Bob Marley – Redemption Song: the meaning of the lyrics

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Old pirates, yes, they rob I
Sold I to the merchant ships
Minutes after they took I
From the bottomless pit
But my hand was made strong
By the hand of the Almighty
We forward in this generation
Triumphantly

With these words, in 1980, Bob Marley composed one of his best creations ever, a song that would become emblematic and immortal, not only for its form, different from previous pieces of the artist, but also and especially for its intense meaning.

In fact, Redemption Song is a folk ballad in G Major, played entirely with the acoustic guitar only, you can’t find any shade of reggae in it. What counts in this composition are the words: Marley composed a thoughtful text, addressed to all his listeners and able to refer to several historical events. In particular, the first verses of the chorus are taken from a speech entitled The Work that Has been Done, held by Marcus Garvey in the African Orthodox Church of St. Phillip in Sydney, Nova Scotia, in October 1937. From that speech comes the most robust part of Bob Marley’s lyrics:

Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery
None but ourselves can free our minds
Have no fear for atomic energy
‘Cause none of them can stop the time
How long shall they kill our prophets
While we stand aside and look? Ooh
Some say it’s just a part of it
We’ve got to fulfill the Book

In 1979, when Marley started to write this song, the cancer that would lead him to death was already a proven reality: the pain is an essential element which finds expression throughout the album, and Redemption Song has a special space for it.

The Jamaican artist found the right inspiration to compose a ballad that deals with freedom. But not simply physical freedom: rather an abstract, mental freedom that can be reach with the right awareness and shared with the others. The words refer to an unacceptable condition of mental slavery of the whole humanity: we are the only ones that can free ourselves from our fears and meet our future. «We’ve got to fulfill the book». Do what we must to escape this condition.

This song, from Uprising, the ninth album by Bob Marley and The Wailers, was being placed at the 66th place in the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time listed by Rolling Stone in 2004 and it was in the top-20 of the bast political songs listed in 2010 by Statesman magazine. It also inspired many great artists after him, like U2’s Bono, who said:

I carried Bob Marley’s Redemption Song to every meeting I had with a politician, prime minister, or president. It was for me a prophetic utterance or as Bob would say ‘the small ax that could fell the big tree.’ The song reminded me that freedom always comes with a cost, but for those who would prepare to pay it, maybe ‘emancipation from mental slavery’ would be our reward

Obviously, over the years the song was performed also by other artists, who decided to carry on the message left by Marley: among the most famous covers we have the one made in 2002 by Bob Marley’s son, Ziggy Marley, accompanied by the Irish band The Chieftains.

Won’t you help to sing
These songs of freedom?
‘Cause all I ever have
Redemption songs
Redemption songs

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