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Thursday, 10 November 2016

A brief life of Bob in seven songs: radical author stirs up some deep Wailer memories at Brixton Library Black History Month event

Another Black History Month is over,  and you have to admit that Lambeth's events department and the library services organised a really excellent programme of local events. Of dozens of talks, exhibitions,  performances and shows, the event on Wednesday 19 October at Brixton Library was always going to be a big draw: the title, Bob Marley: Roots, Reggae & Revolution - ensured that.

Sure enough by 7pm the seating had all been taken as Bob's totally familiar but always surprising songs kept everyone happy until author Brian Richardson stood up to begin his talk.

Self-effacing from the outset, he joked that he realised most of the audience would probably rather just listen to Marley's music all evening...and of course there's always going to be an element of truth in that. But we also wanted to hear what new things he had to say about such a well-documented modern hero.

Brian Richardson is a prominent activist and campaigner against racism. He's also a practising criminal barrister and - not surprisingly - a deft public speaker. He seemed so modest and self-effacing as he explained the background to his book, and he played the whole event in a very cool and open manner. He straightaway admitted he was indebted to the Booker Prize-winning novel of Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings, for the structure and approach of his book, which chronicles Bob's development against the political turmoil of Jamaica, the USA and the great East-West divide of that era.

In fact he even borrowed a bit of Marlon James' structure for his talk, covering Bob Marley's political and spiritual development in seven songs.

He pointed out how Bob became a musician, a songwriter, an artist - just at the time that the politics and history of newly-independent Jamaica became a microcosm or crucible of all the great global events at the time of decolonisation,  and of the ensuing conflicts, left versus right, rich versus poor, material versus spiritual.

But this was no dry history lecture. As soon as the first song fired up, large parts of the audience were swaying their seats, and just about everyone was smiling. The song was the Wailing Wailers' 1965 hit Simmer Down, which - even so soon after Jamaican independence - showed that the honeymoon was over and that things had got back to normal - poverty, corruption, oppression, violence in the streets.

Over the course of an hour, Brian played six more Marley songs, all of them well-known classics, each capturing a specific phase of the singer's career. We had the obviously political titles sich as Get Up Stand Up,  the reflections on Trenchtown poverty, and his celebration of late 70s London punk meets roots scene in Punky Reggae Party.

That time when The Wailers were more or less in exile in the UK proved to be a rich seam of memories for some of the audience. One guy remembered playing football with Marley in a park, which led on to discussion of the various stories of Bob's toe injury and whether or not it led to his fatal cancer. (Most likely not, is the answer, though it probably didn't help either).

Another audience member was present at the famous open-air One Love Peace concert in Kingston Jamaica, April 22 1978,  when Bob got the two opposing political leaders, Edward Seaga and Michael Manley, to shake hands on stage.

Brian asked if she remembered Peter Tosh's performance earlier at the same event, when, according to some accounts, legend, he gave the two leaders a very critical lecturing, then fired up a giant spliff as a very public display of his opinion of the government's supposed crackdown on ganja smoking. Sadly she couldn't remember - she was very young then, she said. (Other reports suggest it was Jacob Miller who did the most spliff-smoking, but Tosh certainly talked hard politics).

There were other memories of Bob in London, specifically the time when the Wailers performed at a primary school in Peckham, and also of his visits to a Rasta centre in Kennington.

It was this sort of living memory that made the whole event so different. When Brian got onto the Exodus era, with Marley both espousing but also challenging some of the Rastafarian ideas, a big debate broke out. Several very vocal audience members said that  once again - in the light of recent increase in racist attacks in the UK and USA - nothing had changed, and that the only sensible option was to get out of here, take the Black Star Liner back to Ethiopia, re-patriation, to turn their backs on rotten Babylon.

Others disagreed, saying they were here to stay, British citizens, with exactly the same rights as any other, and that this status was not up for negotiation. To an ancient and fairly dumb baldhead like me it was surprising, even sad, that this debate has resurfaced, or bubbled up, gained new heat, what 35 years after the first Brixton riots proved a wake-up call to an essentially racist establishment.

So, it is taking the establishment a veyr long time to get out of bed, and recent events suggest it's eyelids are once again drooping. But what did we see in Brixton just a month before, the Black Lives Matter movement. Have things gone right back to the 60s? Brexit and Trump suggest that's getting dangerously close to reailty.

But this was a great event, and we need more. It was packed out, lively and reasonably mixed in terms of age and ethnicity - though to be honest, seeing how Brixton is now, I'm surprised there weren't more young white hispter types there. We left soon after the speechifying finished at about 9, but according to sources it seems it went on way past official closing time, when debate gave way to music, and everyone turned to dancing. Exactly how any event in the name of Bob Marley  should end.

Bob Marley: Roots, Reggae & Revolution by Brian Richardson, published by Redwords, February 2016, available from the Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, at £7.99 plus £2.50 postage.

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