I’m not a fan of Bob Marley. Let me just clarify – I love his music, his sound, his dreads. But I don’t like making such bold statements when I’m in public company. For reasons unknown to me, Marley’s cult status has led to intense cross-interrogation as soon as anyone admits that they like his songs.
“But which song do you like? Which album is your favourite? Do you actually like Bob Marley or do you just enjoy No Woman No Cry? Are you a better Bob Marley fan than me?!!”
Questions like these make Bob Marley’s music sound like a group of dinner party guests, interrogating one another on their respective knowledge of French white wines. I also get it – Marley’s music touches deep emotions and we each like to think that we have some similarly deep, individual connection that no-one else could possibly possess with his timeless voice.
So, I’m not a fan of Bob Marley because it sounds as if it’s too tiring. But I do want to talk about a song of his, ‘Africa Unite’. It falls midway in his Survival album, which is focused on a militant vision of pan-Africanism. Survival was released just as the Zimbabwean war of independence from colonial-Rhodesian rule came to its end. Marley performed this in Zimbabwe in its independence celebrations in front of both Prince Charles and Robert Mugabe, paying himself for him, his band, their instruments and a massive PA system to be flown into Harare (although then the city was named Salisbury, cause, you know, colonialism). The music was a hit – he had to perform again the following day due to popular request.
‘Africa Unite’ is not a song that is explicitly militant, but it is the most obviously pan-African song on the album – an album which had the 48 current flags of Africa on its sleeve. Pan-Africanism is the argument for the unification of Africa as a political, cultural or social entity. But there’s plenty of discussion about what this actually looks like.
Marley’s pan-Africanism makes its clear that his ‘Africa’ is not just the geographical boundaries of Africa, but the unification of the “children of the Rastaman”. He pleads for Africa to “unite for the Africans abroad!” He sees unification necessary because the children of Africa are “moving right out of Babylon” and they are “groovin’ to our fatherland” because “the children wanna come home”.
The statement that the children of Africa “are movin’ right out of Babylon” has such deep layers of meaning. The reference to Babylon links the people of Africa with the Israelites, living in a culture that does not recognise them and their values, but instead treats them as second-class citizens. The secondary evocation of the journey of the Israelites comes a line later with “we’re groovin’ to our father’s land”. This references the Exodus of the Jews out of slavery of Egypt, but what is particularly pertinent here is the use of the verb “groovin’ ”.
This is a return to a homeland, but it’s being done through an evocation of music and of culture. This one verb unlocks the rest of the song. The practicalities and the ethics of a physical return to Africa are ones which no-one could complement. Marley instead is calling for a self-recognition of the culture of Africa: that the myriad forms of art that are being pumped out in the western music industry have a deep, ancient source that can no longer be ignored. The music of the Lyaman is ubiquitous, but unobserved. It is time for Africa to claim what is its own, before it is lost. As Marley cries at the end of the song:
“Africa awaits its creators! Africa awaits its creators!”
Africa’s future is still awaiting its children, who need to unify to reclaim their heritage – and quickly: “for it’s later than you think!”
All this is packed into 2 minutes and 55 short seconds. ‘Africa Unite’ demonstrates Marley’s genius, the depth of his vision and the passion he cares about all of it. His voice soars like that of a prophet, crying in the wilderness, calling to an Africa, scattered across the globe.
Gosh I have listened to this song too many times. I really bloody love it though. Treat your ears.
PS – hullo readers, young and old. welcome back to the Fable of Bede. somewhat unbelievably, this blog has existed now for five years. i feel like trying to write some more stuff on it for the moment. i don’t think that it will last. read what you like.