Every Man Gotta Decide His Destiny

Survival is an album with a purpose. Released in 1979, it is Bob Marley’s most political recording.

Bob Marley.

In September 2014, Rolling Stone reported that Bob Marley’s Legend, his posthumous greatest hits collection, had reached the top bracket in the Billboard 200 weekly music chart of album sales—Marley’s first appearance in the top ten since 1976. As is the frequent custom, this spike in sales was not due to any palpable cultural shift, but instead the result of a sales marketing ploy (cheap music downloads for a limited time) on the part of Google Play for Google Play, with Marley a surprise beneficiary.

It was thirty years since Legend’s 1984 release, only three years after Marley’s early, tragic death from cancer at the age of 36 (a striking coincidence with Frantz Fanon, who also died at 36 from cancer). And I might have entitled this piece “The Legacy of Legend,” except for the raw fact that the album largely, if not completely, erases Marley’s political legacy. Containing most of his charted hits with his backing band the Wailers, it is primarily an apolitical affair, though inclusions such as “I Shot the Sheriff” and “Get Up, Stand Up”—both originally from 1973’s Burnin’—provide a sense of the irreverence found in his back catalog. “Buffalo Soldier” (from the posthumous album Confrontation released in 1983) and “Redemption Song” (from his final album, Uprising, released in 1981) similarly invoke histories of black empowerment and resistance, the latter song drawing in part from Marcus Garvey (Garvey is considered a prophet by Rastafarians). But the trouble with Legend, as with most retrospective compilations, is that it upends the album concept—the sound recording as a problem-space, to borrow an expression from Columbia University anthropologist David Scott, who also happens to be from Jamaica.

Survival is an album with a purpose. Released in 1979, it is arguably Marley’s most political recording, forming part of a trilogy with Uprising and Confrontation. While the titles themselves signal this tenor, historical context is also important: Jamaica was hit hard economically during the 1970s (similar to many countries in Africa and elsewhere in the “developing” world), different civil rights movements in the Americas appeared to be reaching uncertain denouements, and, not least, political struggles remained, particularly in southern Africa. Marley himself was a victim of the political violence that had gripped Jamaica, surviving an assassination attempt in 1976.

Reflecting these uncertainties, Marley unapologetically revives a pan-African spirit in Survival, with a front cover that looks like the ultimate flag quiz—representation from 48 African countries, plus the album title overwriting a version of the infamous “Brookes” slave ship diagram. The back cover resembles a BlackPowerPoint slide from an African history 101 class (Rasta style), including a photograph of Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia operating a machine gun juxtaposed with a quote by Marcus Garvey: “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin, and culture is like a tree without roots.”

Among the tracks themselves, “Zimbabwe” is the most famous, a recording that signaled the right to self-determination (“every man gotta right to decide his own destiny”) specific to the Second Chimurenga then occurring against white minority rule in Rhodesia—an act of solidarity that would further manifest in Marley and the Wailers performance in Zimbabwe as part of its independence celebrations in April 1980. (Read Tsitsi Jaji’s recent, wonderful book, Africa in Stereo, for a recollection of the importance of this moment.) But tracks such as “Africa Unite,” “Survival,” “Babylon System”—“Babylon” being Marley’s preferred Rasta expression for Western (neo) colonialism (“Babylon system is the vampire, yeah!”)—and “So Much Trouble in the World” also sing/shout Marley’s political concerns. Survival was banned in South Africa by the apartheid government. And none of its tracks, it should be noted, show up on Legend either.

That Marley’s politics have been minimized by the music industry is not necessarily surprising. Furthermore, his pedagogy is decidedly different from that of, say, the urban feel of Public Enemy, the confessional dislocation of Earl Sweatshirt, or the broken, art-rap lyrics of Death Grips. Marley’s rage comes with backup singers. And you can dance to it. Yet, as part of a long-standing tradition of insurgent thought and political resistance emanating from the Caribbean, Marley and his album Survival contributed to his political time and place, enabling a recurrent sense of continuity from Garvey to the present, as only recorded music can.

Further Reading

Between two evils

After losing its parliamentary majority for the first time, the African National Congress is scrambling to form a coalition government. The options are bleak.

Heeding the call

At the 31st New York African Film Festival, young filmmakers set the stage with adventurous and varied experiments in African cinema.