Bunny Wailer – the stone that the builders refused

One thing about Bunny Wailer is if you ain’t real, he ain’t gonna be around you

Snoop Lion, LargeUp TV

 In 2013 Snoop Dogg and Bunny Wailer fell out in spectacular fashion over the former’s gimmicky one-album conversion to Rasta. Having initially endorsed Snoop’s “reincarnation”, Bunny, who died on 2 March, soon became a Reincarnated detractor. As for Snoop, in a disgraceful interview with Rolling Stone, he made the claim that Bunny “wasn’t the shit” in the Wailers line-up. “Bob, Peter Tosh, then you,” he said.

With this statement, the rapper aligned himself with Island Records boss Chris Blackwell’s idea of the Wailers, which, in part, saw Bunny leave the group in 1973. Snoop’s remarks suggested that perhaps he had never listened to Bunny’s debut solo album, Blackheart Man, released in 1976. 

If he had, he would have realised that the Wailers’ talents rested on parallel planes, a fact that 1976, a year in which all three former running mates released individual albums, laid bare. 

Judging by his deeply reflective songs, it could be argued that Bunny was the soul of the group, a consummate storyteller able to weave heartrending epics that seemed to defy the constraints of verse. While the achingly soulful, Lee Perry-produced  Riding High was one display of how emotive Bunny’s voice could be, by the time Blackheart Man arrived half a decade later, he had honed his songwriting style into an unhurried, livity-infused take on Rasta’s biblical readings. His tenor was an effortless vessel, capable of conveying the emotional register of a song — any song — beyond the shortcomings of lyrics.

In Bob Marley: Lyrical Genius, Kwame Dawes writes, “While it has often been suggested that the reason for the break-up of the Wailers was because Bunny Wailer did not want to travel and Peter Tosh was difficult to work with, it is clear that something else was going on in the artistic realm. There were three distinct songwriters with different ideas about how a song lyric is to be constructed. For the albums to have coherence, one songwriter would have had to dominate.”

Growing up, Bunny’s father, Thaddeus Livingston, was a rum shop owner and a ganja farmer, and Bunny took on these pastoral traits early on. This is perhaps why Blackheart Man, compared to his comrades’ output from the same year, has the feel of an opus written from the relative tranquillity of the countryside. 

In grander thematic fashion than his counterparts, Bunny expresses the general dishonour meted out against early converts to Rastafari, who were pushed out into “the gullies of the city” and confined to the “lonely parts of the country”. However, as the title track, like much of the album, is underwritten by Bunny’s conception of Rasta as a liberation theology, redemption is always at hand, with the “child-stealing” “blackheart man” eventually becoming “the wonder of the city”. 

One narrow reading of this could be how reggae sanitised the public image of the Rasta movement in the Seventies. Another view is how, in the minds of the “sufferahs”, Rasta eventually jostled for the same psychic space hoarded by Christianity.  

Reggae, as a commercialised music like any other, can often be guilty of recycling content (especially lyrical themes, according to rigid templates). But the reverberations of the creative breakthrough signalled by Blackheart Man continue to be felt in present-day releases. For example, the conceptual coherence displayed on I Wayne’s Lava Ground, a lynchpin of the early 2000s’ one-drop revival, could not have been brought to life without the example of Blackheart Man

All this is not to suggest that Bunny Wailer can or should be reduced to one album. He often changed tack, turning his sights on other aspects of reggae and dancehall culture. His output, though, is patchy, suggesting that his muse was temperamental. A subsequent album that finds Bunny riding the momentum of Blackheart Man is Protest, released in 1977. It is imbued with the same scriptural gravitas and socio-political edge as its predecessor. 

Although strongest when singing his own material, Bunny’s version of Johnny Too Bad, previously recorded by The Slickers (and appearing in The Harder They Come soundtrack in 1972), undergoes no small transformation in the often white-attired singer’s hands. 

He kits it out with empathetic lyrics that bestow a noble survivalist code on our rudeboy protagonist. Those ad libs in the song’s waning moments echo the harrowing cries of ghetto mothers everywhere (“Oh Johnny!”), while etching the legend of outlaws in terms that allow us to claim their endearing parts (“He would give to the weak while he robbed from the strong … ”).

A complex and sometimes unapproachable figure, Jah B was a library of his society’s folkloric traditions and the embodiment of a culture that, although globally influential, remains pressed against the margins of the country that birthed it.

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Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.

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