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'Get up - stand up - reflections on the West End musical based on Bob Marley's life

by James Barrick, White Allies Steering Group Member

Last night was my first time back in the theatre after an extended period away. Having it be the closest experience of being at a live Bob Marley and the Wailers concert, truly made it an unforgettable night. Bob’s call at the crescendo to Get Up, Stand Up! was immediately answered by the entire audience jumping to their feet and belting the chorus. As if the title foretold your body's reaction to the final funky reggae track.


After the event his catchy music was on repeat in my head. I reflected on how aspects of Marley’s story allows his music to reverberate through the years. The defining issues of pain, abandonment and redemption echo throughout the tracks and the musical, immersing you in his time and mirror issues of today, where Bob Marley would definitely have something to say.


Pain

“One good thing about music, when it hits you feel no pain, so hit me with music”

Experiences of pain and suffering are often seen to allow artists to create great art. Often compared to the way diamonds are formed under violently high temperatures and immense pressure, to create something valuable.


Jamaica was steeped in this pain and brutality. In an important aside in the show, the Bob Marley character takes time to inform on the history of the Indigenous peoples of the Island the Arawaks or Tainos. People at the forefront of much suffering and loss through European colonialism began with the Island’s discovery by Christopher Columbus. Leading to British colonial rule in 1655, the inflictors of terrible amounts of pain on hundreds of thousands of people who were sold or traded on its shores. With this they built up one of the largest plantation commercial crop regimes in the British Empire.


The above lyric from Trenchtown Rockers could arguably suggest music acts as a painkiller while listening or creating. It is an outlet for the artist to explore their pain and suffering and form it into something precious. A producer could not believe lyrics like a young Bob Marley’s were truly being written by a 16 year old. However, this belief can be taken further, music is more than just a numbing agent. Music like Marley's cries out for change in society to end the ongoing trauma and brutality felt by disadvantaged peoples. Furthermore, the success of his music has led to helping people out of poverty and succeeding to feel no pain.


Abandonment

The story the musical starts off with continues impacting Marley’s decisions throughout his life and is centred around a feeling of abandonment. His mother well-meaningly makes Bob leave her to live with another family member in the Capital Kingston as a teen to have a ‘chance at a better life’. His mother, a few years later finds him sweeping a shop floor to earn his keep and get by after being abandoned by family again.

His wife Rita knew intimately how much this feeling of abandonment impacted him as a young man. When he chose to ask Rita to welcome in his children from another relationship he had, she knew her husband’s feelings and bit her tongue. They were welcomed into the family home and raised with the same love and music her other children received, so they never felt they had been left alone.


An oppressed peoples known as the Windrush Generation experienced a similar sense of abandonment from their government in Britain. Many of these people would have grown up listening to Bob Marley’s music on Sunday mornings. They were threatened with deportation and ‘Exodus’ from the place they have called home the vast majority of their lives. A compensation scheme has been set up to confirm immigration or citizenship statuses, along with payouts. The stress and shock of such life altering abandonment hits deeper and for longer when your country’s leaders look to leave you on its colonial doorstep separated from all you hold dear. A review of the compensation scheme published today revealed that, to date, only about 5% of victims have received any compensation in five years.


Redemption

Cos all I ever have. Redemption songs, Redemption Song. Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery”


Bob Marley had confidence in himself, inspired by the writings of Marcus Garvey like in the track Redemption Song, Bob thought “If you haven't confidence in self, you are twice defeated in the race of life. With confidence, you have won even before you have started.” With this self belief he created an iconic image which was recreated in the musical, where the two white Jamaican political candidates were encouraging a large rift across the island leading to a violent and brutal election campaign. At the enormous One Love Peace Concert Bob manages to persuade both parties to join him on centre stage and visibly shake hands in an act of unity which he holds aloft for the entire crowd to see.


The experience of resentment comes Marley’s way being black and successful in Britain after struggling with music executives with the royalties to his music. The Jamaican saying ringing true “you sell a record you get $20. It sells a million and you get $20. Criticism comes Marley’s way saying he is performing for whites and elites which may give these rulers legitimacy. Although, with his message he is performing to the white man, being his authentic self and bringing his message of peace and love, with opportunities to speak his mind to the university students across Britain and be on stage before presidents, monarchs and emperors. Encouraging them to join and direct movements to right the wrongs against the oppressed.


The superstar reggae legend continues to receive accolades today and boasts one of the highest posthumous social media followings. The significance of his music breathes again in calls to help the oppressed and love the abandoned to bring about redemption. In the retelling of his life story Bob Marley’s message repeats for you to “Get Up, Stand Up, Stand up for your rights!”


And for those of us that aspire to be true allies against racism - for the rights of others too.



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