The Bob Marley ‘Africa Unite’ Album Raises New Questions About Posthumous Projects
posing what this might mean for the trans-continental relationships and for Afropop
posing what this might mean for the trans-continental relationships and for Afropop
Between 1978 and 1980, Bob Marley visited several parts of Africa. The visits had a musical purpose; he performed most famously at Zimbabwe’s independence, upholding the tenets he’d relayed on “Africa Unite,” his famous song about the continent and the potential gains of embracing its oneness. The visits—to Ethiopia, Gabon and Kenya among other places—however had an historical undertone, highlighting the reasons why the estate of Marley is releasing an African-themed album decades after the legend’s passing.
Posthumous albums are a relatively old concept in music. Life, so often unpredictable, can strike at the oddest moments. An artist is creating music, pulling their energies together. Suddenly death comes and all that’s left is the work. The estates of artists then take on great responsibility in putting out the music they’ve created, handling the essential task of a roll-out and creating the narrative behind the music.
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In the nineties, two of the biggest stars Hip-Hop has ever seen died, and in very brutal public ways. 2Pac and The Notorious B.I.G were stylistic opposites of each other, but unified by the harsh rattles of a gunshot, their deaths had to mean something greater. ‘Makaveli – ‘The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory’ was outsized in embracing the militant, sometimes erratic ideals 2Pac embodied in his later life. On the other hand, ‘Life After Death’ upheld B.I.G’s notorious streak as a detailer of grim stories, peering into the darkest parts of his existence and also the soul of society.
Both albums were well-structured and well-timed, and contributed greatly to the mythos of the rappers decades after their death. Similarly, Otis Redding’s ‘The Dock of the Bay’ extended the Soul artist’s narrative vision, embedding that great tragic voice into the hearts of generations to come. In recent times, posthumous albums such as J Dilla’s ‘The Shining’ and Mac Miller’s ‘Circles’ have struck a poignant final note for both artists, completed by their close collaborators and thus wielding an affinity for the art, first and foremost.
In contrast, the music of Bob Marley never left the public consciousness. Just three years after his passing in 1980, his first posthumous album ‘Confrontation’ was released. With his band members from The Wailers then alive, the music was as pure a reflection of his standards as it would have been were he in the studio. Perhaps the most deliberate of the 20th century greatest artists, his estate has also continued to burn the flame of his legacy, through concerts and collaborations.
The forthcoming ‘Africa Unite’ album is however quite important to his legacy, in a quite powerful way also. Given the well-explored links Marley had with the Black continent, the collaborative work shines a light on the contemporary relevance of African music. Studying historical and cultural links, one sees the presence of blackness inherent in many sounds from around the world, and as the estate of Marley is showing, a return has been due for a while.
Rastafarianism is the most popular leftist ideal in Jamaica. Other Jamaicans have stereotyped them in the past, called them “dutty rastas” to suggest poor hygiene, but they’ve continued to grow. Currently, there are close to a million people around the world who identify as rasta. And while some describe it as a philosophy, and others swear it’s a religion, its roots have never been up for debate. Emerging from a spur from the eminent Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey for all Black peoples worldwide to return to Africa, the movement would grow to have spiritual dimensions.
It took messages from the sacred Ethiopian text Kebra Nagast, which is acclaimed as the oldest in the world. When a young Bob Marley was growing up in Nine Mile, violence was the credo of the streets. Violence of the mind manifested gruesomely on the body, as guns and knives razed through its miraculous physiology. A message of peace wasn’t just required by the era; it was a necessary doctrine, which explains why it was favoured by young Jamaicans.
Marley was one of those people, called to its practices by the preacher Leonard Howell whose organisation of Rastafarian on the islands began in the 1930s, which were the singer’s normative years. For people who donned the green red yellow and smoked weed to be one with the universe, Africa wasn’t just an idealistic premise. They were in tune with its physicality, after all they had come to the Caribbean from different places across Africa those many years ago, and the rhythmic sensibilities of the continent still flowed in their blood. As a result of this, the sonic make-up of Reggae is as African as it is Jamaican, a fact Stonebwoy reiterated when I interviewed him earlier this year.
