A Call for Liberation in Redemption Song: “Emancipate Yourself from Mental Slavery”

In October 1937, the Pan African revolutionary orator Marcus Garvey gave a speech in St. Phillip’s African Orthodox Church in Sydney in which he argued: “We (Africans) are going to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery because while others might free the body, none but ourselves can free the mind. The mind is your only ruler, sovereign. The man who is not able to develop and use his mind is bound to be the slave of the other man who uses his mind …”

Forty-three (43) years later, Bob Marley was inspired by this very statement to write the global hit song, “Redemption Song.” Redemption Song is the legend’s last song in his final album with The Wailers, Uprising, released in 1980 at a time he was already suffering from cancer.

Robert Nesta Marley aka Bob was born on 6 February 1945 in Nine Miles, Saint Ann, Jamaica, to Norval Marley and Cedella Booker. He allegedly “died of cancer” on 11 May 1981.
Bob has lived his entire life as an enthusiastic and unrepentant Pan-Africanist who strongly believed and advocated for African unity and global peace. He is the indisputable king of reggae music. A genre of now global music that he is much credited for shaping in the late 1960s in Jamaica and beyond.

Among his Pan African songs include Zimbabwe from the album Survival, released in 1979 and performed at the first Zimbabwean Independence Day concert in April 1980, “African Unite,” “Get Up, Stand Up” in The Wailers’ 1973 album Burnin’, One Love, and Redemption Song among others.

One of his very best songs that calls for self-consciousness and freedom is “Redemption Song,” written in a poetic style like most of his songs were, Redemption Song calls talks about slavery and the need for Africans to emancipation themselves from mental slavery.
Today 11 May 2020 marks exactly 39 years since the legendary Pan African Musician passed away. We will examine how he continues to INSPIRE Africans in “Redemption Song”. The lyrics of the song with the exclusion of the chorus will be provided below for reference purposes.

“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”

In the first stanza of the poetic lyrics as in most of his songs, Mr. Marley was reflecting on how his accentors precisely Africans and how they were “robbed” from the continent by the “Old pirates” and sold into slavery (“merchant ships). However, regardless of the inhuman treatment mitted on them, God made these Africans “strong” and in the end “triumph” against slavery. Even though Bob personalized the experience by the use of the first-person speaker, “I”, he was inferring to the broader experience of the people of Caribbean nations who are descendants of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Precisely, he was reflecting on slavery.

“Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery
None but ourselves can free our minds
Have no fear for atomic energy
‘Cause none of them can stop the time
How long shall they kill our prophets
While we stand aside and look
Oh! Some say it’s just a part of it
We’ve got to fulfill the book”

The lines “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery” “None but ourselves can free our minds” reflects the speech of Marcus Gavey as earlier referenced above. In the second stanza quoted above, Bob Marley called for Africans and the world to free itself from mental slavery. Bob like Garvey believed that Africans were/are physically freed from slavery but mentally deterred from self-consciousness and he, therefore, call on Africans to “free [their] sic mind”.

He further proceeded to call on Africans not to “fear the atomic energy”, probably referring to the “powerful nations” or oppressions of the “slaves”. He pointed out that “none of them (the oppressors) can stop the time”.

“How long shall they kill our prophets”? At the time, several political leaders and freedom fighters in Africa or descendants of the continent and beyond were subject to assignations, coups, and imprisonment “While we stand aside and look.
He equally calls on the people to join him to “sing” (echo) the need for “redemption”, for the emancipation from mental slavery because all he had were “Redemption songs” and songs of freedom. The closing verse somewhat gave a reflection of the constant messages he carries in his songs.

Lines from Redemption Song such as “emancipate yourself from mental slavery” remains a catchy phrase among Pan Africans throughout the years. “Redemption Song is a thought-provoking song, which continues to touch many hearts with every generation of Pan Africans seeing their own experience in and offering different meanings to it.

May all Pan Africans and the world continue to find solace in words of Great Marley!

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