Taylor Radke

Rhetoric of Reggae


Marcus Garvey: A Key Component in the Creation of Reggae Music


If you happen pick up a copy of Bob Marley’s vinyl record titled Survival and flip it over, you will see this quote on the bottom right-hand corner : “A people without the knowledge of past history, origin, and country is like a tree without roots.” This quote said by Marcus Garvey, and the message it carries is only a minute fraction of everything that Garvey believed in and preached throughout his lifetime. He was both Jamaica’s first national hero as well as the first man to successfully advocate black power and pride on an international level, making him one of the most radical figures in twentieth-century history. His overall aim was to “destroy the conventional inferiority complex of the Negro and prove that the Negro is more than capable of designing his own future and fortune” (A.J. Garvey pg. 318).  His social activism was based upon three core fundamentals:

1.    Uniting the peoples of the West Indies, the colored population of the U.S.A., and Africans at home(Africa) for betterment and uplift

2.    The redemption of Africa from the exploitation of her lands and labor

3.    African nationalism- nationhood being the only organized means by people for self-expression and self-determination (A.J. Garvey pg. 262)


The inspiration and influence that Garvey created will never die in the eyes of all people, especially those who share his same skin color. One way in which his teachings are constantly being maintained and reiterated is through modern reggae music. Reggae music conveys a sense of pride and social awareness that can only be connected back to the work of Garvey. He instilled a strong sense of dignity among the black race and preached the importance of taking control of one’s own destiny.  Reggae music is a way for artists to do so and further emphasize the need for self-awareness, while teaching the masses how to rise above their oppressors. Garvey may have died long ago, but he is still very much alive in the lyrics and spirit of reggae music.

Marcus Mosiah Garvey was born on August 17th, 1887 at the Parish of St. Ann, Jamaica.  He was born into a social class of displaced colonized villagers, which reflected neither middle-class nor privileged status.  His Maroon-descended father, Malchus Mosiah Garvey, was a skilled mason/bricklayer who did beautiful stone work and offered advice as a local lawyer as well.  Malchus Sr. was a very independent, well-educated man who often isolated himself in a large room full of books and newspapers next to the main dwelling.  The family had a high mortality rate, Marcus and his sister Sarah being the only two out of eleven children that lived past the age of ten.  Garvey experienced his first “rejection in the name of race” (Boyd pg. 36) while attending St. Ann’s primary and secondary school. A young white girl who he was quite close with was sent back to England by her parents and told “never to try write or try to get in touch with the nigger” (Boyd pg. 36).  There is no evidence of the Garvey family ever being land-owning property owners, and experienced financial troubles when Garvey was a young man.  These difficulties prompted him to leave home and seek his own fortune in Kingston at the age of fourteen.  The years 1901-1907 were Garvey’s “years of identity affirmation” from “inter-island dispossessed country boy to consequential young man of the city” (Boyd pg. 39). It was here in Kingston that Garvey would first observe inequalities against the black race in the social spectrum as well as in the workplace. From ages fourteen to seventeen he apprenticed for his godfather, Mr. Burrowes, in order to learn the printing trade. By age twenty, he was a master printer and foreman at P.A. Benjamin Company. It was here that he was “force-fed the ideologies of revolutionary unities” (Boyd pg. 39).

