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On Bob Marley's “Babylon System”

Sunday, July 8, 2007.

By Kalamu ya Salaam of Kalamu.com

Our music is our emotional history, an exact documentation of our souls at any given moment in life’s timeline. What pressed us: impressed us, brought us down, pressed our buttons, our clothes, pressed us into service and pressed us forward in struggle. Our music. Precisely.
1979. Things were beginning to look grim. Very grim. Almost like we saw baby Bush coming cross-eyed at us. Bob Marley, who had been a strong hope, had previously released Kaya, an album of weed, women and song. Except there was a pressing need for something deeper, stronger.

I was so disappointed when Kaya came out that I did not even buy the album initially. Although there were nice enough songs in the album, but Bob, come on man, we need a stronger shout.
So when
Survival dropped, you could hear shouts of joy erupt from every ghetto all over the world. Finally we had something we could listen to from edge to hole and never get bored, never have to skip a track. Could sing and shout the lyrics, hum them subversive sentiments at work, and chuckle to ourselves ‘cause when we all a moan and hum the devil don’t know what we talking about. And this time we not only suffer the conditions to sing about, now we had strong words to sing. "
Babylon system is a vampire." Indeed. Seen?!

Surging songs of struggle. Even today, about thirty years later, we can take these lyrics and recite them out loud to someone. Not have to change a word and we will be bringing the noise. This is boldness.

There are many great Marley songs, but there is no other album that is so strong through and through. Survival is the album for all the sufferers.

Notice how Marley was using sounds as lyrics, knowing the limitations of the English language, knowing we have feelings the English language does not have words for, the makers of English don’t want to hear, the sufferers under English need to articulate. Marley knows all that and fills his songs with wordless chants that articulate those urges within us that otherwise are shackled if we depend on dictionaries and proper English.

Not only was this album political, it is also the one with the strong horns and jazz solos.

But beyond the music and the lyrics, Survival is also the album which makes the boldest statement in its artwork. The lettering "survival" is reversed out of the graphic of a packed slave ship. The rest of the album cover is made up of the flags of 49 African countries. I remember when the album came out, we rushed down to record stores to get the poster, a blow up of the cover. Boy, Bob made us so proud.

Survival was a survival kit, shield, ammunition and armament. Everything forward music ought to be.

What was most amazing is that this came out at a time when Bob was a world-wide phenomenon. Bob was being embraced everywhere he went. He could easily have take it easy. Come out with “Four Little Birds,” lit a spliff and enjoyed the spoils of his enormous popularity. He could have. But he didn’t. Instead of blinging or blissing out, he came back harder than hard.

Survival. A true black-heart man. No sleeping lion. Natty Dread roared.

Give thanks. Bob, you were just what we needed to keep on pushing. Thanks to you, surviving was made just a little easier.

Kalamu ya Salaam is a New Orleans-based writer and filmmaker. He is also the founder of Nommo Literary Society - a Black writers workshop. 


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