Forever Milking Bob: Gregory Stephens
Forever Milking Bob
By Gregory Stephens
[February 6, 2003]
"How many words haffe be spoken
before the revolution happen?
How much the price have to rise
Before the people realize
The system is not working?
Looking for words to say
Bob Marley done said it already
Now its just works to do"
- Ziggy Marley, "Works to Do"
I was standing outside a trailer in Ft. Worth on May 12, 2002, waiting to get paid at the end of a two-day Bob Marley Festival. May 11 is the anniversary of Marley's death, a good time, I'd learned, to hustle a gig. I'd talked Sirran Kyles, founder of the Houston-based Bob Marley Festival Tour, into paying me as an M.C. to do a memorial presentation about Bob, and provide samples and music throughout the festival along with my good friend RJ, the between-bands DJ.
Standing there at dusk in Trinity Park along with musicians from relatively unknown regional bands, I was in a disillusioned mood. This festival, like so many things associated with Marley's name, had degenerated into excuse to sell products. Two years before, I had come into this same festival in Ft. Worth to do a presentation, using samples of Bob's voice, and I'd gotten real love from an audience that seemed tuned into Bob's message of emancipation from mental slavery. But the 2002 festival had been a tame affair. It was spread out between two stages, and no one seemed to be able to draw much of an audience, as the crowd was dispersed, shopping in a sea of booths. A lot of shilling went down on stage, too. I hadn't even been able to do the tribute to Bob without someone or another barging onto stage to promote something.
My time finally came and I was ushered into the trailer. Two 30-ish African American women with processed hair were in charge of paying performers. From their looks, their manner, and the R&B on their radio, I guessed they knew little about Bob. Our conversation, in which I described my work about Bob as a "real revolutionary," quickly confirmed this impression.
The talk turned to money - the real reason we were all there. One woman insinuated that I wasn't going to get paid. "Didn't you read the fine print of your contract?"
"No," I confessed, although in truth I only had an oral agreement.
She told me the contract said I would have to, in essence, sing for my supper. "Show me what you got," she said. I was determined not to take these women seriously, and they were determined to make me grovel. This went back and forth for a few minutes, as I tried to figure out exactly what they wanted, and whether or not I was willing to give it to them. At first, they made it sound like they wanted a strip tease. Or a demonstration of my bedroom tecniques. They seemed to be in no hurry, and in truth I didn't even have enough money to take the bus home without getting paid. So I finally stood up and demonstrated a "slow wine" to these women. They squealed in delight or amusement, and quickly forked over the money.
In the name of Bob Marley...
I'd talked with Sirran Kyles, the Marley festival founder, on the ride in from the airport. He told me he had to pay the Marley family around $5,000 per festival for the use of Bob's name. But he was thinking of changing the nameÑit was getting hard to justify the cost, and the Marley family was proving difficult. In fact, shortly thereafter, Rita Marley's lawyers got a ruling preventing Kyles from using Bob's name again. (I hear stories about Rita-as-mercenary everywhere I go, but no one is willing to go on record. For this reason, this part of the Marley story may never be told, in the manner of Michael Eric Dyson's accounting of the King family's mercenary practices in I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King Jr .).
Kyle's tour is now called the "Legends of Rasta Reggae Festival." Based on what I've seen, that is probably a good thing. How long can those of us who love reggae music go on feeding off of Bob's remains, relying on his name to pull a crowd? And what of Bob's name is actually being promoted at such Marley days and festivals, which are like the sand on the seashore?
I don't want to make generalizations, but over time, certain memories accrue, leaving an untasteful residue. There was one red-headed singer for a local band, a gal in tight pants and with a dubious voice, who at the Ft. Worth festival went into a seemingly improvised monologue about Bob, which ended with her shrill declaration: "Bob Marley died for your sins!"
Is that the primary level at which Bob is remembered by the American masses, I wondered? Either the extreme of a messiah, or the perpetual dope-smoker?
Those putting on Marley days and celebrations themselves often employ painfully one-dimensional representations of Bob. I remember a Marley festival run by a different group of people, the "Austin Bob Marley Festival," which also plays in San Marcos. At a well-attended festival in Waterloo Park I attended in the late 1990s, the sound system played Legend and only Legend all day, between bands. That embarrassed me and my Idren RJ, as it would anyone who loves the whole of Bob's "embarrassment of riches," and who is aware of how most people have been exposed to none of Bob beyond Legend .
Then there are the bootleg pirate CDs one finds for sale at all these events, something that surely must have Bob rolling in his grave. Or forget Bob's mausoleum, itself a site for hustling tourists: what about the countless living Jamaican artists who never see a penny for most of their works because of such widespread piracy? I know that some people have voiced their displeasure at this practice, but nothing, it seems, can shake the status quo. The money changers have colonized the temple.
