Marcus Mosiah Garvey was a powerful black revolutionary and race leader who influenced a great many people in his time and continues to do so through reggae music. Many of Marcus Garvey's lessons and ideals have found a voice in the lyrics of conscious reggae musicians past and present. From internationally famous musicians such as Bob Marley and Burning Spear, to the music and words of The Rastafari Elders, reggae musicians have found inspiration in Marcus Garvey.
For many reggae musicians, their work is about more than music, it is a tool for teaching the masses. Peter Tosh at a concert in California told the audience the reason why he was there."Don't think I come here for entertainment. I and I come to flash lightening, earthquake, and thunder in these places of destruction and unrighteousness."2 Tosh and many musicians like him are taking reggae to a higher level, one where the musicians are prophets of Garvey and Rasta. Much of the teachings of reggae are based on a Rastafarian view, as this is the religion of many of the conscious reggae musicians that preach the Garvey message.
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Rastafarianism owes a lot to Marcus Garvey, as he is credited as the founder. The religion was born on the words"Look to Africa for the crowning of a Black king."3 They waited and in 1930, the prophecy was fulfilled when, Ras Tafari Mekonnen was crowned emperor of Ethiopia and took the name Haile Selassie. Working from the bible and their own interpretations of it, the Rastafarians found evidence to support their claim and a religion was born. Marcus Garvey is considered part of the Rastafari Trinity, and"is second only to Haile Selassie,"4 the Rastafari God. Whether singing directly about Marcus Mosiah Garvey, or about Rastafarianism, reggae musicians are helping to spread the teachings of this black prophet and revolutionary to millions of music listeners all over the world.
Marcus Garvey was born in 1887 in the St. Ann's Parish in Jamaica. He came from a large, poor family and due to lack of money, when he was fourteen Garvey left school and became a printer's apprentice. By the age of eighteen he had become a master printer. Garvey had always been a quick learner and when he became the foreman of a printing company in Kingston, the capital of Jamaica,"he continued his education by reading extensively, taking advantage of the company library."5 However, Marcus Garvey's political feelings soon got in the way when the workers went on strike in 1909. Though he held a managerial job, Garvey joined the workers and helped them gain better wages and conditions which resulted in the loss of his job. He was able to find work at a government printing office where he began his career as a journalist, starting a newspaper, Garvey's Watchman, that failed after three issues. While in this position he also contributed to the beginning of a periodical for a political organization which achieved some success. Shortly after this Marcus began traveling in South and Central America. Attempting to use his skills as a printer and a journalist to educate people Garvey started newspapers in order to bring to light the"prejudices and other adversities for blacks"6. While in Central and South America Garvey developed a"reputation as a radical journalist"7, and was not in the favor of the landlords who disliked his reformist thinking. As a result, he decided to travel to England and visit his sister.
Marcus Garvey sailed to England in 1912 and got a job through an acquaintance, Duse Mohammed Ali."Working for (Duse Mohammed) Ali's publication African Times and Oriental Review exposed Garvey to the role of African business and the triumphs of Africa's ancestral past."8 While Garvey was in England he started developing his skills as an orator by regularly speaking at London's Hyde Park. He also read Booker T. Washington's autobiography, of this he said,"'I read of conditions in America, I read Up From Slavery, and then my doom, if I may so call it, of being a race leader dawned upon me.'"9 Garvey traveled back home to Jamaica in 1915.