            In 1907, Garvey led a Printers’ Union strike and rallied workers to demand for higher wages. When the strike was finally broken, however, he lost his job and found himself black-listed.  The strike inspired in Garvey “the need of organized action to improve the lot of the black worker” (Cronon pg. 13).  In 1910, he edited a newspaper called Garvey’s Watchman and helped establish a political organization call the National Club.  Garvey then traveled to work in Costa Rica in order to earn and save money to fund his organizational activities.  Here he found further inequalities and protested the treatment of black workers on the plantations. His protests were met with a sense of indifference, causing him to argue that no white person would “ever regard the life of a black man equal to that of a white man” (Cronon pg. 14).  His experience in Costa Rica sparked his journey throughout the rest of South America, including Panama, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Columbia, and Venezuela, to observe the treatment of black people in other nations, where he saw similar oppression. He then traveled to London in 1912 to learn about the conditions abroad as well.  Here he may have spent a few months at Birkbeck College (never proved certain as many records were lost during WWII bombings) and found great influence in the autobiography of Booker T. Washington.  He returned to Jamaica in 1914, wanting to “unite all Negro peoples of the world into one great body to establish a country and Government absolutely their own” (Cronon pg. 16).  He soon established the Universal Negro Improvement and Conservation Association (UNIA) and African Communities League (ACL) in order to draw the peoples of the race together.  His initial actions in Jamaica were chastised by colored men who wanted to be classified as White.  Garvey’s presence meant they were forced to acknowledge the reality of their skin color and not just hide in its lightness.  To me it only makes sense that those of mixed race would feel this way because the social sphere was so revolved around skin color. (Cronon pg. 14-20)

            In 1915, Garvey arrived in the United States to gain support for his Jamaica-founded programs. Harlem, New York was an excellent choice for Garvey as it was the epicenter of despair of the black community because of the post-war disillusionment. Many had migrated to the North around this time in order to fill the industrial jobs that soldiers left behind and escape the abundance of lynch mobs in the South.  Wartime propaganda had emphasized the democratic way of life and many people had been disappointed with the plethora of institutionalized racism. Thus, the Harlem community was very receptive to the new leader with his extreme program of racial nationalism.  He spent much time vigorously preaching to curbside audiences about the pride of the black race, economic justice, and racial equality.  From his “narrow vantage point in Harlem, Garvey became a world figure” (A.J. Garvey pg. 1). Garvey established the New York division of the UNIA in 1917 and became quite popular within the community. However, over time Garvey saw it being turned into somewhat of a political club as it was divided into factions by black politicians. When he was elected president (not just organizer) of the organization, it was declared that they must keep the group “free of entanglements with established political parties if it were to embrace all Negroes and focus their attention upon the burning issue of Africa redemption” (Cronon pg. 44).  In 1918, the UNIA established its own newspaper in response to institutionalized racism called the Negro World, which was “a newspaper devoted solely to the interests of the negro race”.  The paper was intended to remind its readers of their incredible history. It emphasized the many splendors of Africa in effort to make readers proud of their racial heritage.  It even refused to accept race-degrading ads, such as skin-whitening and hair-straitening products (Cronon pg. 47).  The Negro World was distributed weekly all over their world in several languages until it was banned by many colonial governments for its “dangerous” nationalism implications.  The successful distribution the Negro World showed that Garvey was firm in his “need to combat virulent ideas of the white film and publishing world” (Campbell pg. 58).  It was clear that he was striving for black independence in all areas of the social sphere. 

            The world renowned colors that symbolize Rasta pride were initially established to represent the Garveyism movement.  At the UNIA’s first international convention in 1920, the colors red, black, and green were accepted along with the anthem “Ethiopia, Thou Land of Our Fathers”:

“Ethiopia, thou land of our fathers,

Thou land where God loves to be

As storm clouds at night suddenly gather

Our armies come rushing to thee.

We must in the fight be victorious

When swords are thrust outward to gleam;

For us will the vict’ry be glorious

When led by the red, black and green.


