Marley's Mixed Message

Shoot the sheriff, shoot the breeze, stand up, get down, whatever

When Bob Marley spoke of gathering the mythical Twelve Tribes of Israel for a final assault on Babylon, it's doubtful he envisioned the 10,000-strong crowd that turned out February 17 for the eighth annual Bob Marley Caribbean Festival. Who'd a thunk so many of the Children of Jah would be, well, white?

Sure, there were plenty of the hemisphere's "sufferers" who always featured prominently in Marley's music: towering six-foot-tall, dreadlocked Rastafarians murmuring to one another in hushed Jamaican patois; recent Bahamian arrivals; African Americans from Opa-locka. But they were seriously outnumbered by the youth tribes of Anglo suburbia. Neatly scrubbed teenage faces straight out of the Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue loped along in packs around Bayfront Park, past pinkish-hued b-boys from West Palm Beach, Sarasota Deadheads, and Tampa ravers.

This peaceful mixing of races and social groups (no doubt aided by the copious amounts of weed being blown) was impressively novel for Miami, but it didn't seem to amount to anything more lasting than the Red Stripe beer slogan plastered around the park, which declared, "One Love, One Beer."

Everywhere the white man go he bring misery: Dead Prez's M-1 stirs it up at the Bob Marley festival
Peter Lieberman
Everywhere the white man go he bring misery: Dead Prez's M-1 stirs it up at the Bob Marley festival

There's little doubt that nearly two decades after his May 1981 death from cancer at Miami's Cedars Medical Center, Bob Marley is not only more popular than ever but in a fashion unparalleled anywhere else in pop culture.

Looking beyond Marley's album sales (15 million and counting; his best-of Legend has remained entrenched on the Billboard charts since its 1984 release), it's doubtful there's another face that can be found on both the dorm-room walls of Washington, D.C.'s toniest prep schools and the tumbledown shacks of Port-au-Prince's shantytowns. Marley remains equally revered by the inhabitants of both. But can an iconic figure who means so much to so many very different people really mean anything at all? Will the real Bob Marley please stand up?

This wide appeal stems partly from Marley's own musical schizophrenia; fans can cling to whichever persona they find comfortable. There's the bucolic herbsman who enthused, "I feel so high, I even touch the sky." The honey-voiced crooner of "Stir It Up" and "Waiting in Vain." Or the strident revolutionary who echoed Marx's position on traditional religion as nothing more than an opiate in "Get Up, Stand Up," going on to forecast bloody class warfare in "Them Belly Full (but We Hungry)" and "Rebel Music (3 O'Clock Roadblock)."

Few of the festival's performers, supposedly celebrating Marley's cultural legacy, chose to address this thorny trope. Certainly Hootie and the Blowfish had little substantive to offer. Though painless, their presence seemed to stem more from their manager's efforts to resuscitate their stalled careers than a newfound love of Emperor Haile Selassie I. (Or perhaps Hootie was just marking time prior to his subsequent corporate booking at the Loews Hotel.) Morgan Heritage, the act touted in advance by the Miami Herald for their authentic "roots" sound, may be loved by middle-brow rock critics searching for a faithful replica of Marley's approach, but its by-the-numbers performance also was eminently forgettable.

Likewise Burning Spear, among Marley's Kingston contemporaries, was pleasant enough, but singer Winston Rodney sounded not just aesthetically spent but downright weary. Rodney's own music says it all: Trace the arc from 1975's epochal Marcus Garvey, in which he cried out ominously "Do you remember the days of slavery?" to his most recent album, which opens with this mournful chorus: "Did someone remember Burning Spear?" It's the journey of a onetime prophet who now finds himself to be just another struggling musician.

To be fair, though, Burning Spear has good reason to sound at a loss. The state of near- civil war that gripped Jamaican society in the Seventies is long gone, and with it the social ferment that produced both Spear's and Bob Marley's best work.

This same identity crisis seemed to be affecting headliners Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers (the group fronted by four of Bob Marley's children, with several Jamaican ringers ably holding down the rhythm section), who alternated between rote covers of Bob standards and much more interesting dancehall-tinged numbers, complete with gruff-voiced toasting and energetic double-time drum patterns.

Moreover if an artist's inner circle speaks to his true nature, the mass of people crammed on to the stage behind the Melody Makers as they played was quite telling. There were several gleeful Rastafarians but -- mirroring the audience proper -- they were pushed aside by a horde of middle-age white folks, dressed as if they'd taken a wrong turn at the Jimmy Buffett concert and shouting "Jah Rastafari!" for all they were worth. One fellow in garish shorts kept hollering, "Ziggy, we love you!" until a Melody Maker finally announced from the stage that Ziggy was in fact not part of the group that evening owing to "circumstances beyond his control."

None of this seemed to bother O.J. Simpson, who sat demurely in the midst of the sprawling Marley clan, his own two children standing by his side. A request by Kulchur that he join the Melody Makers for a rousing rendition of "No Woman No Cry" was ignored.

The day's only true spark came with the brief appearance by New York City hip-hop duo Dead Prez, who appeared to relish their role as ideological party crashers. Bounding onstage, the two launched into their drastic overhaul of Bob Marley's "Crazy Baldheads," intoning "Everywhere the white man go he bring misery," and commanding the crowd to "bounce to this socialist movement." Dead Prez's form of agitprop is hardly fresh, and the rehashed Black Pantherisms of the group they belong to -- the National People's Democratic Uhuru Movement -- aren't exactly winning over waves of new converts.

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