Whoever Bob Marley was singing for, it could sound like he’s singing for all of us. Of course, this is received opinion, on the other side of almost 50 years of Marley worship since the Wailers crossed over to a rock audience with Catch a Fire and Clapton’s cover of “I Shot the Sheriff.” Calling Marley an icon is perhaps ironically accurate in ways he would never condone. In death he has become a brand.
Though he wrote some beautiful love songs, Marley also didn’t water down his message to Rastafarian true believers, nor temper his pan-Africanism for scores of new white fans when fame struck. Like the waves of reggae bands that broke into the international scene in the 70s, the cultural particularities of Marley’s religion and politics didn’t seem much hindrance to his wide appeal.
Proof is in the listening, and no song in the Marley oeuvre seems more pointedly directed to the historic black experience—even quoting Marcus Garvey—while also appealing to universal sentiments, than “Redemption Song.” (To very different emotional effect, U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday” comes to mind as accomplishing a similar feat.)
The song telegraphs a kind of wise but tender strength, announces its intentions with confident candor, and invites its listeners, all of them, to join in. The references may not be part of your experience, but if this can be redeemed, Marley suggests, maybe everything can.
In its essentials, “Redemption Song” is classic Marley—tough-minded but gentle, hopeful but real, and pure melodic genius. But musically, it’s a significant departure, and perhaps a knowing farewell to the world, as the last song to appear on the Wailers’ twelfth and final album, 1980’s Uprising,
“While there’s no indication that Marley knew for sure that the song would be his last recorded document,” writes Jim Beviglia at American Songwriter, “the contemplative mood of Uprising and the fact that he had been battling the cancer for years seems to suggest that he knew the end was near.”
The song’s “empathetic strains and social concerns, along with its campfire sing-along quality,” has made it a favorite to cover almost since its release. Now, in its 40th year anniversary, it’s finally got a proper video, thanks to French artists Octave Marsal and Theo De Gueltzl. The “breathtaking animation,” notes Twisted Sifter, features “2,747 original drawings” and “uses powerful symbols to amplify the magnitude of the song’s timeless lyrics and importance in today’s world.”
Its black and white imagery directly references the Rastafarian themes and Middle Passage experience in Marley’s lyrics, but pulls back now and then to show his stadium-sized crowds, and the whole Earth, as if to say, “this is a global story.” The video is the first in a year-long celebration of Marley’s 75th birthday, which would have been February 6th, 2020. Learn more about upcoming events here.