Advance, advance to victory

Let Africa be free;

Advance to meet the foe

With the might of the red, black, and green.”  (Campbell pg.60)


All colors represented by the movement play important roles in the historic oppression of the black race. Red represents the blood shed by slavery and oppression. It also represents the blood which must be shed to work towards a dedicated future of liberty and redemption. Black represents the color of “the noble and distinguished race to which (they) belong” as well as the pride of the people. Green represents the motherland of Africa and a promise of a new and better life there. The anthem itself put a large emphasis on African nationalism, which was one of Garvey’s key principles. The symbolism of these colors has never died as they are still recognized as associated with the Rasta culture and reggae music worldwide.  This has influenced the attire, album decorations, and songs of a myriad of reggae musicians. Rally Round, by British band Steel Pulse, focuses entirely on the significance of these colors:

Rally round the flag
Rally round the red
Gold black and green

Marcus say sir Marcus say
Red for the blood
That flowed like the river
Marcus say sir Marcus say
Green for the land Africa
Marcus say
Yellow for the gold
That they stole
Marcus say
Black  for the people
It was looted from

They took us away captivity, captivity
Required from us a song
Right now man say repatriate, repatriate
I and I patience have now long time gone
Father's mothers sons daughters every one
Four hundred million strong
Ethiopia stretch forth her hand
Closer to God we Africans
Closer to God we can
In our hearts is Mount Zion
Now you know seek the Lion
How can we sing in a strange land
Don't want to sing in a strange land no
Liberation true democracy
One God one aim one destiny

Garvey’s influence is emphasized as he is accredited for these important symbols. The concept of “rallying” around the flag is important because Garvey always felt that all peoples of the black race must work and band together if they were to ever fully break free of the white man’s hold over them economically and socially. The song also reiterates Ethiopia as a symbolically holy place for all black people and how they must work towards leaving the “strange land” and repatriate.  I believe here the term “strange land” refers to every place in which black people are oppressed and under the control of Babylon, which sadly is just about everywhere.  “True democracy” is necessary to end the oppression as well because although Jamaica uses a constitutional parliamentary democracy, there are obvious inequalities in terms of color (black people couldn’t vote during Garvey’s time), and the white people hold all the political and social strings.  The line “One God, one aim, one destiny” further emphasizes Garvey’s message as it was the universal motto of the UNIA.

            The establishment of the Black Star Line is what I believe was probably Garvey’s most ambitious project. Inspired by the philosophy of Booker T. Washington, it was one of the UNIA’s many ventures to establish economic independence in order for the black race to break free from the hold of white capitalists. The steamship company was formed to own, operate, and navigate ships to carry cargo and black passengers. It advertised itself as a way for black people to visit their motherland, and I believe it was one of Garvey’s internal intentions to ignite a mass emigration towards Africa.  The corporation was financed by selling stock to the black public, using the Negro World to advertise and promote its sales. The Black Star Line gave poor blacks the chance to become stockholders in a big business enterprise: an “opportunity to climb the great ladder of industrial and commercial progress” (Cronon pg. 76).  There was much conflict initially with acquiring of ships and organizing their voyages. However, by the early 1920’s, the Black Star Line owned three ships offering passenger and freight transportation on scheduled sails to the West Indies and Hudson River excursions. In addition to this, the Negro Factories Corporation was also established. This corporation successfully developed a “chain of co-operative grocery stores, a restaurant, a steam laundry, a tailor, a dressmaking shop, a millinery store, and a publishing house” (Cronon pg. 60).  These two corporations together helped to establish the black race in the business world and offer a working atmosphere free of racial inequalities. There are many of modern reggae songs that talk about the Black Star Line, and to name them all would be an endless endeavor.  One famous example is Black Star Liner, by Culture:

They took us away from our homeland
They took us away from our homeland
And we are slaving down here in Babylon
And we are slaving down here in Babylon

They are waiting on an opportunity
They are waiting on an opportunity
For the Black Star Liner which is to come
For the Black Star Liner which is to come

Still waiting on that opportunity
We are still waiting on the same opportunity
For the Black Star Liner which is to come
For the Black Star Liner which is to come
Marcus say so

Oh land of Africa
Holy Mount Africa
We want, we want to go
We want, we want to go

Want go look nice ladies
Want to see mother with their babies
We are slaving down here in Babylon
This is eternal hell
We are slaving down here in Babylon
Nothing for us
We are slaving down here in Babylon
And it a run red
We are slaving down here in Babylon

