Thursday, March 27, 2014
March 27, 2014: Caribbean Connections: Bob Marley
[In this month of spring breaks, lots of young (and not so young) Americans have likely made their way down to the Caribbean. But for this week’s series, I’ll be considering some of the ways in which the US and the Caribbean are connected by far more than just travel itineraries. Add your thoughts and connections in comments, please!]
On whether it’s entirely possible for an artist to cross cultural borders, and why the crossing matters in any case.
Eric Clapton’s 1974 cover of Bob Marley and the Wailer’s “I Shot the Sheriff” (1973) has been recently inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. I’m very much not sure how I feel about that—Clapton’s version is certainly catchy and compelling, features some wonderful guitar work (duh), and is probably the version of the song most listeners would recognize (full disclosure: when I opened the above linked YouTube videos for each, I realized that I had only heard the Marley version once or twice, if that); but it’s not the original song, and it seems very bizarre to think about a cover entering a Hall of Fame when the original has not been included. And moreover, the original’s complex contexts seem entirely lost in Clapton’s version: Marley noted that he wanted to write “I shot the police” but changed it to sheriff in order to get in less trouble with the Jamaican government; it’s hard to imagine that Clapton had much to say about those kinds of legal, governmental, and social relationships in Jamaica.
That likely gap in social or communal awareness/perspective is hardly limited to Sir Eric, however. Many of Marley’s songs were closely grounded in his Jamaican experiences, settings, and perspectives; not just his overtly political songs such as “Redemption Song” and “Rat Race” (among many many others), but even the more seemingly universal or relationship-driven songs like the famous “No Woman No Cry.” The opening lines to that song—“I remember we used to sit/In a government yard in Trenchtown/Observing the hypocrites”—clearly mean something specific within that Jamaican world, and thus introduce Marley’s sensitive appeals to his titular female addressee through the lens of their experiences within that shared setting and community. That doesn’t mean, of course, that Marley’s many American listeners and fans can’t connect to the song, or to any song of his—but I think it would be important to consider the distinctions between those kinds of connections and the ones made by Jamaican audiences.
Yet I would also push back on any sense that such cultural distinctions, while undoubtedly present, are ultimately problematic or defining. For one thing, you’d have to say the same about (for example) country music being played in Manhattan, or Brooklyn hip hop in rural Oklahoma, and so on. For another, Marley himself expressed, in songs like “One Love,” a clear desire to transcend any cultural (or other) distinctions between peoples. And for a third—and most saliently for this week’s blog series—any and all audiences who listen to Marley can thus better connect not only to a hugely talented artist, but also to the culture and world out of which he emerged. Given the number of Americans who travel to Jamaica, as well as the number of Jamaican immigrants who have become part of the U.S. over the last century (such as Colin Powell’s parents, who arrived in the early 1920s), such cross-cultural connections between the two nations are particularly meaningful and significant. So wherever and whoever you are, you can throw on a Marley t-shirt proudly, I’d say.
Final connection tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other connections you’d share?