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Garvey had many questions going through his head during his trip back to Jamaica that he could not answer. Questions like"'Where is the black man's government? Where is his king and kingdom? Where is his president, his country, and his ambassador, his army, his navy, his men of big affairs?'...'I will help make them.'"10 After arriving in Jamaica, he and some associates founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association, UNIA, and adopted the motto"One God! One Aim! One Destiny!"11 Though he developed a small following in Jamaica, he was opposed by many blacks and whites."The whites viewed him as a threat to Pax Britannica and the blacks, especially those of the middle class, felt themselves beyond the class of a man like Garvey."12 Garvey was disappointed in the reaction that the Jamaicans had towards the UNIA. In need of funds and support, Garvey wrote to Booker T. Washington who invited him to come to America. Although Garvey didn't make it to America in time to meet Washington, who died shortly after writing him, he decided to leave for America"where he thought blacks would be more eager to improve their status."13
Marcus Garvey arrived in New York City without any money or followers. This was a temporary condition though since,"By the end of World War I in 1918, black migration, racial violence, and continuing segregation had provided a climate that vastly benefitted the expansion of Garveyism."14 He had changed his views from reformist to revolutionary and found an audience among American blacks, many of whom had migrated from the South on the false assumption that the North had jobs, and that Northern whites treated blacks with greater respect than Southern whites."Discontent grew as the migrants realized that, even in the North, Negroes were considered second-class citizens."15 Garvey began preaching to these people and anyone else that would listen, in the way that he learned from his days giving speeches at Hyde Park. He would speak on street corners in Harlem, and in a short time his popularity had grown to a point that supported his next step, forming another chapter of the UNIA in New York.
By 1918, Marcus Garvey had started his new chapter of The United Negro Improvement Association in New York."Its purpose, Garvey wrote, was 'to work for the general uplift of the Negro peoples of the world.'"16 Garvey had found support for the UNIA, and it began to grow among the Black Americans, and developed hundreds of chapters around the world. Garvey used this opportunity to continue as a journalist, starting his first successful publication,"The Negro World"."The Negro World"was printed in English, French and Spanish in order to be more accessible to readers around the world. According to some estimates, circulation reached 65,000 worldwide."17 Every issue included Garvey's front-page editorial, in which he was able to discuss topics relating to his goals. Some of Marcus Garvey's goals included:
"First, he wanted a worldwide cofraternity of the Black Race; second, he wished to see the development of Africa from a backward, colonial enclave to a self-supporting giant of which all Blacks could be proud; third, he wanted to see Africa as a developed Negro nation, a force in world power, and a place to which all Blacks could return; he envisioned a Black nation from which Black representatives were to be sent to all the principle countries and cities of the world; fifth, he wanted to see the development of Black educational institutions for the teaching of Black cultures; and last he wanted to work for the uplifting of the Black Race anywhere it was to be found."18
Part of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and Garvey's plan for the Black race was to develop an economic situation that would benefit Blacks. He developed several businesses that included"the Negro Factories Corporation, a restaurant, a millinery, a publishing house, and a chain of cooperative grocery stores. But most importantly... the Black Star Shipping Line."19 The Black Star Shipping Line started as a shipping line, but Marcus had the ultimate goal of using the three ships that made up the fleet to implement his 'Back to Africa' movement. However, the Black Star Line did not last long. The ships were in ill repair and the company folded despite Garvey's attempts to revive it.
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The goal of the 'Back to Africa' movement was to bring Blacks home to Africa. In an editorial by Garvey, written while in prison for mail fraud, he says,"Remember, we live, work and pray for the establishing of a great and binding RACIAL HIERARCHY, the rounding of a RACIAL EMPIRE whose only natural, spiritual and political limits shall be God and 'Africa for the Africans, at home and abroad.'"20 Garvey and the UNIA would not have an easy time pushing these views and goals to the black people, as they were now drawing the attention of a government that was going through a time of intense paranoia known as the 'Red Scare'.
Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association was beginning to experience opposition from the police and J. Edgar Hoover,"Hoover later was to become head of the FBI and pursue a notorious career of harassing civil rights leaders"21. Using informants, and under the cover of the Espionage Act and the Sedition Act, Hoover and the government were able to observe Marcus Garvey and wait to catch Garvey breaking a law. The government was afraid of Garvey because, in their view, much of his work was"an appeal to the racial instinct of the negroes, calculated to incite hatred of the white race by urging them to do like the Irish, the Jews, the East Indians and all other oppressed peoples who are getting together to demand from their oppressors liberty, justice, equality."22 Finding sufficient evidence to convict Garvey proved to be difficult for the State Department. Unable to charge him with anything greater, they were able to bring Garvey to trial for mail fraud in 1923. Garvey acted as his own defense, but was unable to defend against the charges of mail fraud and used the opportunity to create a forum for his racial beliefs. As a result he was sent to jail for six months until he was released on bail. A little over a year later Garvey was sent back to jail, despite an appeal to the supreme court. Following two years of incarceration, Marcus Garvey was released and exiled from the United States.