The 2002 Ft. Worth Festival came at the end of a remarkable series of events in the first two years of the 21 st century, the Album of the Century in Time for Exodus , BBC naming "One Love" its "Song of the Millenium," the excellent documentary Rebel Music , the unveiling of Bob's Hollywood Star , a slew of remixes and re-interpretations, etc. It's all good, I said to myself for most of this time. All this publicity will lead some people back to the culture that produced Bob Marley, and to the songbook Bob produced, his "new psalms."
But then there was the Disneyworld Marley theme restaurant, part of the Universal Studios "Tribute to Freedom." And how can I avoid mentioning the Marley leather shoes advertised on a Billboard in Time Square. And it's hard to miss the Marley "Remasters" series that Tuff Gong/Island Def Jam put out. The improvement of sound quality made these a must-have for DJs, but beyond the impressive Deluxe Editions for Catch a Fire and Exodus , there was precious little here to entice anyone who was already a fairly serious Bob Marley collector. Did anyone really need a DeLuxe Edition re-issue of Legend with a second CD of the original disco mixes from 1984? (Well, I plopped down $30 essentially just for Paul "Groucho" Smykle's mix of "Jamming," previously available only on 12"). An Eric "E.T." Thorngren remix of "Lively Up Yourself" was the only previously unreleased track on the entire two-CD set.
I wouldn't mind the caretakers of the Marley estate milking me and other consumers, if they'd at least occasionally put in a real Marley dub. Or a remix that took Bob out of the 1980s, as some of the fascinating collections on the California-based Cleopatra label have done. (Stephen Marley's Chant Down Babylon , to give credit where credit is due, also broke new ground).
We'll be forever milking Bob, I reflected. And I suppose I was as guilty as the rest. I'd written a book with a long chapter about Bob Marley, and although it paid me next to nothing, it did put me into contact with Marley fans from all over the world, who continue to enrich my life in various ways. I rationalized what I was doing with the knowledge that at least I was actually bringing pieces of Bob's voice to public events, sides of Bob that have never been aired in public before. But I was doing the Bob Marley hustle, all the same.
I think the most disturbing part of this phenomenon for me, over the last year, has been neither the crass commercialism of the festivals, or the questionable value of the re-issues, but the general unwillingness or inability of so many people to truly imagine forwarding Bob Marley's revolutionary spirit in a new container.
I've been listening to Bob since Natty Dread came out, and very seriously since 1987, after my first trip to Jamaica. Like millions of people, Bob has got me through some rough times, and I often feel that some of his songs speak to me on a personal level. But I've always gone through periods of "Bob burnout." In the past, after laying Bob's music aside for a few months, I was always able to come back and find new layers of meaning in his music. Sometimes, this was because personal experience opened new perspectives. More often, recently, it's because listening to artists from genres as diverse as jungle, jazz, and hiphop interpret Bob in unique ways opens new levels of appreciation.
But as Bob sang, "every day the bucket go to the well/one day the bottom have to drop out." I don't think I'll ever again be able to hear the first side of Exodus and get the incredible vibe it used to give me many years ago, no matter how long I stay away.
Nowadays, all of our lives having moved on into dimensions Bob could not have foreseen. In "We and Dem" Bob sang about people "eating all the flesh from off the earth" because "men have lost their faith." But now we are destroying Mother Earth because of our faith - faith that the God of the free market speaks through the Regime of Oil, and blesses our headlong rush to pave the planet, and to invade Iraq to pay the bill. I listen to Bob's "War" again, and although it is timeless, it doesn't really speak to the war against Creation.
The manner I find myself appreciating Bob in new ways most often now is through young people. They will of course be forever rediscovering Bob. On Sunday, February 2, as I was preparing to write this column, a workman came over to replace the front door on my house in Oklahoma City. His 8-year-old son Dakota spied the red, gold, and green "Freedom" flag with Bob Marley's image that I fly over a window just above my stereo. "Do you have any Bob Marley?" he asked excitedly.
"Yeah, I've got it all. Do you know any of his songs?"
The only one he could think of was "Get Up Stand Up." So I played it. His head bobbed in rhythm, his young eyes thoughtful. Then I put on the video of Rebel Music , which starts by discussing Bob's "fragmented private life."
"Privacy," Dakota reflected. "I can't get any privacy with my three-year-old sister hanging around. I can't stand her!"
Yes I, even here in the conservative heartland of Babylon, that message from Bob and Peter Tosh, "stand up for your rights," continues to reach the youth. And Bob still continues to speak to new generations in that uniquely personal way.
Gregory Stephens was a Rockefeller Fellow at the University of North Carolina's Center for International Studies from 2001-02. He is currently a bilingual teacher in Oklahoma City Public Schools. He is the author of On Racial Frontiers: The New Culture of Frederick Douglass, Ralph Ellison, and Bob Marley . His current book-in-progress is Real Revolutionaries . The Che Guevara chapter of that work, as well as Stephens' writings, radio shows, and interviews can be found at www.gregorystephens.com .
Posted: Sat - February 8, 2003 at 12:09 AM