1977: Bob Marley And The Wailers, Exodus

Six months before there was an attempted assassination on his life at his home, 46 Hope Road, Bob Marley sat down outside at three am with his guitar and started to play. Vivian Goldman, a journalist and friend staying at his home, overheard Marley playing some of the lines of “Guiltiness’’, which would be on Bob Marley and The Wailers 1977 album, Exodus.

From what Marley told Goldman and from what some people could confirm from knowing him as a kid in Trenchtown, Marley knew that he could predict the future.

“Everything me sing about come true y’know… Burning and looting… so much time it’s a shame. Dem vex too much,” he once said to Goldman.[1]

On December 3, 1976, at least seven gunmen rushed into 46 Hope Road, showered it with bullets, striking numerous bandmates, his wife, Rita Marley, as she attempted to flee in her car with her children, and Bob in his studio. From a certain perspective, as a Rasta, it was Bob’s duty to use his Jah-given gift for music and being able to see into the future. It was his body, his music, and his connection with the natural world that fortified him. His power also made him an enemy to the elite amidst the political violence and tribalism overtaking the island. He would leave Jamaica and go to London to make his next two albums, 1977’s Exodus and 1978’s Kaya, with his bandmates. Exodus would include some of Bob Marley and The Wailers’s most prominent hits, like “One Love” and “Waiting in Vain”. It would also be named TIME Magazine’s Album of the Century.

Facing death gave Bob Marley a gift. My own experiences proved that his music give others the gift of facing death too.

This January, I went back to Jamaica for the first time in ten years. As a child, I grew up visiting family in the summers and even went to school there when I was five years old. Jamaica, to me, represented long days of playing tennis with my cousin, crumbling hard dough bread into my grandmother’s cornmeal porridge, sweaty church Sundays under ceiling fans, and watching kung fu movies with my uncles. Jamaica also represented a violence — the house where my uncles were murdered in 2006, the grave of my father that I never got to see, and the painful spectacle of coming out to my stepfather in Kingston when I was 17 during my last trip there. On the plane ride home, I went to the bathroom and grieved the end of my childhood.

When I was born, my biological father was dealing drugs. My mother went into labor with me when she found out that he was cheating. With so many medical complications from being premature, I spent months in the hospital with countless medical problems. When I was eight months old, my father went on a roadtrip to a deal in Florida. On the day he left, he called a close friend and wished him a happy birthday. Weeks later, the F.B.I. called my grandmother. An unidentified body was found on a roadside with scraped knuckles and a bullet to the head. As the details were revealed to me in hushed conversations over the years, I imagined him ending the phone call to his friend, a claustrophobic fight in the backseat of a blue car, and the wind as it kissed his face one last time as he ran.

I wonder all the time how this trauma fed into me. The fight with my father where my mother fled with me as I cried in my baby carrier. How my mother, grieving her first love, stood in a hospital as her sister told her, “Some people have to die, so that others can live.”

In this logic, death is not an event, but rather a transaction. Similar to a sentiment made by poet Harmony Holiday in a 2007 Bomb Magazine interview, “In translation, the living embody and reconcile the so-called dead. Who we are explains who they are…”

If I apply this logic to myself, I existed before my mother and father were even born and they, the same for their parents. In this logic, my mind becomes a spiral of if I have the strength to face being the queer aftermath of a frenzied first-love turned to death march to Bogue Cemetery. For Bob Marley, it was how to face an island and a people that had tried to kill him. For all of us, it is how our exoduses can change us.

From birth, Bob Marley was used to others seeing him as an outcast. He was born to his dark-skinned, 18-year-old mother, Cedella Booker, and light-skinned, property overseer, Norval Marley, in Nine Mile in 1945. When he was five years old, his father, Norval, visited Nine Mile and offered to take Bob to the city to study in a private school. Bob’s mother agreed, but in actuality, Norval left Bob in the care of a woman named Miss Gray, who effectively left him to the streets for two years. After being reunited with mother, Bob eventually moved with her back to Trenchtown with Thaddeus Livingston and his son, Bunny Wailer. In those early years in Kingston living with Bunny, his stepbrother, Bob was a bit of an “outcast in the house” according to Joe Higgs,[2] a reggae musician that grew up in the same yard.

