DO BELIEVE THE HYPE: Bob Marley

In many ways, the Picky Bastards writers are on a never-ending quest to enforce their music tastes upon each other.

So welcome to Do Believe The Hype – a series where an editor introduces a beloved classic artist to another writer who has yet to have heard their music, or be convinced by their legend.

First up it’s Fran Slater’s turn to convince Tom Burrows of the genius of Bob Marley, with a carefully curated 10-track playlist (detailed below).

Welcome to our most sacrilegious feature yet. Let’s talk Bob Marley. Reggae pioneer, Pan-African idealist, Rastafari icon. It’s not that I ‘don’t believe the hype’ per se, rather that I’ve just never engaged with it. I think there are two reasons for this.

One is very specific. My heritage is Ghanaian, and though Afrocentric ideas were at the centre of Bob Marley’s art, his music was also very much rooted in Jamaica. So what? Well, despite what baffling government reports may say, if you’re not white in Britain, you tend to get categorised by society as belonging to one big ‘other’ pot. So I recall geographically-confused children highlighting my otherness with mock patois accents they’d found on The Lenny Henry Show. Their ignorance hurt, but logic wasn’t going to work on the playground. But was I going to fulfil their expectations and listen to Bob Marley? No chance, son.

The other, less long-winded reason was: I just didn’t fancy the music. The reggae sound – drum and bass, slow tempos – it doesn’t grab me.

But as I’ve said: I haven’t tried to like it. I’d love to be swayed.

The playlist

The playlist is short, so already I’m onside. These were Fran’s selections:

‘War’
‘Turn Your Lights Down Low’
‘Could You Be Loved’
‘Small Axe’
‘Jah Live’
‘Concrete Jungle’
‘Them Belly Full (But We Hungry)’
‘No More Trouble’
‘Who The Cap Fit’
‘Redemption Song’

Early listens

I got very little out of the first couple of plays of these songs. As can often happen with unfamiliar music, a lot of these songs sounded similar to my ears.

It’s often the tempo that’s the problem. Songs like ‘Small Axe’, which I recognise from its use in the brilliant film series last year, and ‘Jah Live’ have this gentle, lilting rhythm which is pleasant, but boring. I feel like the songs could be half as long and they’d have the same effect. I’d get the message. And that’s another thing – the lyrics. Marley’s politics and morals are made very clear, but I’m not a fan of overly literal lyricism. I like clever wordplay, meanings communicated through implication, sounds that say as much as the words do. Some songs (‘War’, ‘Them Belly Full’) have a very blunt message. They are messages I couldn’t agree with more, but that doesn’t mean I enjoy them being delivered this way. I need more show, less tell.

But that doesn’t mean that’s the case for all of these songs, and there are a couple of early standouts. ‘Turn Your Lights Down Low’ rings a bell of recognition – possibly because I remember the Lauryn Hill rework of it. And maybe it stands out because it sounds unlike a lot of the songs on this playlist – more like a reggae-tinged R&B or quiet storm song with guitars at the forefront. ‘Concrete Jungle’ is less familiar and feels like a rock song. I’m immediately grabbed by its descending guitar line which sounds like we’re being dragged down into the soulless urban landscape of its title. With the distinctive staccato chords meeting the more familiar rock sound, it feels like a nice entry point into Marley’s music. It may be a desperate song, but it gives me hope for my Bob Marley journey.

Later listens

By the fourth play of this playlist, it’s occurred to me that listening doesn’t feel like a chore anymore. I’m instantly bopping my head when ‘War’ kicks in. I feel less like an outsider looking into something I don’t understand and instead I feel immersed in the music. Bob Marley has clicked with me. This isn’t chorus-verse-chorus stuff – it’s about entering a world and being surrounded by its atmosphere. And this allows the message to be amplified. So though I don’t love this style of lyricism, the songs still hit home – like the ‘peace is impossible without equality’ message of ‘War’, or the integrity maxim of ‘Who The Cap Fit’.

So by now I’m asking myself, does all of this music work simultaneously as music and message? And several songs absolutely do. Aside from ‘Turn Your Lights Down Low’ and ‘Concrete Jungle’, I’m now very taken with ‘Could You Be Loved’, which can only be described as a bonafide reggae disco banger. I think the increased tempo helps, and that bassline is absolutely bulletproof. ‘No More Trouble’ sounds like a bit like an Isaac Hayes soul tune, which I enjoy. And I haven’t mentioned the acoustic ‘Redemption Song’ which never fails to feel like a poignant way to finish this playlist. It’s a stop-you-in-your-tracks call for freedom. It even turns lines that don’t sound like song lyrics, like “emancipate yourself from mental slavery”, into chill-inducing perfection. Yes, I’m only discovering this in 2021 – but better late than never, right? I’m still not enthused by ‘Small Axe’ or ‘Jah Live’ though, but they’re now exceptions rather than the rule.

So, do I believe the hype?

Did I end these two weeks as an enthused Bob Marley fan? Well yes and no. I’ve warmed to a lot of the mid-tempo reggae songs that have dominated this playlist, but some just don’t do it for me. I like a bit more variation than this. Quicker tempos, more impressionistic lyrics. Maybe I’ll find it in more of his music – there are only 10 songs here after all. And there is some absolute gold here. There are four songs that I found to be unreservedly great, and the majority I like on some level.

But do I believe the hype? When it comes to Bob Marley, as far as I’m concerned, it’s not even a question. For shining his spotlight on the injustices and moral shortcomings of humankind, and for making people across the world think about human rights while they’re on the dancefloor: Bob Marley deserves all the hype in the world.

Words by Tom Burrows.

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