None but ourselves can free our minds.
A love letter to the lyrics of Redemption Song by Bob Marley.
They say you should write for one person, even if your objective is an audience of millions. But Bob Marley wrote Redemption Song for one people, and that worked too. It became a lyrical commons from the moment of its first performance. Redemption Song is a mutual society. Every listener is a part owner, whose royalties are paid in a curious combination of pathos and resolve. Redemption Song is a meditation on heart and mettle in the face of oppression. It was born great, and it has had greatness thrust upon it by generations of people who see their own meaning and seek their own solace in its words.
Old pirates, yes, they rob I
Sold I to the merchant ships
Minutes after they took I
From the bottomless pit
Bob Marley wrote his song for one people. And, for that people, infamous history and brutal injustice weigh heavy on these opening lines. I lack the imagination to fully comprehend what he has captured in the barren beauty of those words.
But is the nature of creative greatness to transcend. The bottomless pit is an almost literal reality for Bob Marley and his people. For everyone else it is a powerful metaphor, personally relevant and figuratively resonant for a million individual reasons.
The same applies to passivity in the face of wrongdoing.
How long shall they kill our prophets
While we stand aside and look?
The words may have been written about one man, but the idea of witnessing ill deeds without intervening is universal. Choosing the role of spectator over protagonist. Protecting the body but eroding the soul. Staying detached and resolutely uninvolved is a tragic human condition.
The prophet in question is Marcus Garvey, a black nationalist leader who can posthumously claim a huge assist in the lyrics that define this song. This is an extract of a speech he gave in Nova Scotia in 1937.
We are going to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery because whilst others might free the body, none but ourselves can free the mind. Mind is your only ruler, sovereign. The man who is not able to develop and use his mind is bound to be the slave of the other man who uses his mind…
And this post, ultimately, is a love letter to just two lyrics.
Emancipate yourself from mental slavery
None but ourselves can free our minds
These are the most transcendant lines in a song that is replete with them. These are the prophetic words that give meaning to the song’s title. This is the instruction manual for sustainable redemption, from first principles.
These are the lyrics that bridge most effectively from Bob Marley’s world to the world that the rest of us inhabit. We can all relate to the idea of being held in bondage by our own minds. That’s why these are the words of tattoos and graffiti and posters and motivational meme art. These lyrics are a rallying call to emancipate yourself from any damaging or debilitating status quo. We are all slaves , variously, to mortgages and monthly wage packets, to self-consciousness, to impostor syndrome, pessimism, anxiety over issues beyond our control, stultifying routines, domineering characters in our lives, even our social media personas.
Bob Marley, channeling Marcus Garvey, has handed us the ultimate coping strategy on an acoustic platter. It is instructive, straightforward, memorable and action-oriented. It is dogmatic, which is why people write it on walls and on themselves. Writing is a statement of accord and intent.
This haunting reggae ballad is a sad song on more than one level.
It’s sad because writing is easier than doing. Such good intentions. The most profound strategies are conceptually simple but not easy to execute. Emotional freedom, meditation, mindfulness, call it what you will, is hard work. There is never the time for what might be the most vital, transformative act of your life. The things to which you are in thrall are the very things that will stall the commitment required to escape. Somehow, emancipation from mental slavery is always top of tomorrow’s to-do list.
Redemption songs will be all you ever had.
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