“Every day I jumped fences from the police, for years, not a week, for years,” Bob Marley once said to journalist Goldman, “You either stay there and let bad people shoot you down, or you make a move and show people some improvement.”[3]

This sense of being an outsider was compounded by other gifts, which Bob already displayed or was cultivating. As a kid, he played a banjo guitar that his cousin made for him. By age three, he had a noticeable intuition. Two neighborhood friends, Aunt Zen and Solomon Black, often stopped at the shop that his mother worked at and both said that Bob prophesied things that later became true. Around the age of seven, he told a local woman who asked him to read her hand that he was now singing instead of reading hands. Nonetheless this gift carved a path like stone for Bob. In 1969 while living in Delaware, he climbed into a tree in a park and said to his friends, “When I am thirty-six, I am going to die.”[4]

The older that I got, the more I intrinsically understood Marley’s statement. As long as I had lived, my father’s death stretched over my life like a shadow that I desired and loathed. I desired it because it was a reminder that he was alive in a world of people so guarded when speaking about him. I loathed it because it meant that every year that I lived was another marker that he was gone, another chance to be offed in the same way that he was in the bloody battlefield of america.

For the longest time, I listened to Exodus ‘ most known tracks, like “OneLove”, “ThreeLittleBirds”, and “WaitingInVain”, without any conception of their deeper power derived from Bob Marley’s goal to rise above the politricksters, downpressers, and social divisions. I was hurt by the experience of coming out — first to my mother at 15 years old when she read my journal, then to my stepfather after he was released from prison and I visited him in Jamaica. I still remember my mother’s clasped hands in our basement as she sobbed to God to change her two gay sons and the hard wall that replaced my stepfather’s tender face when I sat in his room and told him that I was gay.

All of that pain made detaching from my beloved Jamaica easier. I went to college, grappled with my Blackness, protested the murder of Michael Brown, and graduated in 2015. It wasn’t until early summer in 2016 when his music hit me differently. I was on a stop in New Orleans during a month-long road trip to California. My friend and I decided to go to Bayou Boogaloo, a music and arts festival, after a humid day of walking around the city. I stood in the crowd as The Wailers walked on stage and performed their greatest hits. The lead singer with lots down back grabbed the microphone and belted, “We know where we’re going, uh!/We know where we’re from/We’re leaving Babylon.”

I had little money and no real life direction after college, but swaying to the music as the sunset made me cry. In that bayou, my exodus changed direction.

When I landed in Jamaica in January of this year, a wave of relief washed over me. Since my last time there, I had gone to college, become radicalized, changed my name to my father’s, started my writing career, and fell in love for the first time. While in France in 2018, a book started to brew in my mind about trying to make sense of my murdered father. I learned more of the truth about the murder of my uncles in Jamaica in 2006 and how their murder was connected to a web of lies surrounding my father’s murder during that spring in 2018. For months, I stumbled through a period of grieving, obsessed with the painful things that had made and become the aftermath of me entering the world.

I wondered if Harmony Holiday could be wrong about the living embodying the dead because maybe I wanted to be different from my father and the wreckage that he left. I wanted Bob Marley to be wrong about predicting the future and dying exactly when he said he would. Because if he was wrong, then the superstitions and exoduses that we are born into can be escaped. I could live a life full of my own. I wouldn’t die at 33, like I always feared.

I spent a full week in my boyfriend’s apartment researching and writing about Bob Marley, stopping by the store for bread, cheese, and beer when I got hungry. I learned about Jamaica’s independence in 1962 when Marley was 20 years old and my parents were babies. The next year, Bob moved to Delaware with his mother and worked the night shift in on an assembly line. More than I could have ever imagined, Marley’s legacy raced alongside so much of what my family experienced while growing up on the island in the 60’s and 70's.

Returning to Jamaica earlier this year, I was armed with more knowledge of its history and equally humbled by how much I didn’t know. I was reminded again that the paths of our exoduses change every time we speak truth, collide with another person’s reality, or face what has been lost. As I toured around the family home that my uncles were murdered in 2006, my uncle that lives there now turned to me and said, “You know, I don’t really know you. You were a kid, then I got locked up and ended up here. I don’t know you.”

