Jazz legend Ray Phiri’s deep spiritual connection with Bob Marley

by Ray Phiri 0

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA - AUGUST 25: Ray Phiri of Sitmela performs on stage during the Standard Bank Joy of Jazz 2007 held in Newtown on August 25, 2007 in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo by Lefty Shivambu/Gallo Images)

Nelspuit born Ray Phiri (70) a South African jazz legend has died after suffering from lung cancer. Born on 23rd March 1947 Phiri shot to fame in 1985, when Paul Simon asked him and Ladysmith Black Mambazo to join his Graceland project. Phiri,  who was a founding member of the Cannibals and the world celebrated group – Stimela, penned the piece below for Forbes Africa in April 2015 on his deep spiritual connection with Bob Marley. Forbes Africa asked him to write it in commemoration of Zimbabwe’s 1980 independence day.

Bob Marley’s song Zimbabwe has a deep spiritual connection with me. I fell in love with Marley’s music in the late 1970s as a producer on the RPM label that distributed his music in South Africa.

Zimbabwe, though set to a laid back groove, is a potent, revolutionary and uplifting piece of poetry that I can never tire of hearing. It is a call to action for Africans to liberate themselves. Zimbabwe was host to me and many South Africans in exile and a champion for our own independence in South Africa. When Marley brought these elements together, live at Rufaro Stadium in Harare in 1980, it was inspirational.

Bob Marley opens and closes with the line Every man got a right to decide his own destiny. What a powerful statement for a black man to make in 1980. Back then, Cold War politics saw major powers pay little attention to the right of the African to exercise proper self-determination. It was a time of puppet masters, mercenaries and assassinations. In one line, Marley asserts a notion similarly enshrined in the 1776 American Declaration of Independence – ‘that all men are created equal’ and whose rights includelife, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’. When Marley says in this judgement there is no partiality and brother you’re right, you’re right, you’re right, so right he is affirming the concept that the African not only has inalienable rights but is justified in the right to determine and assert them as he sees fit – even if it means fighting back.

I love Marley’s use of Jamaican patois in the chorus to toast Zimbabwe’s independence. I can see the African in him digging deep within the soul of his vernacular to express himself beyond the confines of the English language. Lively expressions like Natty Dread it (let your hair down/shake those locks free – be black and proud of it), set it up (live it up), mash it up (raise the roof), and dub it (get down), all conjure up images of people having a good time, united in a colorful celebration. It is not just celebrating Zimbabwe’s independence but celebrating that Africans have brought that liberation about. Marley’s wit and optimism shines in the repetition of the oxymoron little trouble/little struggle – almost poking a finger up at the establishment by demeaning the barrier they represented to African independence.

Marley does not shy away from the sobering realities of the struggle for independence. We gon’ fight, we have to fight, fight for our rights resonates strongly with me as this became our reality in South Africa. By 1980, many young people in apartheid era South Africa and Ian Smith’s Rhodesia had answered that call to go arm in arm with arms to fight this struggle. When many of our leaders were imprisoned or gagged by the state, we as artists and civic leaders stepped up and became the inspirational voices and ‘real revolutionaries’ Marley is referring to. Our words became metaphoric arms, arming our people’s consciousness to fight back. When I say, Don’t be afraid, don’t whisper in the deep. Speak out your mind, stand up! and I’m inspired. I cannot understand hate in Whispers in the Deep I am channeling Marley’s call to action. I am encouraging our people to take a stand against everything apartheid stood for.

Marley also sketches a blueprint for post-apartheid South Africa with the call to come together to overcome, challenge the divide and rule legacy and find humanity in each other (in every man’s chest there beats a heart). We could not be passive, hoping naively that apartheid would end. We took Marley’s inspiration to fight, and then cast aside our internal power struggles to build a new society founded on peace, love and harmony. We wrote songs to encourage our people to examine themselves, unite, keep fighting and awaken the world to our plight – songs like Singa Jindi Majita by Stimela, Asimbonanga by Johnny Clegg and Savuka, and Weeping by Bright Blue. When we took our music abroad, we gave a voice to the anti-apartheid movement and challenged the propaganda war of Pik Botha’s government. We encouraged boycotts and protests. We united across racial lines to form plural organizations like the UDF in 1983 and, as artists, the South African Musicians Alliance in 1986. These movements crystalized social reform, contributing to the end of apartheid and laying the foundations for the democratic South Africa we live in today.

I believe Bob Marley’s messages in Zimbabwe of African emancipation, self-determination and renaissance are still relevant 35 years later. At a forum at the African Union in Addis Ababa, I worked with other African artists to forge the vision of an African Renaissance by 2063. Echoes of I don’t want my people to be contrary and Every man got a right to decide his own destiny were in the dialogue and actions of these determined and united Africans.

That spirit lives on. Marley was truly a prophet of our time.