A 10 Year Old Brought to Political Consciousness: Bob Marley’s I Shot the Sheriff
Earlier this week, Ela Eke-Egele’s excellent analysis of Jaja Soze ‘Beautiful Sister’ showed how the supposedly politically progressive social commentary is, in fact, something quite reactionary, giving us a cliched representation of women as Madonna or whore. The following blog seeks to analyse how socially conscious music does not need to be at the expense of women and black women in particular.
Since becoming a woman I have learnt many disappointing things about the legend that was Bob Marley. The reality that he was a notorious philanderer was a let down to say the least. I had spent my childhood admiring the fact that here was a man that loved his wife so much that he had penned amazing songs like Is This Love and No Woman No Cry. Sadly, they were for and about his Miss World mistress and at the time he had fathered numerous children who are now denied access to his substantial estate.
All said and done though, there is something that happens to me when I hear a Bob Marley song that feels like coming home. It is the sound, along with Abba funnily enough, that would be around during the weekends, public holidays and general moments of relaxation.
There are way too many ‘favourite’ Bob Marley songs I could name, it is hard, very hard, to say one stands out amongst the rest because, for me, his songs are all about what is right for a particular mood. That said, as a young black girl growing up in 1980s and 90s England, I Shot the Sheriff was something that stirred a sense of political consciousness. The tale of Sheriff John Brown’s racist hounding of a young black man, who, I just assumed, was Marley himself, was something I could identify with. Aged 10, the song spoke to me about the structures of power that are in place globally and which run along colour lines.
So, when in 1991 the brutal police beating of Rodney King and the subsequent acquittal of the LAPD officers filmed violently battering him came to the world’s attention, my prepubescent self felt as though I had already been made wiser by Marley. The shocked news reporting would try to tell me that this was something out of the ordinary, however, Marley’s song had already made me sensible to the fact that such incidents were part of the everyday for black peoples across the world.
As a young girl it seemed odd that a song would begin with such a proud declaration of a violent act, ‘I shot the sheriff’ yet follow with what seemed to me to be an irrelevant denial, ‘but I didn’t shoot the deputy’. He had murdered a man no? What difference did it make if he was being blamed for the death of another? Why was he not more fearful of claiming the murder of the sheriff who clearly had more power? Why did he declare that ‘If I am guilty I will pay’ as though he had not just admitted it a few lines before? As stories go, this is as captivating as it gets. My 10 year old self wanted to listen further, to understand why the distinction between the two acts was being made.
I found myself rocking to the relaxed yet insistent syncopation of the reggae beat, eager to find out how this all began. Hearing the young man in the song talk of the Sheriff’s inexplicable hate, I felt an uneasy closeness to the experience. The Sheriff’s desire to ensure that nothing good would ever come to our anti-hero because every seed he’d planted would be killed before they grew was Marley, along with my parents, tutoring me on the ways in which racism works. The wish and power to crush, from the very beginning, any sense of hope in the young black person’s mind was something I may not have been able to put into words, but nevertheless I understood it. I understood it the way you know that rain is coming on a particular type of cloudy day; it is something your senses have grown so accustomed to that the knowledge is almost before sense.
I wasn’t surprised then that when ‘freedom came [his] way’, the Sheriff was ‘aiming to shoot’ him down. At the moment the line still echoes with the experiences of black boys and girls in our urban centres. In the 80s, many would have immediately thought of the ‘suspected persons’ laws that meant police would hound those with black or brown skin. As I listened to the song again, I was reminded of an article I read a few weeks ago,which reveals that in 2011, the New York Police Department made more stops of young black men than the total number of young black men in New York! And here in lies the beauty of this song; whenever I listen to it, I am reminded of the urgency and relevance of its message.
The anguish with which Marley tells us that, in self-defence, he shoots the sheriff, is something that was frightening at the age of 10. The danger of what Marley was proposing was clear. Would this be something I would do faced with the same scenario? In my late teenage years and older, I came to understand it as the necessary defence against the power of racism in my life. In order to become more myself, to not allow racism to diminish my potential, I needed to accept that it required me to act, to ‘shoot’ it down. However difficult it would be, however much it would compromise my position in front of wider society, it was something I would have to do. There are many songs I would bestow onto my children as a guide; I Shot the Sheriff is definitely one of them. At the level of a simple narrative, it is transfixing. Yet, its deeper meaning and message is something much more fruitful. It is the affirmation of an individual’s right to exist beyond the parameters set by the powers that be. For that reason it is a life defining record.
- Lola Okolosie