            These verses do not contain the entirety of the song, but I believe it is important to point out the message that they convey.  In my opinion, it seems as though the Black Star Line was more than just a business endeavor in order to promote economic equality in the eyes of the people. There is much emphasis on the oppression that is still present and the fact that although the people are no longer technically slaves, they are still “slaving” in Babylon. The Black Star Liner is portrayed as a way of salvation from the grasp of white colonialism and a chance for black people to return to Africa from where their ancestors were taken.  Garvey’s poetry was another medium in which he instilled his largest ideas upon his fellow race. His poem “Africa For The Africans” strongly illustrates Garvey’s call for repatriation:

Say! Africa for the Africans,
Like America for the Americans:
This the rallying cry for a nation,
Be it in peace or revolution.

Blacks are men, no longer cringing fools;
They demand a place, not like weak tools;
But among the world of nations great
They demand a free self-governing state.


Blackmen's hands have joined now together,
They will fight and brave all death's weather,
Motherland to save, and make her free,
Spreading joy for all to live and see.

None shall turn us back, in freedom's name,
We go marching like to men of fame
Who have given laws and codes to kings,
Sending evil flying on crippled wings. 
(Africa Within)


These verses further instill Garvey’s belief that Africans are a nation in exile who must return to their homeland.  The expression of feelings through poetry is very similar to the way artists express feelings through music.  Reggae music itself is a form of poetry in my opinion, probably along with a vast number of other people.  This call for repatriation and idea of the black race coming together to form their own independent nation is a theme in an incredible number of reggae songs, including Bob Marley’s famous “Africa Unite”: “To see the unification of all Africans, yeah!”

            The time of the Black Star Line was indeed the pinnacle of Garvey’s success. However, as fast as Garvey climbed to the top, he seemed to fall with similar velocity. This occurred for numerous reasons including (but not limited to) lack of experience with business, poor appropriation of UNIA and corporate funds, surrounding himself with bad company, and purchasing old, shoddy ships at inflated prices (Hall).  With the Black Star Line in financially critical shape, Garvey embarked on a stock selling tour in early 1921 to Central American in search of potential black Latin American investors. Garvey’s officials continued to solicit the purchase of Black Star Line stock through mail in the U.S. during this time as well (DuCille).  The financial collapse of the Black Star Line deemed this solicitation of stock worthy of mail fraud and in 1922, Garvey was arrested. The government’s case relied on the assumption that Garvey and his officials were well aware that the financial condition of the Black Star Line was hopeless when they used the mail system to promote the selling of stock (Cronon pg.114).   In my opinion, it’s pretty obvious that this prosecution was politically motivated because Garvey’s activities had attracted so much government attention.  It was the first time the U.S. government had been faced with a black man with such internationally uplifting ideals and social sway to this extent.  It was only a matter of time before our racist establishment would seek to quiet him. In Washington, J. Edgar Hoover had been working to monitor “Negro activities” and found Garvey’s teachings and activities threatening to the government’s efforts to suppress radicalism. When J. Edgar Hoover was appointed the first director of the Justice Department’s new General Intelligence Division, he described Garvey as "particularly active among the radical elements in New York in agitating the Negro movement. Unfortunately, however, he has not yet violated any federal law." This quote by Hoover in itself shows the extent to which Garvey was being targeted. They were just waiting for any excuse to bring him down. (Hall and DuCille)

            The trial began in 1923, more than a year after his arrest, and Garvey was sentenced to five years in prison. He was out on bail a very short amount of time until the court denied his appeal after which his was promptly taken to the Atlanta penitentiary. Garvey and his supporters continued to fight for his innocence from prison, and thousands signed petitions to promote his release.  On November 8th, 1927, Garvey was finally pardoned by Calvin Coolidge with the agreement that he would be deported to Jamaica. Marcus Garvey would never again set foot on American soil where he established his timeless reputation. (DuCille and Cronon pg. 128-137)

