Bob Marley Sings Against Imperialism and Slavery, for the Buffalo Soldier
Bob Marley, Jams Against Imperialism
Marley's Call to Arms
“Buffalo soldier, dreadlock rasta: … stolen from Africa, brought to America. Fighting on arrival, fighting for survival” So goes the commanding anti-slavery song entitled Buffalo Soldier. The song was written by well-known reggae singer Bob Marley to express his opposition to racism and slavery, specifically towards Africans.
Marley communicates his disdain for the practice of slavery and racial injustice towards Africans and also his admiration and love for those who have fought against it in a number of stylish and head-bop inducing ways. Marley makes his strong and passionate argument against slavery through the use of different imagery and phrases. He also makes it by alluding to different elements from the historical viewpoint of slavery in different parts of the world and the people who have opposed it. The song also seeks to educate people about and draw attention to slavery and racism and to call them to take action against it. Taken in the context of today’s society the song can be seen as a reminder of the evils of slavery and a protest against all forms of racial injustice.
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One of the clearest and strongest ways Marley protests slavery and racism is through his use of the term “buffalo soldier.” He made it the title of the song and uses the phrase throughout the song very frequently. The term itself has reference to the African American soldiers who served in the US military when racial segregation was still in practice. Due to the prominence of segregation at that time all African Americans in the military were forced to serve in units with only other African Americans.
T.J. Steward in his book Buffalo Soldiers: The Colored regulars in the United States Army explains where the phrase originally came from. According to his review the term was originally, “applied by Plains Indians to the black cavalry and infantry Soldiers that fought so doggedly against them in the plains and southwest because, to the native warriors, they resembled the shaggy beasts they hunted both in their physical appearance and in their stubborn courage”(131). Apparently the name caught on and began to be used in reference to all African American troops who served in the military after that time up until the time segregation in the US military was ended. Over time, these “buffalo soldiers” gained a positive reputation for themselves as dependable and capable soldiers who contributed to the armed forces in a number of ways. Paul Lockman supports this claim in his article, “The Black Regulars: Buffalo Soldiers During the Indian War Era as Crime Fighters and Peacekeepers on the Western Frontier, 1866-1892” and also explains some of the duties of these soldiers. He writes, “It is one of the ironies of American history that the Buffalo Soldiers to earn their esteemed reputation as honorable fighting men, had to assist in the suppression of the Native American people and to act as strikebreakers. However, the literature shows that they also brought peace and civilization to the West through their law enforcement and other peacekeeping duties.”(1) By referencing the “Buffalo Soldiers” in his song Marley shows his support for a group that worked to overcome the racism that they were victims of and did not allow it to deter them from contributing positively to society. By simply using the term and naming the song after these men Marley communicates his admiration and respect for them and their cause. He obviously regarded them very highly, so much so that he chose to commemorate them and their legacy in a song.
Bob Marley's Anti-Slavery Rebels
Marley uses the term to communicate other ideas and opinions that help to strengthen and make his argument more convincing as well. For one he identifies very strongly with the term personally. At one point he sings, “I’m just a buffalo soldier in the heart of America, stolen from Africa, brought to America.”(Marley) This helps to clarify why he is singing about these men and communicates very strongly his attitude toward them. The fact that he sees himself as a modern day buffalo soldier and identifies so closely with them demonstrates he wants his listeners to see them as he does, to begin view them with respect and then try to be like them. This is one of the ways he protests racism and slavery, by promoting ideals and groups who have worked against it.
