My Early Soundtrack

What music shaped your early life? For most of us, our parents’ musical tastes probably were our starting place. That music made a deep impression on what we like — and don’t like (ahem, Steely Dan for me).

Most of the music I grew up with (mostly CDs, though there was quite a casette tape collection) was an amalgam of early 70s Classic Rock with a decent dose of 80s bands and artists like Bruce Hornsby, Huey Lewis, and Billy Joel. It hasn’t meant a lifetime love of this music, though — with the exception of the music of Bob Marley. My dad, followed by his two children, would especially enjoy listening to him after a good surf session. For those of you who know, you know. It’s for this reason that I was particularly interested in seeing director Reinaldo Marcus Green’s biopic One Love about Bob Marley (powerfully portrayed by Kingsley Ben-Adir), released in theaters on February 14.

The Uniqueness of Bob Marley’s Musical Vision

Preacher man don’t tell me heaven is under the earth
I know you don’t know what life is really worth
…And Half the story has never been told

So now you see the light, aay
Stand up for your right. Come on

—”Get up, Stand Up” (Lyrics 1973)

Bob Marley’s music was quite different from the rest of my childhood soundtrack—not just in genre (he was the only reggae we regularly listened to)—but in tone and lyrics. The rest of the music of the era reflected the massive cultural shift in western society in the late 60s and 70s. Much of that music is imbued with idealism and revolution. Songs like Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower,” Neil Young’s “Ohio” (about the shooting of protesters at Kent State), and Edwin Starr’s “War” all looked to a new world where peace and love would replace the establishment. But Marley was different.

Rasta Roots

Old pirates, yes, they rob I
Sold I to the merchant ships

Minutes after they took I
From the bottomless pit

But my hand was made strong
By the hand of the Almighty

We forward in this generation
Triumphantly

—”Redemption Song” ( Lyrics, 1980)

At first, Marley’s music might seem similar to those others. But it came from a different place. He was not trying to dismantle the culture and institutions of his forefathers. Unlike those (largely) American artists, as a Jamaican, Marley was trying to end hundreds of years of oppression by colonial forces that had enslaved his ancestors, leaving them politically disenfranchised in their new home for centuries. His own birth was testament to the harsh realities of life as a person of color in a colonial territory: Marley was born of a white father and a Black mother, who found it difficult to love a child that was part-white.

This colonialist legacy may have, in part, led to his leaving his childhood Protestant faith and embracing the Rastafari religion (for an overview of the religion), an indigenous blending of Protestant Christianity with a desire to be led by Black Africans rather than their British colonizers. Rastafari fueled Marley’s singular musical style, which mesmerized audiences around the world with passionate pleas for his people to unite behind Rastafarianism.

A photo of Bob Marley next to a woman.

As a mainstream biopic, One Love has a challenge in that has to communicate the life of a person whose theological and political foundations are different from most of its viewers — the global population of Rastafari numbering around one million. Marley’s library of music remains powerful beyond the confines of his own religion, especially as an anthem of Black liberation against the powers of Babylon (a biblically-derived concept referring to white colonialism). 

What is Left Out — Marley’s Relationship with Women and Children

Before the film begins, Marley’s eldest son, Ziggy, a reggae musician himself, promises the audience that the film will be an “authentic depiction” of his father. As authentic as Ziggy appears to be, after watching the film, it was clear that One Love is more of an hour-and-a-half memorial to his father than an honest picture of Marley’s legacy.

Any biopic will omit aspects of a person’s life. Sometimes these omissions are for good reasons—other times they are omitted to protect the subject’s reputation. Those who know Marley’s story know that a number of women beyond his wife Rita (played by Lashana Lynch) were a part of his story. 

They are omitted to such a degree that when Bob and Rita are in a heated argument, with Rita complaining about his extramarital affairs and children from those affairs, it feels out of place—forced and at odds with the rest of the script. There are scenes in which Marley’s paramours are present, but without context, their role in his life is left unclear.

The film also glosses over Marley’s relationship with his children. Ziggy’s love in the pre-show speech appears genuine. But it doesn’t negate that Marley was reported to be a distant father to his children, legitimate and illegitimate. 

The greatest omission, however, was Marley’s faith. How can you tell Marley’s story without truly dealing with the Rastafari religion that influenced his life and music? It omits the biggest question any film must answer — why?

The Fundamental Problem with One Love

Why is this story worth telling in the first place? History of course is replete with examples of unintended consequences, that is, with leaders who are pursuing one end only to achieve something completely different. 

In fact, Marley had to live in the tension of preaching peace in a society that was significantly bereft of it. The film opens with Marley’s promotion of a peace concert, attempting to stop a recent violent outburst between two rival gang lords, who ironically, would be behind the promotion of the concert. “Do you really believe music can unify?” A journalist asks Marley. It’s a question that could ultimately be asked of many of the revolutionary artists of the 1960s and 70s. Sadly, considering the fact that the two organizers of the peace concert were each murdered within a year of the concert taking place, whatever he believed music could do—it failed.

 

What to Make of One Love

In closing, One Love is an enjoyable film that acts more as entrée to Marley’s life and music than a definitive account of the man. By downplaying his religious passion, Marley’s life and legacy feel incomplete.

 

Bob Marley singing on stage.

It is not dissimilar to certain ways of teaching history, which remove all traces of the religious motivations that shaped and reshaped society across the centuries. The resulting picture  is both incomplete and confusing.

Omitting some aspects of Marley’s life was probably necessary, but the effect of omitting his religious life left me asking, why make such a movie in the first place?

Stuart Strachan Jr. is an ordained Presbyterian Pastor as well as the founder and lead curator of the Pastor’s Workshop. His primary passion is equipping the saints for the ministry of the church (Ephesians 4). He loves preaching, teaching, and helping churches cast vision for what it means to follow Jesus in the 21st Century. He has served churches in a variety of capacities in California, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Washington.

Stu is married to Colleen, who currently serves as a spiritual formation lead at Compassion International in Colorado Springs. Stu and Colleen have two children (Jack and Emma) whom they love deeply.

In his free time, Stu enjoys gardening, golf, reading a good book, and watching baseball.

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