marley’s famous words “emancipate yourself from mental slavery” is a direct quote from Garvey.

Many of Marley’s great songs are strongly influenced by the teachings of Garvey; songs such as 'Blackman Redemption,' 'Buffalo Soldier,' 'Africa Unite,' “Work,' 'Crazy Baldhead,' 'So Jah Say,' 'So Much Things To Say' and 'Wake Up And Live' are all extensions of Garvey’s message to put Black people first and then the rest of the world.

The ‘70s was the most fertile period for message music from Jamaica. It was in vogue to wear dreadlocks, to utter the words of Garvey and honour Haile Selassie. It was a period of cultural awareness as people looked to the Motherland as a source of inspiration and solace as Jamaicans attempted to define a national identity. This was not without opposition from forces which had a vested interest in keeping ordinary Jamaicans ignorant and dependent.

Garvey was and still is regarded in certain quarters as an upstart and a troublemaker. As a result, his work was suppressed at various levels of Jamaican society. In the United States, Garvey was imprisoned (and deported) because the State Department saw him as a threat to the status quo.

So, just like Malcolm X, Garvey’s contribution was never highlighted at an official level. Although Garvey is recognised as one of the fathers of the American Civil Rights Movement, his philosophies have not been addressed in any significant way in the Jamaican school system. Through the efforts of Garvey scholars such as Rupert Lewis and Camara Nkrumah, things have certainly improved.

When the ‘80s came along, it marked a departure from the nationalistic fervour experienced a decade earlier. The feeble bond with Africa was replaced with a total surrender to things American. The mentality slowly changed from one of concern for others to one of living the good life and making as much money as possible. The Volvo and satellite dish era had begun.

The sale of Ambi skin cream, I am sure, increased during this decade as, once again, it was not cool to be Black. The music which had sustained Garvey’s message, followed suit and musicians shifted their focus away from African liberation and the upliftment of dispossessed Jamaicans.

The 'Browning' syndrome went into full effect in the ‘90s and got validation with the Dave Kelly composition 'Love Me Browning,' which announced deejay, Buju Banton. The bleaching practice began and has since reached endemic proportions.

The ‘90s have seen a revival of the teachings of Marcus Garvey through reggae soldiers like Luciano, Garnet Silk, Yasus Afari, Tony Rebel, Anthony B, Everton Blender and Sizzla. This time, however, the message is confused somewhat with conflicting messages which have alienated the young listeners who grew up on songs which dealt with mundane issues.

It’s left to be seen what direction Garvey’s message will take in the coming decade.

Originally published In 1999 and taken from the Book Rantin Inside purchase a copy here

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