Reggae Month and the Marley National Hero Debate

Jamaica’s Governor General, Sir Kenneth Hall, recently declared February ‘Reggae Month’ amidst applause and revelry at King’s House.

Supporters of the proclamation, including Prime Minister, Bruce Golding, on whose instruction the declaration is actualized, cites multiple reasons for assigning reggae as an official landmark during this month.

Although the Governor General’s proclamation and the Prime Minister’s commentary that followed testify to Bob Marley’s indelible impact on the emergence and development of the music, and its attendant contribution to the island’s economy, one cannot help but take note of the absence of any serious reference to the subject of Marley’s right to the National Hero status in any of the discussions.

So far, Professor Rex Nettleford, Vice-Chancellor emeritus at the University of the West Indies, is the only official who includes his views of Marley’s right to Jamaica’s highest honour as part of Reggae Month. Nettleford, who currently sits on the honouring committee that reviews the criteria for assigning the badge of National Hero, says the legendary musician is, without dispute, “a hero in his own right and there should be no doubt of his greatness.”

Clearly, the propagation of Reggae Month is a firm indication everyone who has the power to bestow the honour upon the iconic musician agrees Marley is deserving of the highest appreciation for employing the music as an alluring element of the Jamaican sensibility to solidify Jamaica as a brand. And through his work, brand Jamaica continues to score a wealth of ‘mental real estate’ and, by extension, brand advocates. Yet, there still seems to be an evasion of the subject by the very establishment that praises his un-doubted greatness.

It seems the case to decorate the island’s most famous personality with the National Hero title is equivalent to flogging a dead horse. The debate continues ad nauseum and seems to reap nothing but flummery from the machinery so vested with the authority to make this a reality.

Sprinkled somewhere in the maze of doubt that has so far stymied Marley’s recognition as one of Jamaica’s National Heroes is the island’s law itself. Jamaican Law still holds the smoking of marijuana as an illegal act. It is established knowledge that Bob smoked many a ‘big head spliff’ publicly, on album covers, and expounded the sanctity of the weed in several interviews.

The antithetical reality of this prophet, musical genius, and visionary is a throwback to the marginalization that still besets Rastafarians. Adding to the other matters used to separate them from mainstream society, marijuana is a well-known part of the socio-religious fibre of Rastafari. And on the sun-kissed island, there still exists a struggle with the hypocrisy and dichotomy of long-held prejudices and double-standards. Today, observe leaders of the nation on television gleefully dancing to, affirming, and legitimizing Buju Banton’s ‘Driver’ at political gatherings & cricket launches, even though the song is a thinly veiled reference to the smoking and trafficking of marijuana.

Then again, Buju Banton is also a notorious proponent of the homophobic hate-music with which dancehall music has become synonymous. The same type of lyrics that feed and nurture the hate-crimes and discrimination for which Jamaica is progressively becoming ‘the case study.’ Despite the expedience of these issues, ‘leaders’ and law-men, with the power to make Bob Marley a National Hero, adamantly, and proudly refuse to address or acknowledge them.

Like Jamaica, Bora Bora, Tahiti, and the Maldives all boast expansive white sand beaches and panoramic escapes. In the aggressively competitive tourism and travel economy, these trappings are simply steak that cannot, on their own, sell the country nor maintain visitor loyalty. Marley and his comrades who pioneered the reaggae enlightenment have set the island apart from competing destinations by adding this unique blend of music and its inherent culture as a sizzle on Jamaica’s steak. A sizzle often emulated but never duplicated.

What else could Marley have done to unseat any doubt in the minds of those who still ponder over the decision to officially make this world hero, a Jamaican hero? Is one elevated to National Hero status by virtue of one’s achievements or is the honour reserved exclusively for paragons of virtue? What exactly is the difference between Marley and Bogle? Weren’t they both rebels?

Raquel is a writer and communications consultant in Toronto, raquel.ingram@abengnews.com

     

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