Zack Rothbart

Bob Marley’s personal ‘exodus’

With clear references to the Passover story, some of Marley’s lyrics actually mirror distinctly Jewish teachings related to the Festival of Freedom
Bob Marley around the time he was shot and fled to England. (Wikimedia Commons)

“A white man on a horse” is how his family remembered Norval Sinclair Marley. That’s how Cedella described him in the biography she wrote about the couple’s late son, Bob, and how one of Bob Marley’s girlfriends later described the father her lover never really knew.

Norval was approaching 60 when Bob was born to 18-year-old Cedella Malcolm in 1945. Shrouded in mystery until this day, the “white man on a horse” was born in England to a British father and a mother of apparent Syrian Jewish heritage. He and Cedella separated when Bob was an infant, and Norval died when the future music icon was just 10, having barely had a relationship with him.

For much of his tragically short career, Bob Marley’s music was imbued with religious and spiritual messages, some more overt than others. They largely stemmed from his identification with Rastafarianism, a connection that bourgeoned beginning in the 1960s. Ever since, his persona and music have been associated with the Jamaican movement focused around themes of redemption, marijuana usage, and reverence for Haile Selassie, the sometimes-deified emperor of Ethiopia considered to be a direct descendant of King Solomon and the queen of Sheba.

Haile Selassie (center), with his son and daughter in London, 1930s. Published in The Forward on July 30, 1939; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Much of the movement’s symbology derives from stories and motifs found in Jewish tradition and especially the Hebrew Bible. Many of these themes and concepts were in turn reflected in Marley’s music, more the result of a mythical passage connecting ancient Judea to Ethiopia and Jamaica than of the attenuated footbridge connecting Bob to the elusive Jewish “white man on a horse.”

Perhaps the most overt connection to the Jewish canon in Marley’s musical catalogue came as a result of the reggae star’s own personal exodus, after being shot in 1976.

Even before independence from the United Kingdom was granted to Jamaica in 1962, political violence was a fact of life, as the island’s two major political parties — the Jamaican Labour Party and the People’s National Party — fought at the ballot box and in the streets. With the Cold War still raging, the 1976 election was as heated as ever, influenced by both domestic and international interests. Bob Marley was already a globally-renowned celebrity — more famous and in some ways even more powerful than either man running for prime minister. Though he publicly remained apolitical, anyone familiar with Marley’s lyrics could logically assume that he supported one candidate, the left-leaning Michael Manley of the People’s National Party, over his rival, American-born Edward Seaga of the Jamaican Labour Party.

Naturally, both sides wanted to claim Marley as a supporter.

In late 1976, Bob agreed to perform in a concert aimed at quelling the simmering political tensions. Yet two days before the so-called Smile Jamaica Concert was set to take place, armed assailants assaulted Marley’s posh home in Kingston during a rehearsal break. Marley’s wife Rita was shot in the head. Bob also sustained bullet wounds, as did the band’s manager and an employee. Luckily, everyone survived, but the Marleys were shaken and the world was shocked.

The concert took place with Rita appearing onstage in her hospital gown. According to Bob Marley and the Wailers: The Ultimate Illustrated History, at one point during the show, Bob pulled up his shirt sleeve, showed the crowd the wound on his arm and declared, “Bang-bang – I’m okay.” He insisted that his participation in the concert was void of political motives, explaining, “I just wanted to play for the love of the people.”

Yet even Bob Marley’s love could only go so far when he felt his life was in danger. After a brief jaunt to the Bahamas, Bob departed to England where he would soon produce what Time magazine deemed the best album of the 20th century.

First conceptualized prior to his arrival in the UK, work on “Exodus” was — coincidentally or not — completed around Passover and released a couple of months later in the spring of 1977.

Using “Jah” (the Rastafarian name for God) and “Babylon” (the Rastafarian term for exile), parts of the title track almost sound like a supplement to the Haggadah (and some have certainly used them as such over the years…):

We the generation… trod through great tribulation…

Exodus: movement of Jah people! Oh, yeah!

… Send us another brother Moses!

… From across the Red Sea!

More than the clear references to the Passover story, some of Marley’s lyrics also actually mirror very distinct Jewish teachings related to the Festival of Freedom.

A key Passover idea that appears as far back as the Mishna, for examples, teaches that “In every generation, a person must see themselves as if they personally left Egypt.” We are asked to look at our own lives and decide how the story and its lessons are relevant to each and every one of us. In the Mishna, this commandment is directly connected to the biblical injunction for fathers to tell the Exodus story to their children.

Perhaps the “white man on a horse” never read the Haggadah to his son, yet — like a sage of Yavne or a Hassidic master — in “Exodus,” Bob Marley blurs the lines between past, present, and future, demanding a personal and universal reappraisal of narrative and meaning:

Open your eyes and look within:

Are you satisfied with the life you’re living?

We know where we’re going;

We know where we’re from.

We’re leaving Babylon, y’all!

We’re going to our Father’s land.

About the Author
Zack Rothbart is a Jerusalem-based writer and publicist. He is currently Senior Strategist at Concrete Media, and previously served as the National Library of Israel's international spokesman. Zack tries to learn something from everyone, and lives with his endearing and thought-provoking family, for which he is grateful. Feel free to email him via the "Contact Me" link above.
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