One of the most important political figures of the 20th Century was a direct link to these sensibilities. Haile Selassie was believed by Rastafarians to be a son of God; quite literally, he was heralded as the second coming of Christ, whose physical manifestation would spark great spiritual effects. Sometimes the Ethiopian president—also crucial in founding the Organisation of African Unity in 1963—rejected this ethereal reputation, but more often he sought to connect Jamaicans to their yearnings for the Africa in them.
In 2016, Prince Ermias Sahle Selassie visited Jamaica. It was exactly fifty years after his grandfather Haile Selassie had visited the country, an arrival which “birthed” Rastafari—taken from “Ras,” which means the head; and “Tafari,” which is Selassie’s first name. The elder Selassie had engaged in discussions with elders and some years later, was actively trying to get Jamaicans to interact closely with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
The music of Bob Marley imbibed these influences. From “Zimbabwe,” which was written during his pilgrimage to Ethiopia in 1978 where he sang “Every man got the right to decide his own destiny,” to the scathing anti-colonial evoking “Small Axe,” and even an upfront Rastafarian-affirming “Selassie is the Chapel,” which was inspired by the Elvis Presley ballad “Crying in the Chapel”—the prints of his Africanness was all there. It says something that the one of the most successful musicians of all time felt the peculiar struggles of Africa, and lent his voice to them.
If done right, a posthumous album continues to write the story of its artist. Death has no power over music; both are non-physical entities, but one arises even in the presence of the other. In this case, it is music which lasts the longest, unencumbered by the great black hole that is absence, that is the physical frame of Marley and all the musicians taken from us too soon.
What the Marley estate has been doing sets a good precedent. By aligning with the concept of uniting contemporary African artists, it advances the philosophical vision of the man called Tuff Gong. There is continuity in the framework of what Marley is supposed to mean, because it’s inevitable that he would have embraced the continent’s superstars were he still creating. The phenomena of the internet makes it all the more possible.
So far, ‘Africa Unite’ has reflected genuine artistry at play. Quite obviously, the very presence and figure of Marley would inspire nothing but respect. As much as Bob Marley loves Africa, it is indisputable that Africans love the man. We know all his songs by heart, passed down to us from our parents, who were sometimes teenagers when that glorious Reggae bounce came into their lives.
In February, Sarkodie was the first guest on the album, contributing his incinerating flow to a reworked version of “Stir It Up”. The classic lovers ode was coloured with a mellow drum base, providing the veteran Ghanaian rapper the verve his direction needed. As a result, it becomes a new record, rinsed in the glow of collaborative consideration. Likewise, the new “Waiting In Vain” coerces heart-wrenching longing from Tiwa Savage, its curious guitars met with mellow drums and well-arranged synths and sax.
This past Friday, the lead single from the album was released. I must admit here; “Three Little Birds” is one of those Bob Marley songs that’s been a prayer throughout much of my life. More than a song, it’s a place where I go for calm and consideration, and every rock on the shore of my life is washed away by the sea of Marley’s voice. New beginnings; that’s what the song represents to me. Thus it was more than comforting to hear what Oxlade and Teni did with the record.
Embracing a humane quality in their direction, they’re in tune with the song’s core value. In the lead role, Teni’s bright vocals bend with palpable appreciation, while Oxlade’s usual vocal flamboyance reaches the sufficient measure to add a triumphant edge. It’s now three for three, all excellent songs with flair and focus. The album rollout has also incorporated a rich visual identity, from the cinematic splendour of the “Stir It Up” video to the colourful cover designs and lyric videos.
It is scheduled for release on August 4th, supposedly in prime time to dominate conversations going into the rest of the year. However, one can’t help but feel this album is not that kind of album. Rather, it serves a spiritual function, and as well a strong political message, of the potentials of collaboration across colonial influence and borders.
A tracklist of ten songs has been confirmed to Dancehall Magazine. It features Rema and Skip Marley (appearing together on the angsty “Dem Belly Full”), the South African artist Ami Faku, the Ghanaian hitmaker Afro B, Zimbabwean musicians Nutty O and Winky D, and Nigerian music mainstays Davido, Ayra Starr and Patoranking. The song chosen for each musician reflects something they’ve adapted in their own music, portending a narrative and stylistic coherence that the album is bound to benefit from.
