'Lyrical Genius' provides insight into Marley

Sunday, February 16, 2003

In the relatively short period of his recording life, a mere 20 years, Bob Marley compiled an amazingly large and diverse body of music. In the years since his death in 1981, he has become a figure of legend, and his reggae music a rich and timeless legacy to the world.

For Kwame Dawes, Marley's music stamped the Jamaican as a "lyrical genius," and that appropriately is the title of his new book. This is neither a biography of Marley nor an analysis of his music. It is a studied appreciation of the poetry and intelligence and -- most important -- the spiritual aspect of a part of Marley's creative output. Its focus is the work post-1972, but there is also considerable discussion of his music before that time.

Dawes, a prize-winning poet who teaches at USC, writes of the source of strength of Marley's songs -- his faith -- and of how he constructed from it and an upbringing in an impoverished nation the lyrics that function at several levels:

"He often grounded the song in a narrative that had immediate implications, and then he would allow space for the song to gain symbolic meaning. Marley then would choose which reading to emphasize depending on what seemed politic," Dawes writes.

One example is in the shades of meaning attached to interpretations of "Burnin' and Lootin'," whether seen as a calling for symbolic destruction or the real thing.

No matter the interpretation, Dawes writes, Marley was never disingenuous -- rather remaining faithful to his religious and cultural heritage.

Casual fans might find this book a little on the weighty side, though anyone who listens to the music and wants to know more deeply about the man should profit from it.

The author's explanation of Marley and Rastafarianism makes clear the powerful connections between the musician and his system of belief and how they became transmuted through his lyrics.

Finally, Dawes sees Marley as a complex, revolutionary (in all senses) figure, "a wholly modern artist -- a man who saw his art as a way to express experience and try and bring order to the chaos of his life."