Whether it be immigration, my Blackness, or queerness, there are many things that could continue to grow the distance between me and Jamaica. But in as many ways as I can be casted out, I can find new language to let myself in, to see myself more clearly, and to paint a fuller picture. The same uncle that admitted that he didn’t know me also showed me his artwork, talked about how painting while in prison freed his mind, and read pages to me from his journals. He listened to me lament about never knowing my biological father or seeing his grave.

Days later, we drove to Bogue Cemetery. As we arrived, my uncle tried to prepare me for what I may not find in an old cemetery with many unmarked graves, my father included. The cemetery had a vast yard of bodies piled on top of each other under the dirt and massive trees. We wandered the cracked stones and overgrown weeds looking for the only marker that anyone knew of his grave — “a grave under a tree”.

When I was 9, a boy in my class claimed to be a psychic. After class, he opened a dictionary, rolled his eyes to the back of his head, and told me my father was in Calvary Cemetery near my house in Cleveland, Ohio. Charged by longing, I spent the rest of the evening wondering how I could climb out of my bedroom window at night to make the walk to Calvary, also defined as “a place of extreme suffering”. But there I stood earlier this year in Bogue Cemetery in Montego Bay, the actual place of my father’s burial, blinking widely and suddenly in the middle of my own calvary, which was the failure of one of my life’s most awaited moments.

I sank to the ground under a tree, deflated from not finding him, and wrote him a letter of all the things that I wanted to say; all while knowing there would always be so many more things to say.

Since Bogue Cemetery, I hear Exodus differently. In “Guiltiness”, I hear Bob Marley’s calling out to all of the drug dealers, jailed men, and runaways, like my father, to wipe their conscience clean before the big fish “try to eat down the small fish”. “Natural Mystic” was my aunt prophesying to my mother in the hospital after my father’s death — “Many more will have to suffer/Many more will have to die/Don’t ask me why.” Heathen” possessed a riotous repetition in the face of battle and hopeful victory. In it, Marley spoke of his own exile to London and hoped that the downpressers would sow what they reaped. I hear the clamor of police during the George Floyd protests last summer. “Waiting in Vain” beckoned me to face a painful, but altering love.

I left Jamaica just as winded as I expected after all of the unearthed memories and feelings from a decade away. I realized that my relationship to the island is always changing and there are always more things to say.

In an interview in the book, So Much Things To Say: The Oral History of Bob Marley[5], Joe Higgs paints a more longing portrait of Marley’s boyhood during his years in Kingston in his blended family — not being sent to school while his stepbrother was taught welding, how his mother once brushed him away when he held onto her tightly, and how he sometimes slept beneath the house at night. Of Bob, his mother once said, “But sometimes he was a little selfish. And he always looked to me like he was hiding his true feelin’s.”

Even though Bob Marley was known for his love of all people and musical vulnerability, like anyone else, there are probably more things that he wanted to say too. In as many ways as I revere Bob Marley, I always know that he was a human faced life, death, and in between. I hope to do the same in my own life, yielding tools like Exodus and my pen to realize that sometimes the very reasons that we are cast out into the world can also be how we find home too.

Originally published at https://www.68to05.com on June 3, 2021.

[1] Goldman, Vivian. “The Alchemist.” MOJO Magazine, 2007.

[2] Steffens, R., & Johnson, L. K. (2018). In So Much Things To Say: The Oral History of Bob Marley (pp. 14). essay, W.W. Norton & Company.

[3] Goldman, Vivian. Page 86. “The Alchemist.” MOJO Magazine, 2007.

[4] Steffens, R., & Johnson, L. K. (2018). In So Much Things To Say: The Oral History of Bob Marley (pp. 4–5). essay, W.W. Norton & Company.

[5] Steffens, R., & Johnson, L. K. (2018). In So Much Things To Say: The Oral History of Bob Marley (pp. 11). essay, W.W. Norton & Company.

AUTHOR of WHEN THEY TELL YOU TO BE GOOD (Tin House Books, Oct ’22) | The Creative Hour Podcast | Twitter @prshakur | https://princeshakur.carrd.co/

AUTHOR of WHEN THEY TELL YOU TO BE GOOD (Tin House Books, Oct ’22) | The Creative Hour Podcast | Twitter @prshakur | https://princeshakur.carrd.co/