It was stated earlier in the introduction that proverbs play an important part in Reggae music as it is an essential aspect to the genre, but in order for us to fully appreciate the role they play, a connection between them and the genre must be explored. Jamaican proverbs are well-known for their roles in creating moral commentaries and as it is a known fact that the Reggae discourse is primarily concerned with the giving of advice – teaching values, wrong’s from right’s and issuing warnings- proverbs are quite useful in this context. An example of a warning can be found in Peter Tosh’s album Mama Africa which was released in 1983, in his song Glass House he warns, “If you live in a glass house / don’t throw stones / If you can’t take blows, brother / don’t throw blows” (“Glass House,” Mama Africa 1983). Tosh warns us not to criticize other individuals for faults that we ourselves might possess, similar declarations can be found in Bob Marley’s Misty Morning where he states:”like one of my friends say/ From a reggae riddim/ Don’t jump in the water,/ If you can’t swim.”(Misty Morning, Kaya 1978).
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Proverbs, along with their functionality, also hold poetic qualities; this is so as they contain musical features such as rhyme and rhythm making them very useful in the Reggae discourse. Throughout the Reggae culture, proverbs are typically chanted, sung, or shouted transforming it into musical notes that a key to the unique sound of Reggae music. Proverbs in Reggae music are many times used to re-live history, to showcase the past and the many struggles that the ‘black community’ has faced throughout the years. Bob Marley has created numerous songs that echo this idea, one of which is the widely popular Get up! Stand Up! which was co-written by fellow Reggae artiste Peter Tosh. The song was heavily influenced by their upbringings and the struggle they faced with their Rastafarian religion in Jamaica. The song had first made an appearance on The Wailers 1973 album Burnin’ but it was later included on the compilations Legend and Rebel Music. Get up! Stand up! can be viewed as an argument, an argument for those individuals that are being harassed beneath the weight of oppression, the song serves to persuade these said individuals to stand up for themselves, to rebel against the cruelty that they face. Its fundamental focus is the rebellion against the teachings of the Christian religion that hinder black people from attempting to achieve their freedom in the here and now. It is a social commentary against the ‘Babylonian’ system of hierarchical religions, religions which oppress its members and look down upon other faiths.
Three proverbs are clearly seen the song and there are two in the first stanza: “all that glitters is not gold/ half the story has been told”, this proverb advises not to be lured into believing things because everything isn’t always what it seems. He warns that though a fantasy might sounds alluring there is no substance to it. The second proverb refers not only to history but to theology. The African’s voice throughout history has been hushed primarily by colonial influences throughout the years, what is told is only half of the hidden truth, one will never really know what truly happened. The third proverb intimates that many people are “wise” to the trickery of Christian advertising; he’s telling us that religion is a fallacy and only a way of controlling, “We know and understand/ Almighty God is a living man/ You can fool some people sometimes/ But you cannot fool all the people all the time” (Get up! Stand up!, 1973). These proverbs are a favorite among Rasta’s and are used in the negotiation of power. The imbalance of power between the ruling class and the oppressed is addressed by the speaker and points and accusing finger specifically towards the use of Christian texts and teachings that seek to reinforce the ‘status quo’.
Exodus is the ninth studio album released by Bob Marley & The Wailers. An assignation attempt was made on Bob Marley’s life on the 3rd of December 1976 an assassination attempt was made on Bob Marley’s life and following the attempt Marley left Jamaica and was exiled to London where Exodus was recorded. The album is widely considered to be the album that propelled Marley to international celebrity. A favored rhetorical strategy found in songs by Bob Marley is the critique of Babylon which is a recurring motif in his songs; he critiques Babylon while speaking to the community. “The Heathen” is an excellent example of him ‘chanting down Babylon’. Rastafarianism is a religion that is mainly based upon the idea of African freedom from a structure of inequality and repression. The chorus consists of one line, repeated four times: “Heathen back there pon the wall.” The two stanzas contain four proverbs and are essentially words of encouragement to the African community. The first proverb suggests there is no shame in having made compromises in the context of slavery and post colonialism: black people did what they had to do to survive. But now the time has come to rally the forces of African peoples, to battle against the influences of colonialism, and once again become a proud, independent world power: “Rise O fallen fighters/ Rise and take your stance again/ ‘Cause he who fight and run away,/ Live to fight another day.” (The Heathen, 1976).
Marley’s “So Much Things to Say” (Exodus) is another composition that fit the idea and is of him critiquing Babylon. The song ridicules the Babylonian characters, condemning their desire for unending, meaningless talking. The song connects modern tyrants to olden forces of oppression that have fought against the righteous. The chorus, a repetition of the line “They got so much things to say,” is preached by Marley throughout the song, revealing his contempt for the oppressors of his people.
