Understand Bob Marley lyrics with these 14 words
Despite being one of the most popular musical artists of the 20th century, the actual lyrical content of Bob Marley’s output may be surprisingly obscure to many of his listeners.
The average music listener is probably familiar with classic Marley tracks like “Jamming”, “One Love”, and “No Woman, No Cry”, although they may not be familiar with some of the language that Marley is using – language specific both to Jamaica as well as to Rastafari beliefs. Let’s take a dive into some Bob Marley lyrics and see what we come up with.
Even though Marley did much to raise awareness of Rastafarianism through his music, many people are still not entirely clear on what it is. Given that, here are the basic tenets of the Rastafari belief: identification former Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia (1892-1975) as the Messiah, black people as the chosen people of the Bible, and deliverance from exile or oppression through returning to an African homeland.
The word Rastafari actually comes from the title of Emperor Haile Selassie, who was known as Ras Tafari (in Amharic, Ras Täfäri) from 1916 to 1930, until his ascension to Emperor. The moniker comes from ras, the title of a high-ranking Ethiopian leader, and Tafari, Selassie’s birth name, which literally means ‘person who is feared’.
Trenchtown is a neighborhood in Kingston, Jamaica, which is known as the birthplace of reggae and rocksteady music. The area apparently takes its name from Daniel Power Trench, an Irish immigrant who owned a farm there in the 18th century.
3. natty dread
A natty dread refers to dreadlocks, the hairstyle favored by Rastafarians. The word natty is likely a variation on knotty, referring to the matted nature of the hairstyle. Marley references the hairstyle throughout his work, most notably in the song “Natty Dread”.
Not quite the jam of jam bands – which means ‘to improvise with other musicians’ – the word jam in Marley’s use, as in the song “Jammin’”, refers to having a good time, especially singing and dancing.
Skanking is a style of dancing to reggae music, which usually consists of bending the body forward at the waist, raising the knees, and clawing the air with hands to the beat of the music.
6. fe galang so
This phrase appears in the Marley song “Trenchtown Rock”, in the line ‘No want you be fe galang so’ The word galang is likely a variation on ‘go along’, and the phrase can loosely be understood as ‘I don’t want you to behave (go along) that way’.
Why all the references to Babylon? In Rastafari belief, the state of the current world is Babylon, in reference to its Western focus on materialism and greed.
Zion is one of the hills of Jerusalem, and is often used metonymically with Jerusalem and Israel. According to Rastafari belief, ‘Zion’ is the opposite of Babylon and, rather than Israel, is understood to be Ethiopia.
Related to Babylon and Zion, the concept of Exodus is an important one in Marley’s work, title of both a song and an album. In the song, Marley makes the connection between the exodus of the Jews from Egypt described in the Bible, and the impending exodus of Rastafarians from Jamaica.
Jah is a shortened form of Yahweh, the Hebrew name of God. This is the name used by Rastafarians to refer to God, as well as to Emperor Haile Selassie.
The name of a 1978 Marley album, kaya is a Jamaican slang term for marijuana, an important part of Rastafari culture.
I’n’I, also seen as I and I and I&I, is usage of the first person pronoun, both singular and plural, that is used to emphasize oneness, a concept important among Rastafarians. The word is drawn from Dreadtalk, also known as Iyaric, an in-group language developed by Rastafarians in the 1940s. For more, you can check out our more detailed discussion of Dreadtalk.
The word irie means ‘great, fine, all right’ in Jamaican English. The word appears in the Marley songs “Kaya” and “Positive Vibration”. The word is also used by Rastafarians an exclamation expressing approval or positivity, and as a greeting or farewell.
The word downpressor is a good example of how Dreadtalk changes out word parts. With ‘downpressor’, meaning ‘oppressor’, Dreadtalk switches the ‘up’ connotation of op- for the clear negative connotation of down-.
Are there any other moments in Bob Marley lyrics that you are still wondering about? Let us know!
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