Marcus Garvey headed home to Jamaica in 1927 and entered local politics, forming the People's Political Party, with minimal success. The UNIA in America had begun to decline since the loss of it's leader and founder to Jamaica. Garvey's return to the Jamaica UNIA headquarters caused"widespread fragmentation, and desertion among branches in the United States."23 The UNIA convention in Kingston in 1929, though it was able to"recapture some of the splendor and enthusiasm of its earlier Harlem era, the organization never again amassed a substantial membership."24 After a political defeat and financial problems in 1935, Marcus Mosiah Garvey moved to London where he took up permanent residence. During the next five years, which culminated in his death from a stroke in June of 1940, Garvey traveled often to Canada for conventions. It was there that he founded the School of African Philosophy.
Marcus Mosiah Garvey achieved a limited amount of success in his lifetime, but still became an internationally recognized race leader and continues to leave his mark on the minds and thinking of many people to this day."Through his publications, organizations and entrepreneurial ventures, he captured the imagination of Black America"25, and much of the world. Garvey's true fame came after his death."In 1964, the Jamaican government proclaimed Garvey a national hero."26 Though he is much admired in Jamaica and abroad, when Rep. Charles B. Rangel, of Harlem, tried to get the United States government to admit that the mail fraud charges against Garvey were unjust,"the resolution died without a vote."27 Reggae musicians have taken to singing about certain aspects of his teachings. They have expressed through song and words many of Garvey's philosophies concerning education, Black pride and unity, the belief that Africa was once great and will be again, and the idea of treating others as they treat you.
The Rastafarians sing the praises of Garvey often. One of the reasons for this is that much of their religion is directly descended from Garvey's movement, adopting many of his beliefs as well as symbols."The colors unique to the (Rastafari) movement are red, black, and green- the original colors of the Garvey movement."28 We see these same colors appearing over and over again in reggae, the reasons for which are expressed in a song,"Rally Round", by Steel Pulse, a British reggae band.
"Rally round the flag,
Rally round the red, gold, black and green.
Marcus say, 'Red for the blood that flowed like a river.'
Marcus say, 'Green for the land, Africa.'
Marcus say, 'Yellow for the gold that they stole.'
Marcus say, 'Black for the people they looted from.'"29
Many reggae artists draw from Marcus Garvey's teachings and his story for their songs. The song 400 Years by the Rastafari Elders is an example of a song in which the story of Garvey is told:
"400 years in a babylon, 400 years.
I and I never yet seize the fire,
till babylon walls come down.
Hail Marcus Mosiah Garvey,
who led the Black world into reality
Oh, what a Marcus Mosiah Garvey,
Jah, Jah give the power of authority.
This young man start to work as he just leave school.
A printer he become, and he started to rule.
He knows Jah, Jah axe, him chop the big tree,
by teaching us our roots and our nationality.
Marcus never weary, Garvey never fear.
He trod it in the prison, and he trod it in the jail.
The prophet take the rough road to the mountain top.
Unite the poor and needy and protect the handicapped.30
This song is a great tribute to Garvey, focusing on his roll as a Black leader and teacher, who helped the black people of the world unite and have pride in their roots and nationality. The idea of being proud of your race was one that Garvey pushed very strongly, and his influence in this respect can be seen in Black pride movements as well as in numerous reggae songs. Peter Tosh sings many songs about Black pride including songs like"Arise Black Man","African"and"Black Dignity". In these songs he encourages Blacks to be proud of their heritage and"lift up thine heads, oh ye, Black dignity, and be lifted up ye, everloving Black dignity. Recognize thine dignity, thine integrity, thine equality."31 Buju Banton sings of this pride,"African with African pride/ Fighting to attain our rights/.../ Self help with a inner motivation/ Teach all to be self sufficient/ Don't want to depend on no-one/ For attainment of my bread/ Oh these words, Oh my calling."32 This song also draws from Garvey's idea of creating an independent African state that would be self sufficient and independent of the white nations of the world.
