Among world music artists — a community small and badly remunerated enough for grievances to simmer — there is no archetype that excites so much fury as the run-of-the-mill player of traditional music who strikes it big in the west. “Every bar in [insert local town here] has someone playing the same thing,” people will grumble. “Why did he/she get so lucky?”
Though no one will dare say so, the prime example of this syndrome is Bob Marley.
To be sure, Marley wrote some fine songs and popularised reggae across the world, to the extent that it became the first global music, although now dethroned by hip-hop and electronic dance. But he also narrowed the confines of the music. In his hands it ossified into a warm soup of frat-boy-friendly bonhomie. Quintessential examples of this — just to pick the worst examples from his greatest-hits set Legend — include “Is This Love”, “Sun Is Shining” and “Three Little Birds”, but perhaps the very worst example is every busker’s present help in times of trouble, “One Love”. The bitter, paranoid Marley of “3am Roadblock” or even “Redemption Song” is airbrushed out of history by grooves that have now badly dated.
The Marley supremacy cast a long shadow over similarly deserving artists. Burning Spear’s album Marcus Garvey, for example, is every bit the equal of Natty Dread and Rastaman Vibration, the Marley LPs most contemporary with it. It also made it hard for reggae artists not in his precise mould to gain recognition. British reggae, in particular, suffered: ask Maxi Priest or UB40 or, in particular, Eddy Grant.
Grant was born in 1948, three years after Marley, in British Guiana, but grew up in London. By 1965 his songwriting and guitar had made The Equals a pioneering racially integrated band (“Baby Come Back” is still as memorable as any of Marley’s 1960s work). During the 1970s he established himself as a producer and record-label owner, neatly avoiding the equivalent of Marley’s problems with overproduction and disputes over publishing.
His best-known songs, while rooted in reggae, brim with invention and an openness to other influences: just listen to the revving-motorbike electronica of “Electric Avenue”, the pan-Caribbean joy of “Walking on Sunshine” or the rolling kwela vamp of “Gimme Hope Jo’anna” — a scathing indictment of apartheid South Africa smuggled into the charts by an infectious melody. “Living on the Frontline”, similarly, traced connections between late-1970s Brixton and the US, Africa, drugs, masculinity and violence, like Marlon James’s novel A Brief History of Seven Killings condensed into a six-minute single.
Marley’s best-known songs are, in many cases, his worst; cluttered, mindless, with no sense of space or dread. Not only would displacing them in favour of some of Grant’s make a better canon all round, it would also, paradoxically be a better representation of Marley himself. Less natural mystic, more soul rebel.
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