            Back in his birthplace of Jamaican, Garvey firmly sought to continue the preexisting work of the UNIA. This was extremely difficult because at this time, black people in Jamaica were denied the “basic rights that has become normative in the advanced capitalist countries” (Campbell pg.63). Black people did not have the right to vote, right to assembly, or the right to form trade unions. The “seasonal nature” of many Jamaican workers that produced sugar cane and bananas also made it exceedingly difficult to maintain organizational support (Campbell pg.63).  In 1929, Garvey established the People’s Political Party (P.P.P.), demanding social security, guaranteed employment, minimum wage, and worker’s compensation. It also called for the “expropriation of private lands for public use, land reform, a Jamaican university, and the compulsory improvement of urban areas” (Campbell pg. 64).  The university was most definitely inspired by Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.Within this party he spoke to Jamaica’s impoverished population who were all too familiar with the struggle for redemption and self-determination.  In 1935, he moved to London where he continued writing small publications and going on public speaking tours until his death in 1940 after experiencing his second cerebral hemorrhage. 

            Although Garvey was no longer living, his messages and teachings were not lost. He was the “first man, on a mass scale, to give black people a sense of dignity and destiny, and make the Negro feel that he was somebody” (A.J. Garvey pg. 308).  Reggae music is a strategy of resistance and transformation: two key principles in the ideals of Garveyism.  It is an instrument of change that allows for the “expression of oppressed peoples considered culturally and artistically inferior” (Campbell pg. 134).  In my opinion, it is quite possible that reggae music would not have the same passion and ideals it has now had it not been for the black-empowerment philosophies of Marcus Garvey.  I may be as bold to say that it may not have formed at all, at least not on such a renowned level. He taught black people to be proud of their heritage and urged them to take control of their destinies. Reggae music is one such method of taking control. It allows artists to declare their awareness of oppression and their desire for redemption. Whether the songs directly mention Garvey or not, they still carry the same messages he conveyed to all.  One not-so-subtle proclamation of Garvey’s powerful influence is Winston “Burning Spear” Rodney’s album titled Marcus Garvey.  This album became instantly famous, with a legacy so great that years later many fans mistakenly thought it to be Burning Spear’s debut album. Although Rodney is a devout Rastafarian and the album conveys messages of religious devotion, they are intertwined with other powerful messages of political consciousness and cultural concern, the same messages that Garvey himself strived to convey. The song Old Marcus Garvey shows the importance of remembering Garvey’s influence:


 No one remember old Marcus Garvey,
No one remember old Marcus Garvey

Children, children, children, children
Humble yourself and become one day somehow
You will remember him you will
Noone remember old Marcus Garvey,
Noone remember old Marcus Garvey

Garvey's old yet young
Garvey's old yet young.......


Rodney was born in St. Ann’s Bay, like Garvey, and looked to his teachings as one of his primary inspirations. It was necessary to him that people remember Garvey’s legacy forever. I like the emphasis on the children in this song because children are indeed the medium for remembrance in the future. It’s important to teach such ideals to children at a young age so they can use them as a basis to form their own opinions of the world and themselves.  The verses above are only portions of the entire song, but the last two lines in themselves convey the song’s significance. When hearing the line “Garvey’s old yet young”, I thought about what Burning Spear was trying to say because it seemed pretty oxymoronic initially.  I think it had to do with the fact that although Garvey has been deceased for more than half a century, his teachings and ideals are new in the history of the black race. The ideas themselves aren’t necessary new concepts, but the international public awareness of these messages that Garvey was able to bring about is quite recent in the spectrum of all history. He was, after all, the first black man to become internationally recognized on such a large scale. Jo-Anne Greene said that “oppression may be the fate of many Jamaicans, both past and present, but by giving voice to those trampled by poverty, slavery, or politics, Spear’s underlying message remains one of hope”(CD Universe).

