Gus John pays tribute to Bob Marley & The Wailers

Est. read time: 9 min
Credits: Félix Foueillis/ United Reggae

Professor Gus John delivers his feature address

On September 8th, Gus John attended the Bob Marley & The Wailers Heritage Blue Plaque Commemorative Unveiling Ceremony at 15, The Circle, Neasden and paid his tribute to the reggae legends with the following feature address:

It gives me great pleasure to be able to make a contribution to this historic event today and I want to congratulate Delroy Washburn and his team at Reggae Focus – ”Sounds of Jamaica’‘ for their hard work in getting this plaque created and making it possible for us to be present here for the unveiling of the plaque.

Let me take this opportunity to pay tribute to Mr and Mrs Atkinson, whose home this is, for allowing us to acknowledge for all time through this plaque fixed to the house they now own, the historical record of the fact that Bob Marley, Bunny Wailer, Peter Tosh and other members of their band lived in this house in 1972 and off and on in the years following.

I am old enough to remember the influence of Ska, Rock Steady and Blue Beat, musical genres originating in Jamaica and bursting onto the British scene in the middle 1960s onwards.  I was a theological student at Oxford and a Dominican Friar, but I managed to frequent parties organised by Jamaican nurses at the Radcliffe and Churchill teaching hospitals in Oxford at which we danced to Jamaican music, Ska especially, as if we were in Kingston.  That was interspersed with Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge and other musical giants from the USA, West African ‘high life’ and calypso from Sparrow and Kitchener… In other words, music with its roots in Africa and the Global African Diaspora.

Delroy has already talked about the roots of Reggae and how the music evolved from the beats and dance rhythms of Ska and all that went before it, so I won’t repeat that.  Want I say here today, though, is that we must remember always the origins of that musical genre and not detach it from its roots.  We, human beings are creative and resilient people.  We are part of the natural world and therefore we adapt and evolve in whatever environment we are placed, however favourable or harsh our circumstances.  In that sense, we create our own realities.

The musical giants we are celebrating today gave voice to the struggles of the working people of Jamaica, the dispossessed of Jamaica, the workers and peasants of Jamaica.  They became ambassadors for the working class of Jamaica and by extension ambassadors for their country.  From Trench Town to Tokyo, from Bog Walk to Brighton, from Christiana to Cape Town, the name Bob Marley and the music of Bob Marley and the Wailers have a resonance that will endure from one generation to the next.

So, long before Usain Bolt sprinted on to the world stage in his inimitable fashion, Bob Marley had blazed a trail and placed Jamaica on the map of the world and for the world.  There are many who acknowledge Bob Marley, Bunny Wailer, Peter Tosh and others of their period as brilliant musicians but have an image of them that is limited to ‘dread’, ganja, ‘ital’ and bucking against the system.

Their analysis does not go beyond that and as such they fail to get the meaning of the lyrics they love so much. But, confining those artists and ambassadors within such a narrow frame of reference is not only banal, it is a denial of their historical contribution to our understanding of ourselves, to our self-expression, to our creativity and to our on-going struggles.

Credits: Felix Foueillis/ United Reggae

Professor Gus John and Little Roy

Their music spoke to the experience of ordinary working people in the language spoken by the majority of Jamaicans.  In doing so, they identified with the struggle of working people everywhere, especially the urban unemployed; they identified with the Pan-African movement; with the resistance movement in South Africa and Southern Africa, and with the struggle to free Nelson Mandela.  They had experience of the way the police and criminal justice system treated the poor and they made sure the country and the world knew about it.

Bob Marley, Bunny Wailer, Peter Tosh and those stalwarts were Jamaica’s Fela Kuti and vice versa.

That is why people everywhere identify with the music of those whom we are honouring here today, young people in particular.

Delroy and Reggae Focus are right to emphasise that:

Bob Marley is the Third Worlds’ first superstar, Rasta Prophet and visionary. Bob Marley is undoubtedly one of the most charismatic, radical influential artists of the 20th Century. Bob Marley & the Wailers music is known universally and has provided inspiration and hope for countless people across the globe.

Their music has had a huge influence on the development of youth culture in Britain in the last 50 years.  Dr Lez Henry (Lesley Lyrics) has written very helpfully, particularly in his latest book Carry-Beyond Reflections, about the origins and development of the Sound System in Britain. Without sounds from Jamaica, especially new releases, there would not have been a sound system movement. Without the sound system, youth work and youth culture in Britain would have looked and sounded very different.

