A commonality between (almost) any ‘great’ work of art, is that they all have an essential reason for being. Ask: why was this made, what does it express, and would the world be different if it didn’t exist? If the answer to these questions are not clear, then it is likely the work will not leave a lasting impression in our minds or our culture. There are of course exceptions; however it is a principle that applies in most cases.
Bob Marley & The Wailers 1974 ‘Natty Dread’ is driven by the deep sense of societal injustice. The core of the work emerges from Marley’s experiences of life in a society that is suffused with oppression, greed and injustice; conflicting with his deeply held belief in the unity of all people, expressed through the concept of “I and I”: the idea that God (Jah) is within and unites all people. Each song explores an aspect of this conflict; building on the idea that the oppressed people of Jamaica (and indeed the world) should unite, celebrate what is great, and ultimately empower themselves, through whatever means necessary.
“In this bright future you can’t forget your past, so dry your tears I say”
The first three tracks identify a primary motivation: the desire to live free and protect you loved ones. The album opens with ‘Lively Up Yourself’, which is a celebration of life through music and love. ‘No Woman, No Cry’, is a nostalgic remembrance of an impoverished life, but also describes the pain endured by the singer’s partner due to poverty. Finally ‘Them Belly Full (But We Hungry)’ calls out the injustice – that there is plenty to go around, but wealth and resources are unequally distributed.
“So Jah seh, not one of my seeds, shall sit in the sidewalk, and beg bread”
The second section of the album deals with Marley’s experiences as they apply to him. ‘Rebel Music (3 O’Clock Roadblock)’ details police harassment and oppression relating to a police road stop and search. ‘So Jah Seh’ explores the “I and I” concept that all men are one and ‘Natty Dread’ then brings this identity to bear on a divided Kingston as Marley explores the town and sees his community through this lens.
‘Talkin’ Blues’ is the turning point of the album, where Marley moves from describing experiences of injustice, and the frustration with the oppressors boils over into call for direct opposition to the status quo.
“Because I feel like bombing a church, now that you know that the preacher is lying”
Marley was no stranger to violence; famously he threatened a local radio DJs with violence to force them to play give his track ‘’Small Axe’ radio play. He understands the consequences of this statement but feels it is now time for action.
“So who’s going to stay at home, when the freedom fighters are fighting”
The apex of the album comes at the Penultimate track were Marley identifies the inevitable conclusion to the continuing oppression of his people. After enduring the oppression and injustice described throughout the previous tracks, the only solution left to him is to call for action.
“It takes a revolution to make a solution; Too much confusion, so much frustration, eh!”
The importance of unity in the community is upheld, with Marley leading the call for change using the metaphor of freeing a bird. He wants justice restored to his people, not for profit or to gain power over others, but to liberate.
“So, my friend, I wish that you could see, Like a bird in the tree, the prisoners must be free.”
This is paired with a chorus that picks up the potential alluded to in ‘Them Belly Full’. A mass of people can overcome a ruling minority using their strength of numbers, fed by the motivation that takes root and grows strong under the provender of oppression.
“We got lightning, thunder, brimstone, and fire – fire (fire, fire)”
Natty Dread has an other-worldly feel to it. This is music written half a century ago, half way around the world from England, by a man with entirely different cultural traditions and living in an environment where, to some, he was considered half a man. This album uses the gentle, stripped back musical efficiency of reggae to paint a picture of an unjust society and show pain growing to a potentially explosive anger.
My experience of music has always leant towards the heavier/faster punk or metal, and so my initial feelings on this album were that the pacing did not match the content. It has continued to grow on me, and the emotion displayed here has struck a chord, however it ultimately is not to my personal taste musically. I grew up listening to Zack de la Rocha, and so I guess that level of passion is something I need to hear in an album dealing with similar themes. A great work, undoubtably, and deserving of a place on the list.
- Track of the Album: No Woman No Cry
- Rating: 4/5