In many cases, Marcus Garvey does not have to be directly mentioned in order to see how his ideas have carried on living through reggae music. Robert Nesta “Bob” Marley is the most famous reggae musician the world has seen thus far.  That is, he has been the most popular reggae musician to be known worldwide on an international level. Also born in St. Anns Bay, like Garvey and Burning Spear, Bob Marley is a renowned figure famous for the messages that his music conveys and is credited for spreading Jamaican music and the Rastafari movement to a worldwide audience.  Although Marley’s father was a white Naval captain, he identified as a black African descendent.  It was no secret that Marley was personally influenced by Garvey as he displayed a large picture of him (along with one of Haile Selassie) behind him at many shows.  There was no hiding his influence in his music either. Redemption Song says “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery; None but ourselves can free our mind”. Garvey preached the importance of racial equality throughout his life and was always reaffirming the fact that black people were just as equally capable as white people. When Marley is telling people to emancipate themselves from mental slavery, he is encouraging black people to look inside themselves and realize they are both strong and independent, very much like how Garvey instilled similar ideals of independence. Also, the song Exodus further affirms Garvey’s wishes for repatriation of black people to Africa. A repeated verse throughout the song goes as follows: “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. Exodus, all right! Movement of Jah people!” These lines illustrate various aspects of Garvey’s messages. When Marley says “we know where we’re from” he is reaffirming Garvey’s belief that all black people are rightful children of Africa and belong to a single identity group. The line “we’re leaving Babylon” discusses how the repatriation of all black people would assure a self-governing world free of the racial oppression in Africa. It is clear that even though the listener doesn’t hear Marcus Garvey’s name, his principle ideas are reiterated in many contexts.

After leaving his group the Wailers and Bob Marley behind, Bunny Wailer (born Neville Livingston) released a solo album entitled Blackheart Man in 1976. The album showed Bunny’s exceptional potential for being a solo artist and exhibited as much spiritual and political awareness as some of the best of Bob’s work. After taking this class and being more informed in the history and formation of reggae music, I have come to find that Bunny’s The Oppressed Song may have been speaking of Garvey himself as well:

The man oppressed will seem to do the worst
But with all he possesses self preservation comes first
His damnation comes not from burning free
As destruction of the poor is their poverty, is their poverty

While oppression is the poor man's choice
Ah, but in this he does rejoice
His burdens though heavy, he somehow bears
As for his seed, there's only one who cares
There's only one who cares

Though his pilgrimage extends, his progresses ascend
But as the prudent one exalts, he is gonna find his faults
But as the wise man sees, he knows, he knows
There's no rest in the west, so to the east he goes, to the east he goes
Where he can find peace of mind, oh


            While this song is most likely pertains to every oppressed man living in the clutches of Babylon, it came to my attention that it mirrors Garvey too closely to be coincidence in my mind. Oppression is said to be the “poor man’s choice”, and this is a choice that Garvey certainly decided not to make. He had the “heavy burdens” of showing his fellow race how to be proud and his progresses most definitely ascended once he was able to establish New York’s UNIA chapter. Garvey did, however, have many faults that helped lead to his downfall and ultimately settled in the East (England) to live the rest of his days, although I can assume he never fully achieved peace of mind.  This notion of mine is likely farfetched, but after analyzing so much music, it was difficult to overlook this uncanny similarities. 

It seems as though there is no escaping the teachings of Marcus Garvey. The messages that he conveyed for years are constantly being reiterated in modern times through music. Reggae music is a source of courage and moral support, just like how Garvey was a similar source before its creation. It is also a way to remember past occurrences in history, because as we all know “a people without the knowledge of past history, origin, and country is like a tree without roots”. The era in which Garvey proclaimed his ideas and started his international movement was an extremely important time for the future creation of reggae music.  Whether subtle or not, his notions are endlessly implicated in a myriad of songs. He allowed for black people around the world to feel unified, dignified, and enlightened. So, while Burning Spear argues that “no one remembers old Marcus Garvey”, I and I are declined to most respectfully disagree.





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