That is why it is so important that London and indeed Britain acknowledge the fact that Bob Marley and the Wailers once lived in this house.  As Reggae Focus notes:

Although not a widely publicized fact it was in the London Borough of Brent at 15, The Circle in Neasden that Bob Marley’s vision of becoming a dominant force in popular music first took shape while he and the rest of his band lived at The  Circle. Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Neville ‘’Bunny Wailer’’ Livingstone, Aston ‘’Family Man’’ Barrett and his brother Carlton ‘’Carlie’’ Barrett formed the nucleus of the band. It was at The Circle where songs such as ‘’No Woman No Cry’’ and ‘’Easy Skanking’’ were written.

The youth scene today is very different, of course, worryingly so.  Time was, when young people had their rivalries as sound system supporters or sports teams from opposing youth clubs or schools.  But, they united in their opposition to police harassment, to racism and fascism in their communities, etc.  They did not kill one another.  On 2nd March 1981, they marched in their thousands and brought London to a standstill to protest the killing of 13 youths like themselves at 439 New Cross Road in South London, a day that has gone down in history as The New Cross Massacre Black People’s Day of Action.

30 years later, there are more young people of African heritage in this country being murdered by young people like themselves than by white racists or dying from natural causes.

The tragedy is this generation knows next to nothing about the struggles we waged in the last 50 years.  The schools don’t teach them that history, many of their parents and grandparents do not create the environment in which they share that history.  So, unless those young people are involved in community projects with a progressive outlook that is grounded in an understanding of our journey, they have precious little access to that history.  Black History Month programmes dust off and present each year icons of the black civil rights movement in the USA and other such historical figures.  But, too often, the significance of their lives and struggles to our situation today and to the struggles those young people themselves must wage is lost or ignored completely.

They remain for the most part a generation of young people failed by the schooling system, even those with high level examination results; rendered surplus to requirements in the labour market and a constant target for the police.  They lack a sense of purpose and worse yet an understanding of what their generation must do in their own interest and in defence of their own rights.

Credits: Félix Foueillis/ United Reggae

Gus John delivers his speech

This was as much the context of the serious disturbances in London and other cities in August 2011 as anything else.  And, as I said to the media at the time and told David Cameron in an Open Letter, it is irresponsible to write them off and seek to banish them as if they are an alien race that suddenly descended upon our towns and cities to cause mayhem.

They are very much a product of this society.  They bear the stamp ‘Made in Britain’.  So, when politicians talk about ‘we cannot tolerate this kind of conduct in our society’, they are sending out a powerful and very racist message.  ‘Our’ society is theirs, too.  They know no other.  It is stupid in the extreme, therefore, to identify them as belonging to some other society that does not know or respect ‘our ways’.

If it is not the kind of comment they would make in relation to a majority of white people, young or old, tearing apart any city or town anywhere in Britain.

Some 56% of young people in London are jobless; many of them are still jobless three years after leaving school or college.

The issue of how to ensure that that growing section of the population does not become social outcasts, imprisoned in grossly over-representative numbers and socialised to believe that it is normal to have a life expectancy of 20 something, or to burying 14 to 30 year olds in such alarming numbers year on year…, that issue, that challenge is not just one for the so-called ‘black community’.

It is a challenge for the entire society, and no amount of stereotyping or scapegoating by David Cameron or anyone else could deny that fact.  Such irresponsible conduct on the part of national leaders, of the police and of school managers simply breeds cynicism and make young people more and more embittered; more and more feeling that they have nothing and have nothing to lose; and they could therefore destroy any and every thing, regardless of the consequences.

Each generation has its own contribution to make to shaping the world, to the struggle against tyranny and barbarism, the struggle against social exclusion and for equity and social justice, the struggle to make the future we face the future we want for ourselves, our children and our children’s children.

Each generation creates its artists who represent that inseparable link between culture and politics, generating cultures of resistance to oppression and demoralisation.  Bob Marley, Neville ‘Bunny Wailer’ Livingstone, Peter Tosh and their generation embraced that responsibility and discharged it in their own unique way.

As we unveil this plaque in their honour today, thankful for the inspiration they had and from which they created such iconic lyrics while living in this house, let us pledge to claim and own all our youths and work to nurture and encourage them so that we see the glint of hope and creativity in their eyes, rather than the dullness of despair and the glaze of desperation.

‘One Love!’

Photo credits (home page): Felix Foueillis/ United Reggae

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