While popular music in the 20th century has been an overwhelming secular genre that has only become less and less philosophical over time, one of the most popular musicians of the 20th century was a devoutly religious man who frequently invoked his believes throughout his lyrics. This was of course Bob Marley, a man who made reggae music one that while commercially successful (thus popular), was also incredibly anti-imperialist and deeply religious.
For Africa and the Caribbean, Marley’s music was itself one part political education and one part religious sermon. For others including white westerners, Marley’s music was an eye opener where familiar pop music themes of trite hedonism were replaced by deeply political messages slamming the colonial mentality while frequent words of praise to God were sung – something that rarely happened (or happens) in American or European popular music.
But when it comes to Marley’s conception of the divine, he had little time for organised religion. He in fact resented most forms of traditional organised religion as was made clear by the lyrics to one of his most well-known songs, Get up, Stand up:
“Get up, stand up: don’t give up the fight!
Preacherman, don’t tell me,
Heaven is under the earth.
I know you don’t know
What life is really worth.
It’s not all that glitters is gold;
‘Alf the story has never been told:
So now you see the light, eh!
Stand up for your rights. Come on!
Most people think,
Great God will come from the skies,
Take away everything
And make everybody feel high.
But if you know what life is worth,
You will look for yours on earth:
And now you see the light,
You stand up for your rights. Jah!
Get up, stand up! (Jah, Jah!)
We sick an’ tired of-a your ism-skism game –
Dyin’ ‘n’ goin’ to heaven in-a Jesus’ name, Lord.
We know when we understand:
Almighty God is a living man.
You can fool some people sometimes,
But you can’t fool all the people all the time.
So now we see the light (What you gonna do?),
We gonna stand up for our rights! (Yeah, yeah, yeah!)
So you better:
Get up, stand up! (In the morning! Git it up!)
Stand up for your rights! (Stand up for our rights!)”
The first verse is an unambiguous rejection of the doctrine of earthly suffering for a heavenly reward that is preached by many established organised Christian churches. Instead, Marley insists that the downtrodden embrace a message of early empowerment combined with religious devotion to God whose omnipresence is out outside of and which transcends religious institutions.
The second verse continues these themes of earthly joy and redemption while the third verse criticises how organised religion is able to fool people into rejecting divine redemption on earth. While this section also makes reference to Marley’s belief in the divinity of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, the words even in this section continue to have a universal meaning for those outside of the Rastafarian movement.
Marley’s message got people thinking and reflecting the world over but in Jamaica, African and the wider pan-African world, Marley’s message was a challenge to the old political order, old religious institutions, old styles of indoctrination.
Recently, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has been speaking passionately about his dislike and distrust of organised religion. He has criticised the guilt-ridden doctrine of original sin and has stated that his God is logical, has “common sense” and would never create people not meant to be happy, joyous and contended. Rather than be bullied into retracting his statements on God and religion, Duterte has been defending and expanding upon his statements. He recently said,
“My God is my God. I have a God. He is a universal mind. I picture Him a too powerful God, that if there is no God, there are trillions and billions of heavenly bodies, we would have already been devoured by a black hole or would have already exploded. That is how I see God in the universal sense”.
He further contrasted his worship of a powerful God who operates on the basis of common sense with the “stupid” deity worship by the Catholic Church that Duterte has rallied against. The Philippine President further admitted that he is consciously pushing the boundaries of rhetoric in order to get people thinking, while challenging them to do more to elevate the condition of the nation. About this Duterte stated,
“I am deliberately doing that. You know why? This country is in doldrums. I am shaking the tree to enliven everyone, to see the [result]. That’s why I’m talking in an offensive manner. I’m trying to go to the boundaries of how far I could go, just like [what I said against] God”.
Both Marley and Duterte used the power of words that were profound in their apparent spontaneity and simple in terms of their direct appeals to the people in order to awaken a latent ethos of self-discovery, spiritual re-discovery and anti-colonial empowerment among the audiences the lyrics and speeches were initially intended for.
While most musicians use their platform to sell albums about the trite and pedestrian, Marley used concerts and records as a means of spreading a message of personal empowerment that can lead to collective enlightenment which rejected every mechanism of imperial rule from organised churches to corrupt politicians. Duterte could of course act like other politicians and limit his rhetoric to the latest economic project, discussions of his most recent visit to another head of state and the other things that a politician is “supposed to” talk about, but instead, Duterte’s speech are like a sermon from the heart whether discussing philosophy, social policy or in more recent days, God, faith and organised religion.
