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Marley – Kevin Mcdonald: Purity of heart is to will one thing – Kierkegaard





Marley – Kevin Mcdonald

Kierkegaard wrote:

“Purity of heart is to will one thing.”


“Be that self one truly is.”


“During the first period of a man’s life the greatest danger is not to take the risk.”

Having fathered 11 children from 7 different women Robert Nesta Marley, in his brief 36 years on this earth fulfilled all these injunctions from the father of Existentialism – though perhaps often in ways of which the resolutely Christian Philosopher would not have approved.

There are individual human beings whose lives take on a significance that transcends themselves; they acquire a symbolic force that somehow captures something about human beings in general in their struggle to cope with the truth of their own mortality and the pursuit of joy.

Historically these were often exemplary figures, usually religious, from Jesus and the institution of sainthood, to Bhudda and similar iconic figures in other world faiths. Such figures were used to mitigate the fear of death with a promise of a hereafter and to enjoin a way of living that would earn a place in heaven.

The mere facts of Bob Marley’s domestic life imply an inescapable level of pain and distress for those who loved him at least equal to what were clearly times of great love and joy. Kevin Mcdonald’s thoughtfully structured film about Marley’s life both captures and implies this contradiction along with many others that his choices created. There is a moment when his adopted daughter Sharon, strong and even a little bitter, about her mostly absentee father whom she clearly adored, almost breaks down for the first time as she says that even at the point of his death, she could not have him to herself, be with him alone. Icons, heroes, however flawed, belong to everyone. The Faustian bargain of fame.

Marley, in a sense only ever a young man, certainly took the risk Kierkegaard identifies and perhaps in Mcdonald’s inevitably doomed but valiant effort to capture a free spirit on film, we see a man who learned to know and to be truly himself. As we know, our capitalist culture has a genius for cultivating and promulgating myths, investing in icons and milking them for profit: from Jesus to Dylan; Elvis to Che Guevara.

The role of the Rastafarian faith in Marley’s life was obviously very important to him but is perhaps the most perplexing, even distancing element in this film. There seems something strangely arbitrary, almost quixotic, about the apparent deification of the tiny, insignificant seeming Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia. That this exotic belief system with its use of Ganja (marihuana) exercised a fascination far outside its Rastafarian roots is perhaps not surprising. His political influence upon the bitterly and bloodily warring factions of Jamaica appears to have sprung more from his fame and celebrity than any systematic activism.

But amidst all the mythology and hype, the core of this quite extraordinary performer seems to me to be captured by the first of Kierkegaard’s remarks above: the one thing upon which a sense of purity of heart in this hypnotically charismatic man rested – was the will to make music. It was the constant around which the maelstrom of a chaotic life revolved.

Music is the unmediated art: analysis, intellectual appreciation and description are all secondary, post-hoc; music is primal, visceral, it strikes straight to our senses and as some may say, our soul. Musicians do not write or create music – they channel it; shape it, organise it to make it accessible to us; to help it connect to each of us, and to one another. The possibilities of music derive from the contingent fact that could be otherwise, that human responses to certain sounds displays a pattern, common to and therefore, shared with others much as we might say similar consistencies of response to different light wavelengths enables us to develop an agreed language of colours.

With immense sophistication, developed over centuries, musical notation represents these patterns to us and provides a mechanism through which instinctive responses can be developed into conscious, methodical, enhanced responses. That we can talk of the radically different responses generated say by a Minor as opposed to a Major key does not derive from the musical notation that represents it: the musical notation can only represent it because as a matter of fact we display the distinctively different responses to each. This is a primary experience – not based upon, or explained by something else. Wittgenstein: “explanation has to stop somewhere.”

Reggae music demonstrates this phenomenon in a very distinctive way: for its unmistakable and immediately recognisable, repetitive rhythm seems to harmonise and synchronise with our heartbeat. Through this, reggae rhythm takes on a sense of continuity and inevitability that echoes the life-giving, life-sustaining pumping of blood around our bodies. And just as our hearts may race with excitement or fear or both, so changes to the cadence of reggae can express a range of emotions and experiences.

The metaphor of the heart is deeply entrenched in our language – from ‘heartfelt’ to ‘sweetheart’, from ‘heart-warming’ to ‘heart-broken’. When it is said that Reggae music comes from the heart there is a sense in which this is both literal and metaphorical.

It is clear that women figured prominently in Marley’s life. Judging by the incredibly strong, feisty, even powerful women we see talking of their time and relationship with him, it would be a brave man, or woman, who tried to portray any of them as victims. There is however a powerful sense of indulgence towards what was obviously a self-centred emotional life. Particularly impressive is Rita Marley Prendergast mother of 3 of Marley’s children and Sharon, a daughter from another relationship but whom Marley adopted when he and Rita married. Cuban born, Rita sung in Marley’s backing group the ‘I Threes’ and it is clear that their bond was centred as much upon a shared passion for their music as anything else.

Previously unseen footage of Marley’s life includes many friends and members of The Wailers with whom he found world-wide fame. That many, indeed most of the people who knew him best and talk on camera about him are now dead adds a poignancy to Mcdonald’s film. The scenes from the last year’s of his life, battling cancer take on a touching incongruity as this man of the sun, whose music was so expressive of his Jamaican roots, sought treatment in Josef Issels’ controversial Bavarian cancer treatment clinic amongst unfamiliar mountains snow and ice.

Fittingly Mcdonald chooses this painful period and hostile setting to feature perhaps Marley’s most evocative and eloquent composition – Redemption Song. One can see why this especially became an anthem for the poor not just of his native Jamaica but in Africa and around the world. It’s lyrics also provide a fitting epitaph for a flawed man who truly willed one thing – to make music.

Won’t you help to sing, these songs of freedom
Cause all I ever had, redemption songs
All I ever had, redemption songs
These songs of freedom, songs of freedom.


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