Soon we’ll find out who is the real revolutionary: Marley and the birth of Zimbabwe

Sometime in April 1980, a chartered Boeing 707 plane with 21 tonnes of lighting, sound equipment and technical crew landed at Salisbury’s airport from Gatwick, London. 

Also aboard this cargo plane was Mick Carter, a tour promoter for Bob Marley and the Wailers, a herald sent to prepare the way for the coming of the prophet — much like John the Baptist announced the ministry of Jesus Christ. For Carter, the journey to Salisbury was a flight into the unknown and he thought to arrive in an Exodus tour jacket. His choice of garb was appropriate, as if he knew of the tens of thousands of Zimbabwean refugees — in Mozambique, Zambia, Tanzania, the United Kingdom and elsewhere — who had already made and were still making their way to the motherland.

This exodus of “Jah people” back to Zimbabwe mirrored the tens of thousands of white Rhodesians who, not seeing a future under a black government, despite then prime minister’s Robert Mugabe’s reconciliation speech, were leaving, especially for South Africa. “The import [customs] people hadn’t a clue what to do; how to deal with us. What got us and everyone through was a huge bag of Bob Marley T- shirts that I had sensibly persuaded Island to give me before I left. These were liberally dispensed all around. And it also helped enormously that I was wearing an Exodus tour jacket, which was my passport to everything,” said Carter. 

Marley’s performance would be the first show by an international act since 1972, the year American soul man Percy Sledge performed in Southern Rhodesia. Marley and his band arrived on April 16 and on the morning of April 17, the day on which Bob Marley performed at the independence gig, a brief, dry report appeared in The Herald

“Top Jamaican reggae artists Bob Marley and the Wailers and an entourage of more than 20 arrived in Salisbury from London yesterday.” The report continued, “The band was warmly greeted by a small but enthusiastic crowd of supporters and representatives from the local recording industry.” 


During a stopover in Kenya, Marley had spurned an audience with Prince Charles, also on his way to Salisbury as the representative of the Queen. As Marley and his band waited in a transit lounge in Nairobi, a message was delivered: Prince Charles was in the VIP suite and would Marley mind paying his respects? In typical fashion, Marley told the emissary that if the royal wanted to meet him, he instead should come to where he and his band were seated. Later, Marley’s discomfort with stiff-lipped, upper-class ways showed itself when he was a guest at State House, the official residence of the incoming prime minister, on Chancellor Avenue, Salisbury, where he and his entourage were served cucumber sandwiches and lemonade by African servants. 

Jah mystic: Bob Marley in a reasoning session with youths during his visit to play at Zimbabwe’s Independence Day celebrations. (Bob Marley Foundation)

Marley’s journey to Zimbabwe was against the odds. His manager, Chris Blackwell, didn’t think it a good idea, perhaps because the incoming Mugabe administration had no funds to bring his star artist to perform in Salisbury. But for Marley that was a small matter; for the singular privilege to play at a ceremony at which the red cross and pirate crossbones flag of “Babylon” would descend and the green, yellow, red and black stripes jutting out from a white triangle of Zimbabwe go up, Marley was willing to pay from his own pocket. He paid $90 000 — about R5.5-million in today’s money — his gift to the people of Zimbabwe.

But the problems of funds aside, Mugabe, who was no fan of the music, couldn’t see Marley’s importance not just to Africa, but to the Third World cause that Mugabe himself had spent some 20 years championing. For Marley, the fact of Mugabe’s speaking and acting against Babylon in his bush war — to extrapolate from Ghanaian poet Kwame Dawes’s book Bob Marley: Lyrical Genius — made the Zimbabwean leader, by dint of that choice, a Rasta at heart.  

Marley had emerged at the vanguard of a cultural movement, Rastafari, which had helped Jamaica to find its African roots. The cultural studies theorist Stuart Hall, part of the lower-middle class in Jamaica, had lived in the Caribbean island until he left for Britain in the 1950s. “Until I left, though I suppose 98% of the Jamaican population is either black or coloured in one way or another, I had never ever heard anybody either call themselves, or refer to anybody else as, black,” he wrote. 

In the 1970s, about the time the armed struggle in Southern Rhodesia begins in earnest, the black people of Jamaica “recognised themselves as black”, what Hall described as the “most profound cultural revolution in the Caribbean, much greater than any political revolution”. 

Marley had composed the song Zimbabwe while he was in Shashamane, Ethiopia. Speaking about the significance of composing the song on African soil, he said, “So you can imagine if it was in Ethiopia where you wrote all your songs, then nearly every song you write could happen then may be somebody would say ‘Boy, he is a prophet’.” 

But Mugabe, Marley’s namesake, wasn’t interested; he would rather listen to classical music than roots reggae; Western music than African music. He preferred Beethoven to Bob Marley, Bing Crosby to Burning Spear, Jim Reeves to Jimmy Cliff and Mozart to Mapfumo. His old friend, professor George Kahari, told me that Mugabe found African music “too repetitive”. 