“With Africa Unite, Bob Marley’s influence continues to resonate, bridging the gap between the past and the present,” said the family label Tuff Gong in a statement. “The album not only showcases the global reach of Bob Marley’s music but also celebrates the rich tapestry of African rhythms and melodies. By intertwining reggae’s soulful vibrations with the infectious energy of Afrobeats, Africa Unite embodies the unity and spirit of collaboration, mirroring the late artist’s vision of a harmonious world”.
One shouldn’t rush to think that all posthumous albums are flawless, however. Each artist has distinct sensibilities, and it’s up to the estate to tap into them as best as they can. Often, reaching out to collaborators is the most frequented path, although in the absence of the unifying creative factors the work might fail to present a renewed perspective.
As the ‘Africa Unite’ album shows Jamaica and the Caribbean by extension wrapping arms of love around Africa, it’s a reciprocation of the ingrained influences we’ve adapted from their music. It is evident when Burna Boy sings in Patois, and Wizkid enthuses about a whine on mellow reggae-esque production, and Patoranking has a picture of Marley in the video of “Alubarika”.
By contrast, the shared historical links between Africa and the United States of America hasn’t propelled contemporary relationships between both peoples. On social media, both communities are often on loggerheads, cultures clashing. The considerable number of collaborative music between African and US artists hasn’t reflected that philosophical division however. If anything it highlights the need for more purposeful collaborations, showcasing better those shared aspects of our histories, whether it’s pride or pain, roses or guns.
We have also had some posthumous releases by US acts featuring African musicians. “G.O.A.T,” released a year ago by The Notorious B.I.G’s estate, featured Bella Alubo alongside TY Dolla Sign. For Bella, more than the obvious achievement of standing alongside greats, she owned the energy; she’s the first voice you hear and she delivers the evocative chorus, interpolating the classic harmony of Fela Kuti’s “arararara, ororororo”.
If you scroll down the YouTube comments of the song, one however gleans a paradox of thought: one section of people, by far the most populated, praising the infinite flow of Biggie and how he still “sounds fresh” through the ages. The other sections aren’t deceived by the sleekness of the first verse, as it doesn’t possess the grainy gruffiness that inflected Big’s raps so beautifully.
Definitely, the business of putting music out after an artist is dead would raise brows, just like the once-popular adaptation of holograms were morally conflicting. This is especially obvious when the artist left a body of work so strikingly singular, that any attempt to contort its vision would likely lead to disastrous results. It’s a fine line between experimental artistry and self-preservation, and there’s no sure test for knowing when one should be chosen instead of the other. What we can trust is our ears, how true the records that are being created sound.
The estate of Pop Smoke has elicited polarising opinions on how they’ve handled his legacy. ‘Shoot For The Stars, Aim For The Moon’ was released only five months after his death, featuring a long list of featured artists who Pop most likely didn’t record with. Even with its flaws, Alphonso Pierre of Pitchfork foreshadowed in his review, that “the good moments here will outlast them”. Its deluxe then featured Burna Boy and Davido on “Enjoy Yourself” and “Tsunami” respectively, both artists having paid respects to the American Hip-Hop tradition several times in their career.
While the songs would have benefited from closer interaction, they’re actually enjoyable records. Embrace the nonexistent narrative and a groove emerges, its hat in hand, dancing to the miracle of this cultural moment. Consider also that the death of Pop Smoke spurred widespread appreciation for Drill across the continent of Africa, with hubs like Kumerica and Abuja turning its muscular template on its head to soundtrack local experiences.
African music resides at levels where it once peeked from the outside, and that’s major. Beyond the intercontinental exchange of business ideals and contracts, this arrival of non-African Black peoples through the peculiar form of a posthumous album is nothing if not riveting. Sonically, Afropop is shaking things on a global level, and its potential is limitless. These collaborations frame what’s happening now in an even more poignant light, proving that history would always return to its origin.