The development of an independent African state went hand in hand with the"Back to Africa"movement and the failed Black Star Line. Ras Marcus speaks of this, drawing directly from Garvey's teachings,"'Africa for the Africans, those at home and those abroad.' When this is done we will burn all guns, all evil weapons and bring back the earth to a peaceful place."33 The"Back to Africa"movement and the Black Star Line have found fertile ground in reggae lyrics for various musicians."A bright shining star, yeah, Africa/ Catch starliner right now, Africa,"34 sings Steel Pulse in praise of the Black Star, and further goes on to call up the memories of when the Black race was a great one."Remember when we used to dress like Kings,/ conqueror of land, conqueror of seas."35 Garvey often dressed in"flamboyant regalia, which sometimes included military-style uniforms with ostrich plumed hats."36 He did this to create a feeling of pride in the Black race among those that saw him. It is important to remember that"Ethiopia is the cradle of civilization, Ethiopia is the incubator of the earth where life has first started to exist."37 The idea of going back to Africa is further stated by Steel Pulse,"Repatriate, Repatriate./ I and I's patience has long time gone./ Ethiopia stretch forth her hands,/ Closer to God, we Africans."38 Through reggae we can see that Africa is often romanticized by musicians. But, who is an African? Peter Tosh includes all Blacks as Africans,"Say don't care where you come from, as long as your a Black man, you're an African./ No mind your nationality, you have got the identity of an African./ No mind denomination, that is only segregation, you're an African."39 The recognition that Blacks are Africans goes hand in hand with the idea of Black unity and the"Back to Africa"movement that is expressed in many reggae lyrics.
Burning Spear, born Winston Rodney, is possibly one of the most well known musicians to sing about Garvey's philosophy. His music"emphasizes Jamaica's historical links to Africa, the self-determination teachings of black nationalist Marcus Garvey, and black consciousness themes."40 The theme of black unity is a reoccurring one in Spear's music. In his song,"One People", he sings to blacks whose ancestors were taken from Africa by slave traders."West Indians, Black Americans. We know where we're coming from original."41 Other musicians have put out the call to blacks to come together and remember their roots are in Africa. Though they have been divided they will not be defeated so long as they"Unite, all the islands Unite,/ and fight the wicked dem out a sight."42 Garvey knew that much of white civilization was build upon the blood and sweat of African slaves. To this point, Capleton asks listeners to remember"who sow the greens and who plant the corn, who cut the hedges and who cut the land?"43 He is calling on people to recall remember what they have done. Garvey sought to bring blacks up from the position where they were forced to do this manual labor. He felt education was the key to escalating the position of the black.
Educating the black people was always one of Garvey's strongest messages."You must never stop learning. The world's greatest men and women were people who educated themselves... and you have the opportunity of doing the same thing... read and study."44 Burning Spear uses Garvey as an example for others to follow when he sings,"Mister Garvey is so cool,/ Mister Garvey is so smooth,/ That's why he go to school./ He is the first one through black history, who ever control so much people,/ hundreds, thousands, millions, he cause an eruption."45 The importance of education is also a message that Steel Pulse uses,"Keep your cool and go to school,/ let me tell you something education rule."46 In order for the black people to raise themselves up they must educate themselves. Garvey rejected the educational systems that were controlled by whites, in favor of a segregated system with black control. Though the idea of segregated schooling does not surface much in reggae, the fact that established educational systems give an unbiased view of history is mentioned often."Brain washed education is what we obtain."47 In saying this Capleton is bringing light to the issue of education and it is a call to strive for something better."Knowledge is power... intelligence rules the world and ignorance carries the burden."48 Marcus asks people to push themselves to join the ranks of the intelligent and become rulers."Marcus Garvey did say, people, black people, you can't wait until your backs against the wall before you start to inquire, who's fault?"49 He is telling blacks to question their situation now before it is to late.
Marcus Mosiah Garvey's influence on people around the world is quite evident. He has managed to create a pride among blacks for their homeland Africa, from which they were torn away from during slavery. Calling on times when Africa was considered a great and civilized nation, Garvey succeeded in setting history straight. He taught blacks that they are not decedents of an uncivilized people as the white man would like them to believe, but rather from noble blood lines that are even superior to those of the whites. His influence on the Rastafarian religion has led to his works being expressed in reggae, the music of the Rastafarians. Reggae has proven to be a powerful teaching tool and through this music"Marcus Garvey words come to pass."50