Proverbs have a tradition within reggae that authenticates the opinions of these songs as principally problem-solving and health-giving. This rhetorical approach has become a key marker in roots reggae, and so the repetition of specific maxims is not surprising when it is considered that the creators of the genre (Reggae/ Roots Reggae) were drawing inspiration from the same sources – both spiritual and cultural – and openly sharing their knowledge among themselves as they advanced as both songwriters and musicians. Even a casual survey of song titles reveals a substantial number of proverbs or allusions to proverbial expressions. Consider Bob Marley’s Time Will Tell, Small Axe, Who the Cap Fit, Them Belly Bull (But We Hungry) and Rat Race. The titles alone hint at the meaning behind the songs, all laden with proverbs, Bob Marley seeks to make a commentary on the political and social situation that has left the people in suffering. The proverbs “Cotton tree never so big, but Lilly axe cut him” and “Small axe cut big tree” is the equivalent to “likkle but we tallawah”, the seen here is message is important and is symbolic of individuals who are undermined because of their outward appearance, it urges us to not ‘judge a book by its cover’ because the strength that lies on the inside might surprise us. The social meaning of the proverb parallels the metaphor of David and Goliath from the biblical tale. Bob Marley develops the proverb into an allegory, applying the metaphor of the tree to the “evil men” and the axe to himself and all Rasta’s as the righteous, and the oppressed.
There are many Reggae songs of social commentary/comedy that are primarily concerned with human relationships and with the evils of deceitfulness and hypocrisy (two-facedness). They warn us against the deceitful because mankind can be treacherous and one should be careful, even in one’s dealings with those who need our help. Peter Tosh’s Maga Dog (from his Mama Africa album) and Skany Dog both rely on the metaphor of the ‘mangy’ dog, The song is symbolic of those individuals that at first appear to be in dire need of help but once that assistance is given they turn around and betray you. “Sorry fe maga dog/ Him turn around and bite you/ Jump outta frying pan/ Jump inna de fire!” (Maga Dog, 1983). The song is founded on two popular sayings ” Sorry fi mawga dawg, mawga dawg tun roun’ bite you.” And “Out of the frying pan, into the fire”. These proverbs warn us against the treachery that can be found in most individuals and are characterized by a certain scorn.
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Swami Anand Prahlad, author of Reggae Wisdom: Proverbs in Jamaican Music, explores how the various elements of roots reggae music, particularly proverbs, help in conveying the ethics and traditions of Rastafarianism. Prahlad asserts that the proverbs used by Jamaican reggae songwriters aid in the improvement and motivating of Rasta’s it also helps to introduce outsiders to this mystical religion. He goes on to analyze the meanings of many familiar proverbs, particularly those of leading reggae performers like The Itals and Bob Marley.
In the mid- to – late 1960’s Jamaica entered a phase of “post-Independence depression” as Edward Kamau Brathwaite described it in his 1971’s essay entitled Forward Savacou. The granting of Independence was followed by displeasure as the standards of living failed to progress with a Jamaican government set in place. The late 1960’s was primarily a period of social unrest. The complications of public unrest and juvenile crime were addressed by Bob Marley the Wailers in their very first recording which became a number one hit in Jamaica: “Simmer Down” (1963). The song deals with the problem of hooliganism and consists of famous Jamaican proverbs strung together: “Chicken deh merry,/ Hawk deh near,/ What sweet nanny goat,/ A-go run him belly”, the speaker warns that where there is too much merriment and enjoyment, danger lurks near, the last proverb in the stanza is a popular idiom that cautions against too much indulgence as what seems good to you now, may hurt you in the long run . These are very popular sayings in Jamaican culture and their employment in the lyrics of these songs, serve to not only preserve the culture of the past but to teach the younger generation by its (proverbs) profound wisdom.
Peter Tosh, a young rebel at heart, sang many Reggae song aimed at describing the frustrations and the oppression that can be found in the ‘shitstem’ (system). He employed the use of proverbs and idioms to bring across knowledge to his viewers and followers as he was a firm believer in equal rights. Treat Me Good is one of such songs that express this idea. In the song he states in the chorus “Things you don’t like/ don’t do it to your neighbor/ those same things may react upon you later”, it draws from the popular biblical saying “do unto others as you would like them to do unto you”. The proverb is a golden rule that advises individuals to treat people in the same respect and regard as you yourself would wise to be treated, the speaker uses it as a life lesson for others to follow.
Both Peter Tosh and Bob had very rewarding musical careers, however, it’s their life journeys and their upbringings that are the primary contributors to their songs and the messages that they convey. The incorporation of proverbs into roots reggae music helps the genre in its plea for African empowerment and justice in a society subjugated by neo-colonialism and oppression. This struggle to overcome and find pride in one’s African heritage is depicted through the lyrics of popular Jamaican music. In the employment of these popular idioms, both Bob Marley and Peter Tosh aim to address the socio economic issues, symbolism and reinforces societal norms that are perpetuated in our Jamaican society