Revisiting Bob Marley’s ‘Babylon System’
THE EDITOR, Madam:
If we ever need to prove Bob’s genius in his song Babylon System, “Trodding on the winepress too long” does it. Bob, who came of age in the ‘60s and ‘70s and left us at age 36, makes an accurate critique of the society as he saw it. He is exact and fearless in his analysis of a ‘Babylon system’. He signals early in this anthem that it’s a cry for “people’s freedom and liberty”. He has also grown impatient – “We have been trodding on the winepress much too long”. Without apology, he describes living conditions orchestrated by a “vampire” state – “sucking the blood of the sufferers”.
But Bob knows that while the wine press creates great wealth, those under whose feet the wines are extracted remain sufferers. His song is subtle, but you are left with no misgivings that the “winepress” is symbolic of our cane fields. Bob reveals the winepress as our enslavement, in the line, “From the day we left the shores (trodding on the winepress) ... of our Father’s land (Rebel)”.
Bob’s brave and seditious call to action says, “And we have been taken for granted much too long. Rebel. Rebel.” The repeated call to ‘rebel’ in this song is clearly a call for uprising, to beat down the Babylon system.
Marley’s denouncement of religious and educational institutions which have failed to make a difference and are guilty of complicity with society’s evils, is plainly written in “Building Church and university, deceiving the people continually”. Their graduates are “thieves and murderers”, says Bob.
Eight times consecutively he says, “Tell the children the truth” – an understandable and deliberate encouragement for hope in the “future generation” once they know their history and reality.
Bob transitions the personification, from the subject of the trodding being the wine, to the sufferers now being trod on. One form of subjugation saw sufferers pressing wine, and after forced labour, they are now being ‘opPRESSED’ themselves. This is a skilful change from the victim being the subject, to then becoming the object of oppression.
Bob occupies a unique space as a great Jamaican writer and thinker. He is heretic, non-traditional, and a rebel with a good cause. These are the ingredients for making necessary and welcome changes. Men like Bob are responsible for critiquing our lives in real time, and we will always be awed by the mind of this great poet.
He was never prepared to bow, as his song starts by saying “We refuse to be what you wanted us to be, we are what we are, That’s the way it’s going to be”. What is heartening is that Bob, the supreme optimist, sang and believed “in the victory of good over evil”. This is why we get up, stand up, stand up for his songs which are hits over and over again. This is why Bob occupies number 11 on the list of the 100 greatest artistes of all time.