As a leader who vowed to reject and destroy the colonial mentality upon taking office, it should have always been clear based on Duterte’s pre-election statements that the Roman Catholic Church was always going to be a target for a man whose views on religion are far more universal and whose belief in God is far less rigid and limiting than that which is preached in old churches.
Far from Marley’s detestation for organised religion being limited, on his most anti-imperialist album, 1979’s Survival, Marley compared organised religion to the Babylon in so far as Marley and fellow Rastafarians used the term Babylon to connote the white imperialist world. When offering his protests at the Babylon System of modern organised religion and education, he sung:
“We refuse to be
What you wanted us to be;
We are what we are:
That’s the way (way) it’s going to be. You don’t know!
You can’t educate I
For no equal opportunity:
(Talkin’ ’bout my freedom) Talkin’ ’bout my freedom,
People freedom (freedom) and liberty!
Yeah, we’ve been trodding on the winepress much too long:
Yes, we’ve been trodding on the winepress much too long:
Babylon system is the vampire, yea! (vampire)
Suckin’ the children day by day, yeah!
Me say: de Babylon system is the vampire, falling empire,
Suckin’ the blood of the sufferers, yea-ea-ea-ea-e-ah!
Building church and university, wo-o-ooh, yeah! –
Deceiving the people continually, yea-ea!
Me say them graduatin’ thieves and murderers;
Look out now: they suckin’ the blood of the sufferers (sufferers).
Tell the children the truth;
Tell the children the truth;
Tell the children the truth right now!
…Cause – ’cause we’ve been trodding on ya winepress much too long:
And we’ve been taken for granted much too long:
Rebel, rebel now!
(Trodding on the winepress) Trodding on the winepress (rebel):
got to rebel, y’all (rebel)!
We’ve been trodding on the winepress much too long – ye-e-ah! (rebel)
Yea-e-ah! (rebel) Yeah! Yeah!
From the very day we left the shores (trodding on the winepress)
Of our Father’s land (rebel),
We’ve been trampled on (rebel),
Oh now! (we’ve been oppressed, yeah!) Lord, Lord, go to …
Here, one sees the origin of organised religion compared negatively with both the trans-Atlantic slave trade and with contemporary post-colonial education systems. Likewise, Duterte has always rejected the so-called “polite speech” of the elites of “Imperial Manila” and has instead remained true to his roots in Davao, speaking from the heart without censoring his deepest thoughts. Duterte’s education comes from a more spiritually free place than that of most of his political critics and likewise, he and Marley’s spiritual conceptions of the universe were formed not from indoctrination but through a unique spiritual journey that cannot be conveyed by any institution.
In this sense, Duterte is fast becoming like an elected version of Bob Marley for The Philippines – a man who without fear or restraint is preaching the truth as he sees it for the benefit of his people. When Duterte said “I do not care if I burn in hell, for as long as the people I serve live in paradise”, this was as powerful as any of the lyrics in a Bob Marley piece and were indeed very much related both in essence and spirit. Like Marley, Duterte is now an icon of a political and spiritual movement that seeks both political and spiritual liberation from the colonial doldrums by embracing a God of humanity and of compassion rather than the one preached by institutions who themselves are as corrupt as any broken political system.
Of course, some will point out that while Bob Marley’s belief system encouraged the smoking of cannabis, while Duterte’s belief system preaches against the horrors of drugs, such cynical individuals who have clearly missed the wider spiritual message which links the two men must know that first of all, the drug problem in The Philippines is not and was never about marijuana but about a hard-core killer and psychological destroyer called Shabu – a notorious variety of meth. Secondly, the key to understanding any anti-colonial, anti-establishment movement is that each one has its own cultural characteristics. Marley and Duterte’s message is united because of a mutual opposition to the wickedness of imperial slavery, slavery to organised religion, slavery to fake spirituality and a united fight to help open eyes and minds with stirring rhetoric. While Marley’s envisaged means to lift his people out of what Duterte correctly called the “doldrums” was imbued with Jamaican/Pan-African characteristics and Duterte’s is comprised of Philippine characteristics – the freedom that both men preach allows for people to follow their heart and remain true to their culture while still embracing a universal God who is loving rather than cruel.
In this sense, Rodrigo Roa Duterte is the Filipino Robert Nesta Marley.