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Redemption songs: The conversion of Bob Marley
By Christopher Stefanick
May 11 marks the 30th anniversary of the passing of Robert Nesta Marley, more popularly known as Bob Marley. He’s known by other titles as well: “The king of reggae,” “the first Third World superstar,” “The Honorable Robert Nesta Marley,” and, by Rastafarians, as “The Prophet,” or “The Teacher.” There have even been efforts by Jamaicans for him to be declared a national hero.
What many don’t know is that Bob Marley can also be called a Christian. He was baptized into the Ethiopian Orthodox faith before his death in 1981.
Marley had become a zealous Rastafarian as a young man. The dreadlocks and pot smoking that became central to his image weren’t just accessories to a rock star lifestyle. They were pillars of Rastafarian faith. Rastas believe that cannabis removes mental barriers to enlightened thinking, and they base their dreadlocks in Old Testament law. As debatable as these doctrines are, it’s clear that a sincere faith in God and service of his people were the driving forces in Bob’s life and music.
One doesn’t have to dig deep into his lyrics to see Marley’s faith. In “One Love,” named the song of the millennium by BBC, Bob sings, “Give thanks and praise to the Lord and I will feel all right.” And in songs like, “Forever Loving Jah” (“Jah” is the Rastafarian word for God), Marley is clearly praying, not just performing. Praise to “Jah” can be found throughout his music. Bob wasn’t just a secular rock star. It’s probably more accurate to say he was a religious musician who had made it in the secular world.
And when Marley wasn’t praying with his music, he was using it to fight for peace and equality, giving a voice to the marginalized in Jamaica and throughout the world. Bob’s fame overlapped a particularly turbulent time in Jamaica’s history. His musical career had so much social influence that he was the target of an assassination attempt in 1976. Two days later, with his would-be-assassins still on the loose, he took to the stage to perform with two gunshot wounds. Asked why he’d take such a risk, he answered: “The people who are trying to make this world worse aren’t taking a day off. How can I?”
His musical career was clearly motivated by more than fame and fortune. “If my life is just for me,” he said, “my own security, then I don’t want it. My life is for people. That is the way I am.”
Marley developed a friendship with Ethiopian Orthodox Archbishop Abuna Yesehaq who had been sent from Africa by the Emperor Haile Selassie I after he found out that many in Jamaica were worshipping him as God incarnate. (This belief is the center of Rastafarianism.)
Father Lloyd Malakot, currently the chief priest and administrator of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Jamaica, knew Archbishop Yesehaq well. He shared with me how the archbishop won Bob and many Rastas over through the witness of his love and respect for them. When police were arresting Rastas and shaving their dreads before releasing them, he went to the commissioner of police and stopped the persecution.
Archbishop Yesehaq became close friends with Bob who donated to his ministry, even giving him one of his houses in which the archbishop lived for years.
Years of friendship and charity earned the archbishop the right to be heard and, according to Father Malakot:
“Bob cried when the archbishop invited him to conversion and to give his heart to Christ. He decided to accept baptism.”
Bob’s baptism is marked by the heroic conviction with which he lived his life. For some Rastas, conversion to Christianity is tantamount to sacrificing the sacred cow. Yet this man who had become the international icon of Rastafarianism converted anyway, deeply upsetting many people, including some of his closest friends. Marley showed a willingness to renounce everything in his pursuit of God.
The late archbishop who baptized Bob several months before his death spoke of his deep faith in a 1984 newspaper interview with Jamaica’s Sunday Gleaner:
“I remember once while I was conducting the Mass, I looked at Bob and tears were streaming down his face. ... When he toured Los Angeles and New York and England, he preached the Orthodox faith, and many members in those cities came to the Church because of Bob. … When he was baptized, he hugged his family and wept, they all wept together for about half an hour.”
Judy Mowatt, one of Bob’s background singers, recalled in an interview with The 700 Club (www.CBN.com), that she got a call from Bob’s wife as he was dying. “She said to me that Bob was in such excruciating pain and he stretched out his hand and said ‘Jesus take me.’” That prayer was answered on May 11, 1981. He was only 36.
“Many Rastaman call him the prophet,” Father Malakot said. “Even myself as the chief of the Church in Jamaica, I saw he was a prophet in his own right. His music was inspired by God. It was an expression of his belief that the Lord was with him. And he inspired so many people to enter the Church. Many are inspired by him, even now, to convert. Five months ago I baptized a Rasta priest with his big dreadlocks who came into the Church with his wife.”
I’ve seen many T-shirts depicting Bob’s smiling face with a pot leaf next to it. I’d like to create a T-shirt of Bob’s face with a cross next to it instead.
Christopher Stefanick is director of Youth, Young Adult and Campus Ministry for the Archdiocese of Denver. To read more columns by Chris, click here. His personal website can be found at www.chris-stefanick.com.
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