Later, whenever Mugabe professed to like a particular Zimbabwean musician, it always seemed as if he were dispensing that artist a favour; as if the world’s musical traditions were part of a pyramid: European classical music at the top and black musics — rhumba, chimurenga, jazz, Afrobeat, reggae, kwaito, hip-hop — right at the bottom. 

Mugabe was no fan of the hairstyle and the island from where the music had its origins. Later, he spat, “The men want to sing and don’t go to colleges. Some are dreadlocked.” He had to be leaned on by other nationalists, especially Edgar Tekere, to invite the Rastaman whose songs had been listened to with reverence on transistor wirelesses in the guerilla camps in Mozambique.  

In the years to come, Mugabe’s attitude seeped into the general society, about which the dreadlocked novelist Dambudzo Marechera wrote in his searing 1984 book Mindblast, “I cannot account for the national paranoia about Rastafarians. They invite a lot of Rasta musicians to the main centres of the country.” 

Yet “at the same time, in the whorehouse bars and hotels — in the government corridors and in the squatter settlements — everywhere it seems — the Rastaman and anyone who remotely looks like him is abused verbally, physically, historically, socially, psychologically.”

Before Marley went on stage, there was an opening address by Prince Charles, “We have all come together here today at a moment of historic significance — a moment when the past and all that was negative about it can really be allowed to become the past. And we can go forward to one of those rare occasions where a new and greater beginning is possible, which we must not allow to fail.”

Making reference to the just-ended war, in which about 50 000 mostly black people had been killed, Prince Charles said he knew how much the people had suffered, “and the extremes of sorrow which you had to endure”, but was “uplifted” by “the spirit of reconciliation in which you have joined together in recent weeks”. The prince was referring to Mugabe’s famous reconciliation speech that he made after his election victory in February. 

At 12 midnight, the Union Jack, which had flown for 90 years (interrupted during the 14-year Unilateral Declaration of Independence between November 1965 and December 1979) was lowered; in its place, the red, green, black and yellow of the new nation was raised. On the public address system it was announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, Bob Marley and the Wailers.” This “shout-out” to the Rastaman are reportedly the first words said in the new Zimbabwe. 

As the liturgy of the transfer of power was going on, the povo — a Portuguese word for ordinary people that Zimbabwean guerillas brought back from Mozambique — stood in the night, shut outside the gates of Rufaro Stadium where the guerilla leader Mugabe sat with Prince Charles and other dignitaries. 

When the restive people heard the first of six songs that Bob Marley played that night, they said, “Fuck it, we will be part of this party”, and broke down the gates. 

And then there was teargas. Given how Mugabe maintained power in the years and decades to come —  unrelenting brute force — that teargas was fired in the early minutes of an independent Zimbabwe is especially significant.  

According to an account by Ree Ngwenya in Rasta Times, “All of a sudden,” recalled Judy Mowatt, from Marley’s backing band, “You smell this thing taking over your whole body, going in your throat until you want to choke, burning your eyes. I looked at Rita [Marley] and Marcia [Griffiths] and they were feeling the same thing.” 

“I feel my eyes and nose,” remembered the bassist Aston “Family Man” Barrett, “and think, from when I was born, I have to come all the way to Africa to experience teargas.” When order was eventually restored that night, Marley, who himself hadn’t run off but continued on stage amid the stinging smoke until everyone returned, sang the song Zimbabwe:  

“Every man gotta right to decide his own destiny,

And in this judgment there is no partiality.

So arm in arms, with arms, we’ll fight this little struggle,

’Cause that’s the only way we can overcome our little trouble.”

A couple of stanzas later, Marley then sings:

“No more internal power struggle;

We come together to overcome the little trouble.

Soon we’ll find out who is the real revolutionary,

’Cause I don’t want my people to be contrary.”

The people of Zimbabwe had demanded the right to celebrate their independence with their more famous, returned fellow brother from the Caribbean and their demand had been granted. The following day there would be another show for the povo, at which some 100 000 recently liberated people would chant, “Africans shall liberate Zimbabwe,” in unison with Marley. 

Yet in the euphoria of independence, no one really took time to pause and parse what Marley meant when he sang, “Soon we’ll find out who is the real revolutionary.”

About a year later, his ringing prophecy whirling about, unheeded, the prophet Bob Marley was dead; his namesake Bob Mugabe had begun setting up his dictatorship. By the time he was toppled from power, in November 2017, about 20 000 of people had been killed in the Gukurahundi genocidal war against the Ndebeles; hundreds others murdered in “elections” in which only him and his party Zanu-PF could win; millions others driven into exile; and a country lay in ruins.

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Percy Zvomuya
Percy Zvomuya is a writer and critic who has written for numerous publications, including Chimurenga, the Mail & Guardian, Moto in Zimbabwe, the Sunday Times and the London Review of Books blog. He is a co-founder of Johannesburg-based writing collective The Con and, in 2014, was one of the judges for the Caine Prize for African Writing.
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