It promises to be a memorable concert. On Sunday, February 6, it’s expected that over a quarter of a million people will fill Meskel Square in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, for a show to mark what would have been the 60th birthday of Bob Marley.
The concert celebrates the man who became the first Jamaican and third world superstar and the undisputed hero of the reggae movement. It’s not completely clear who will be taking part in the Africa Unite event, but the official line-up includes his widow Rita Marley, his best-known son Ziggy, and a selection of Jamaican and African stars ranging from Luciano to Youssou N’Dour.
When the Addis concert was announced, his widow Rita suggested that the time was now right for him to be moved from Jamaica to be buried in Ethiopia, and suggested that this is what he would have wished. “We decided to host the Africa Unite celebrations in Ethiopia because this was Bob’s vision”, she said. “He claimed Ethiopia as his home and the time is fitting for his return”.
Ethiopia played a special part in the life of Bob Marley. He was the world’s best-known Rastafarian, and as such he believed that Ethiopia was his spiritual home, and in the divinity of the former Ethiopian leader Haile Selassie. With the charismatic Marley as the focal point, the Rastafarian movement spread across Jamaica in the early 70s, though its roots go back for 40 years. It was in 1930 that the Jamaican black civil rights leader Marcus Garvey had issued his call “look to Africa for the crowning of a king to know your redemption is near” – a prophecy that was apparently fulfilled when Ras Tafari Makonnen was crowned Emperor of Ethiopia and took the title Haile Selassie (Power of the Trinity).
As a Rastafarian, Bob Marley believed that Jamaicans, and others from the African diaspora, should one day return to their homeland in Africa (just as he believed that hair should be worn in long dreadlocks and believed in the medicinal effects of smoking marijuana), and he sang about this return in such reggae classics as Exodus.
The movement was boosted by Jamaican prime minister Michael Manley who found it politically useful to invoke the memory of Marcus Garvey in the 70s, and even waved Garvey’s “Rod of Correction” during his meetings. All this, combined with the power and originality of Marley’s songs, gave the Rasta movement the glamour of some underground rebellious cult.
Reggae stars made use of the Ethiopian (and now Rasta) colours of red, gold and green, and the image of the solemn-looking Selassie peered out from dozens of reggae album covers and posters. Selassie, Ethiopia, Bob Marley and the Jamaican reggae movement had all become interlinked.
Bob Marley died in 1981 and was buried in Jamaica, near his birthplace. The idea that Bob Marley’s body might be moved from Jamaica and reburied in Ethiopia caused an instant uproar. For a start, it seemed highly unlikely that other members of his family would agree, and there would have been a furious debate in Jamaica at the idea of a national hero being moved overseas. The idea of reburial was quickly shelved.
But it does raise the question of what Marley himself would have wanted. He often sang of a return to Africa and for the need for unity among all those who now lived, or originally came from Africa. But he never moved to Africa during his lifetime, although he did visit the continent for a memorable concert in 1980, soon before his death. There, he aided the struggle for majority rule in what was then white-ruled Rhodesia with his song Zimbabwe, and he travelled to Harare to sing through the tear gas at the Zimbabwe independence celebrations.
So would Marley have considered moving to Africa, had he lived? It’s impossible to tell, of course, though it’s worth noting that Peter Tosh, a key member of Marley’s band The Wailers (who was murdered in 1987) loathed his visit to Nigeria, and was desperate to return to Jamaica. But Rita herself has since moved to Africa and now lives mostly in Ghana.
Whether Bob Marley’s body moves to Africa or not is perhaps irrelevant. The singer himself would surely be more satisfied to note that his songs have already travelled there, in a big way. For Bob Marley remains one of the most popular musicians right across Africa, while African singers like Alpha Blondy in the Ivory Coast or Lucky Dube in South Africa have continued to keep the reggae movement going. Perhaps that’s what the Addis concert should really be celebrating.