Forty years ago today Bob Marley died of cancer. He was 36, at the peak of his career and giving expression to the heaving of billions of people wanting to breathe, wanting freedom from racism and other oppressions.

We republish the lyrics of Bob Marley’s song War, which appeared on his 1976 album Rastaman Vibration, in honour of Marley and the unfinished business of human rights and social justice. These terms, just as they did 40 years ago, speak truths to today’s forces.

The words were taken verbatim from Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie’s address to the United Nations General Assembly in October 1963. In 1975, Haile Selassie passed away. Of course, we are all aware of Selassie’s later ignominious past. His words, as well as Marley’s song and its message of “international morality,” are prophetic and inspiring.

Marley’s song Zimbabwe, written in Ethiopia the year before, became a symbol of Zimbabwean independence when it was released in 1980. With just four days’ notice, Marley flew the band to Harare to perform at the official independence celebration, only to discover that his audience included Prince Charles and other dignitaries, while ordinary Zimbabweans were barred from entering the stadium and then dispersed with tear gas.

The Wailers returned to Rufaro Stadium two days later to perform a free concert – sans dignitaries – in front of an estimated 100,000 people, singing Zimbabwe.

We still live in a world that is struggling against racism and for recognition that #BlackLivesMatter; a world where class and racial injustice are the exponentially; a world where the regimes Marley sang against have been overturned but not “utterly destroyed,” instead creating new forms of oppression; a world where the African continent has yet to experience peace…

The planet is still dominated by “mad baldheads,” and we still need totems, symbols, and anthems that speak to our souls in the absence of newspeak. Many anthems are provided by music, but War is as good as any.

Watch Marley perform it.

Until the philosophy which hold one race superior

And another inferior

Is finally and permanently

Discredited and abandoned

Everywhere is war

Me say war

That until there no longer first class and second class citizens of any nation

Until the colour of a man’s skin is of no more significance than the colour of his eyes

Me say war

That until the basic human rights are equally guaranteed to all

Without regard to race

Dis a war

That until that day, dream of lasting peace, world citizenship

Rule of international morality

Will remain in but a fleeting illusion to be pursued, but never attained

Now everywhere is war

War

And until the ignoble and unhappy regimes that hold our brothers in Angola

In Mozambique, South Africa

Sub-human bondage have been toppled, utterly destroyed

Well, everywhere is war

Me say war

War in the east

War in the west

War up north

War down south

War, war

Rumours of war

And until that day the African continent will not know peace

We Africans will fight, we find it necessary

And we know we shall win, as we are confident

In the victory

Of good over evil

 

When Marley sang War at a concert in New York a reviewer from the New York Times commented that “Mr Marley was extraordinary. Who would have believed Madison Square Garden would have swayed en masse to a speech by Haile Selassie, the words of which Mr Marley incorporates verbatim into War?”

And there’s the rub. Marley had a crossover appeal that helped make people see that justice, equality and non-racism is the right thing to do; something politicians are still incapable of.

Bob Marley & The Wailers – No Woman, No Cry (Live At The Rainbow 4th June 1977)

But Robert Nesta Marley’s life is also one about hope. It encapsulates the potential that exists in billions of people but is still suppressed by all the schisms of the Babylon system: The story of a poor kid from Nine Mile, a village high in the mountains of a former colony made up of slaves, who made it, who affiliated to a marginalised and stigmatised religious sect, then inspired several generations to stand up for their rights. To date he has sold 75 million records, and that was before the advent of music streaming.

Marley sang a lot about love, loved football and believed in the power of nature, what he called natural mystic. But he saw music and art as a weapon to advance change. His last three records – Survival, Uprising and Confrontation – were conceived as a trilogy, a melodic call to arms, that we should still heed. The enduring popularity of Marley and his revolutionary music is evidence that he tapped into a deep desire among humans across the world, young people especially, for love, peace, equal rights and justice.

The fact that so much of Marley’s vision remains to be fulfilled is our problem. The arc of history may ultimately bend towards justice, but since Marley died it has bent the wrong way and the world is now more tortured than it was at the time of his death. The issues he denounced are more pronounced despite political freedom coming to many former colonies. Added to the injustices of the 1970s are issues like the climate crisis and Covid-19 which were not part of Marley’s world, although the seeds were being sewn; the first cases of what became known as Aids, for example, were recorded on 5 June 1981, barely a month after his death, marking another anniversary.

Consequently, the need to “get up, stand up, stand up for your rights” has never been greater.

What will the world look like on 11 May 2031, Bob’s 50th anniversary? The answer to that question lies very much in our hands. Marley’s music and example can still be a source of inspiration as we go about it. DM/MC

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