Bob Marley the Social Revolutionary
Reducing Marley to a marijuana icon belittles the impact of a musician some have called the ‘most important artist of the 20th century.’
By Danny Enjamio, Santa Fe College
My roommates and I moved into our apartment in August and considered ourselves lucky, as most other freshmen were living in cramped campus dorms and sharing a bathroom with twenty other people.
We on the other hand were living in 980 square feet of pure luxury, our exposure to R.A.s and coin laundry limited to just the horror stories. We had the freedom to decorate our apartment however we wanted, and figured there was no better way to commemorate this new independence than by hanging a Bob Marley poster.
Sure, I couldn’t recite more than only a few of his songs, but Bob Marley is like an international symbol of cool. College students feel a particular connection to Marley for a variety of reasons. Even without ever hearing his music, the reggae legend’s face alone connotes independence and happiness, peace and protest. The first time I saw the poster I liked it not because I was a huge Marley fan, but because it was just a really dope poster.
Bomani Jones first introduced me to the idea that Marley is often misremembered by younger generations in a podcast. Although he’s known more as a sports writer, Jones is a former music critic and huge Marley fan. His point was that young people tend to venerate the reggae star for some of the wrong reasons, and fail to recognize Marley’s profound impact on the world.
Jones was proven correct on 4/20, as Snapchat users exhibited how Marley today is unfortunately used as a symbol for marijuana and not much more. The app released a special filter on that day where users could swap faces with Marley to celebrate America’s unofficial National Weed Day.
My Snapchat was filled up and down with friends replacing their face with Marley’s, usually followed by a shout-out to the man himself. To be fair, those Snapstories rarely included any mention of marijuana, and were similar to Kylie Jenner’s story, which was met with controversy.
The criticism Snapchat faced regarding the filter mostly centered on accusations of racism, specifically in reference to blackface. You can debate whether or not the snap filter was blackface, as I suppose you could make the case that users weren’t painting their faces black but rather just swapping faces with Bob Marley. But you cannot claim blackface isn’t racist. Millions of African Americans suffered at the hands of laws that were literally named after a blackface minstrel show for crying out loud!
Because of this, you’d think a billion dollar company like Snapchat would be more careful when partaking in something that could even be remotely construed as blackface, especially a filter that wasn’t particularly funny or artistic.
The filter itself left many people understandably angry and uncomfortable (I mean, it was pretty creepy), but the manner in which Snapchat decided to honor Marley exposes the unfortunate reality that Marley is pretty much exclusively seen today as a pothead. After Jones criticized Snapchat on 4/20 and referred to Marley as the most important musician of the 20th century, I decided to learn more about the music legend that is such a crucial aspect of my apartment’s aesthetic makeup.
I learned that marijuana did indeed play an integral role in his life. Marley described it as the “healing of a nation,” and was a long-time advocate for its legalization. For this reason, associating Marley with marijuana is okay, but let’s also try to appreciate other aspects of his life too.
Marley’s life correlated with an era engulfed in social transformation, and in it he represented a perfectly unique catalyst for change. He was different than most of the effective activists of his time in that he didn’t hold office or lead any organizations.
Don’t get it twisted though: Marley had power and influence, he just obtained it differently than most others. He had it through his art—his music, his lyrics. Sure, other artists used their talent similarly, but none had the global impact Marley did.
If you think I’m exaggerating his influence, know that there is literally a college course dedicated to the impact he had on society.
He had an ability to appeal to people of all races from all over the globe, because even if you didn’t understand the profoundness of his words, his sound is just that engaging, that smooth and that cool. The fact that Marley’s still so widely played today speaks how cross-generational his music is. That’s the aspect I was probably most ignorant about: the content of his music. Like I said earlier, I never knew more than a few of his songs.
I’m incredibly embarrassed to admit that for much of my life, two of the songs I most often associated with Marley were “Red Red Wine” and “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” neither of which were his, and the latter’s release came seven years after his death. Because of my ignorance, I always assumed Marley’s music to be all about happiness and peace, a misconception I’m fairly confident in assuming I shared with many people my age. While Marley’s music certainly had elements of that, it wasn’t all mellow and chill.
The more I listen to Marley’s music, the more drawn I am to how thought provoking and profound it is. For instance, the songs “Them Belly Full” and “Johnny Was” highlight the crime, greed and poverty of Jamaica through sadness in a way that resonated with even the privileged world. He laced frustration and anger with calmness in a way that can’t be replicated, evident in one of his most famous tunes, “Redemption Song.” In it, Marley highlights the devaluing of black lives throughout world history, even quoting Marcus Garvey in some of its most popular lyrics. Obviously, the intensity and deepness in the message of the songs Marley performed are vast and cannot be limited to just these three. I just find these to be great songs that convey his message particularly well.
So yeah, it’s okay to connect Marley with marijuana (although what marijuana meant to Marley and what it means to you are two different things entirely), and if he were alive today he probably wouldn’t mind the Snapchat filter. After all, according to Snapchat, they worked on the filter in collaboration with the Bob Marley Estate. Just don’t make the same mistake I did and relegate his legacy to only marijuana and happy music.
I realize now that Marley was closer to a revolutionary than a stoner. He was a source of hope for the hopeless, a voice for the millions of people whose hardships so often fell on deaf ears, proof that you don’t have to hold power to be powerful. I know there is still plenty about Marley and his message that I don’t know or understand, but I can say with certainty that I look at the dude on my poster much differently than I did in the past. Ironically, I guess I have snapchat to thank for that.