One of the most interesting parts of the song is the comparison Marley draws between “buffalo soldiers” and Rastafarians. He seems to assert that Rastafarians are in some way carrying on the legacy of the “Buffalo Soldiers”, that they are the modern day equivalent of them. This is probably his strongest and most compelling point and the one on which he elaborates the most. He alludes to it numerous times and most of the text seems to have reference to it in one sense or another. The song goes, “Buffalo soldier, dreadlock rasta, fighting on arrival, fighting for survival.” Given the context a “rasta” is most likely a Rastafarian because they commonly wear dreadlocks hence the phrase “dreadlock rasta” and because it is a prominent religion in Jamaica where Marley was from. Here he seems to be saying that the “Buffalo Soldier” and Rastafarian have both been victims of racism and that both fight against it. For the buffalo soldiers they had to withstand segregation. They were also forced to take place in suppressing the Native American people. This was most likely difficult for them morally because of the slavery issue that had only recently been abolished seeing as these particular units of African American soldiers were formed soon after the Civil War. However they fought existing stereotypes of blacks and help set the foundation for desegregation through their example and reputation as “fighting” men. The song portrays them in a similar light when it says, “Said he was a buffalo soldier, win the war for America.” Marley is not talking about a specific war but the war against slavery and racism in the United States.
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Jamaica the island from which Rastafarianism originated has a long and storied history of slavery and oppression similar to that of the United States that the song also alludes to when it says, “Driven from the mainland to the heart of the Caribbean” (Marley). The “mainland” is Africa and “the heart of the Caribbean” is Jamaica.
Historically many slaves were brought from Africa to work on plantations in Jamaica. Some of these slaves began to escape and fled to live with the indigenous people of Jamaica or start small settlements in the uninhabited regions of the island on their own. These renegade slaves were known as Maroons. The Maroons gained recognition for many of the same things African American soldiers in the United States did and had a reputation very similar to that of the Buffalo Soldiers of America. They were known for their abilities as competent soldiers and fighters and they led the resistance in Jamaica against various colonial powers that historically ruled Jamaica and practiced slavery such as England and Spain.
They fought against racism and slavery just as the “buffalo soldiers” did. Kathleen Wilson in her article “The Performance of Freedom: Maroons and the Colonial Order in Eighteenth-Century Jamaica and the Atlantic Sound” records a quote from Abbe Raynal from 1782 in reference to the Maroons.
He was recorded as commenting that the Maroons were, “A set of men, who ... ever at war with an assailant stronger than themselves and well armed, never ceased fighting for the defence of their liberty ... such a set of men would never be subdued by open force.”(3)
Wilson expounds on the reputation and identity of these Jamaican freedom fighters by relating an experience that Edward Long had with them in 1764. Wilson records Long as writing about the men, “all joined in a most hideous yell, or war-hoop, and bounded into action. With amazing agility, they literally ran and rolled through their various firings and evolutions ... They fire stooping almost to the very ground; and no sooner is their piece discharged, than they throw themselves into a thousand antic gestures, and tumble over and over, so as to be continually shifting their place; the intention of which is, to elude the shot, as well as to deceive the aim of their adversaries ... When this part of their exercise was over, they drew their swords; and, winding their horn again, they began, in wild and warlike capers, to advance towards his excellency, endeavouring to throw as much savage fury into their looks as possible ... some ... waved their rusty blades over his head, then gently laid them upon it ... They next brought their muskets, and piled them up in heaps at his feet, which some of them desired to kiss, and were permitted”(3).
This quote is evidence of the strong commitment and dedication these men had to fighting slavery and promoting freedom. Marley would have most likely known about these men and there connection with the Jamaicans of today. He identified with these men as well. This is shown by the line, “If you know your history, then you would know where you coming from, then you wouldn’t have to ask me, who the heck do you think I am.”
Marley relies largely on history to make his argument. He makes allusions to both Jamaican and U.S. history. The imagery associated with different phrases he uses helps to strengthen his argument. It is his cry against modern day slavery and his call to action to fight it.
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Wilson, Kathleen. “The Performance of Freedom: Maroons and the Colonial Order in Eighteenth-Century Jamaica and the Atlantic Sound.” Academic Search Premier. Web. 3 Oct. 2010.
Lockman, Paul. “The Black Regulars: Buffalo Soldiers During the Indian War Era as Crime Fighters and Peacekeepers on the Western Frontier, 1866-1892.” Academic Search Premier. Web. 3 Oct. 2010.
Steward, T.J. Buffalo Soldiers:The Colored regulars in the United States Army. Amhurst New York: Humanity Books, 2003. Print
Marley, Bob. “Buffalo Soldier.” LyricsFreik. Web. 3 Oct. 2010