Bob Marley's Nova Scotia Song

It started with a Wiki-bender. I was researching an unrelated project and, several hours later, wound up on the Wikipedia entry for Bob Marley’s Redemption Song. It made an astonishing claim: The legendary lyrics, “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our mind,” were born in Nova Scotia in a speech given by the pan-African leader Marcus Garvey.             


Marley, linked to little old Nova Scotia? And what was Garvey doing here? I checked the source, but there wasn’t one. I YouTubed the video and watched the tired, dying star strum his guitar. He wrote the song in 1979, when the cancer was taking over his body. It’s an extraordinary song. The Nova Scotia link was an extraordinary claim. I set about finding out the truth.


My first stop was Isaac Saney. He teaches at Saint Mary’s and Dalhousie and one of his research areas is black Nova Scotian history.


He tells me Garvey was born in Jamaica in 1887 and founded the world’s largest black organization, the United Negro Improvement Association, which boasted millions members at its height. “Garveyism” promoted black pride, black entrepreneurship and black segregation. Garvey argued that black people would never get a fair deal in white society, so they ought to form separate republics or return to Africa. The UNIA even declared Garvey “President of the Republic of Africa,” a dreamed-of country to which African-Americans would one day move, and he wore the full regalia of that office on a parade through Harlem in 1922. 


Garvey visited Nova Scotia twice, first in the 1920s, which led to a UNIA office in Cape Breton, and then the famous 1937 visit. He was initially drawn by the founding of an African Orthodox Church in Sydney in 1921 and maintained contact with the ex-pat West Indies community. The UNIA invited him to visit in 1937.


“He (speaks) in Halifax, but he has more resonance in Whitney Pier,” Saney says. “The difference between Halifax and Whitney Pier is that the immigrants from Whitney Pier come later, and they come from the Caribbean … and were much more open to radical ideas.”


Garvey was descended from Maroons and knew well that they had helped build Citadel Hill after arriving in exile in 1796, but he found Africville’s long history of negative interaction with Halifax had led it to be more self-reliant, less connected to the wider community. People were cooler to his ideas, though they were popular with racist elements of white Halifax. Like the Ku Klux Klan in the U.S., they favoured seeing the black population depart.


“I cannot do anything for you in Halifax until you have made up your minds to do something for yourself. No man is completely helped from without, he is helped from within,” Garvey told his Halifax audience.


“In Whitney Pier, these people were exploited labour. It’s a different experience: they are part of society, even though they are at the bottom of society,” Saney explains.


Back in the office, I call Theresa Brewster. She’s chair of the UNIA in Glace Bay and assisted in producing the fascinating book, One God One Aim One Destiny: African Nova Scotians in Cape Breton.


While the Garvey visit drew little coverage in the white community, for black people, “it was like if Obama came,” Brewster says.


"We are working for Africa, like the Irishman, he is working for Ireland, and the Canadian is working for a grand and noble Canada,” Garvey said in his Sydney speech.


In Canada, he saw much of the same racial self-hatred and a desire for lighter skin that so angered him in the U.S. and the U.K. He flipped that on its head, drawing pride from dark skin and African roots.


“Whites were not allowed in (the UNIA). They weren’t allowed to hold office or anything,” Brewster says. Ironically, that means Brewster herself would have been rejected as an office holder, as her mother was white and her father was black.


While Garvey’s back-to-Africa ideas have not aged well, his emphasis on knowledge and economic strength in the black community still form the roots of the UNIA.  Today, the Glace Bay UNIA is about preserving black culture and heritage. Its summer “Marcus Garvey Days” are a festival of dance, fundraisers and a business camp for kids.


“It’s a place for blacks to come and learn about themselves,” Brewster says. “I think what we’ve accomplished is that, these kids are all different shades, and they see their blackness in their heart. A lot of the kids didn’t know there were other kids like themselves. They’re proud now.”


So that explains why Garvey was in Nova Scotia, but how did Marley come across his words? I chase dead ends from Jamaica to California before finding my man on the other side of the world.


Dr. Noel L. Erskine is a professor of theology and ethics at the Candler School of Theology in Emory University. He wrote From Garvey to Marley: Rastafari Theology. The Jamaican is usually in Atlanta, Georgia, but he’s not answering his phone or emails. He eventually calls me in middle of the night from South Korea.


“I wanted to reward your persistence,” he laughs over the crackling computer line. He tells me the “emancipate yourself from mental slavery” speech is well known to Garvey scholars.


“The genius of Bob Marley was he picked that up and gave it a lyrical beauty,” says Erskine. “Garvey is the prophet and the father of rastafari.”


Garvey looked to Ethiopia for a “prince” to redeem Jamaica, based on Psalm 68. Rastafarians took that as a reference Haile Selassie, emperor of Ethiopia. “(Marley) went everywhere with his Bible, where he had pictures of Selassie and Garvey.”


Rastafarians saw Garvey as John the Baptist to Selassie’s Christ, though Garvey himself was no fan of the leader. “Garvey didn’t like anyone who gave him competition,” Erskine says. “Maybe if they’d called him the Christ, he would have liked it better,” he laughs.


Marley may have read the speech in Garvey’s Black Man magazine, or more likely heard it in general discussions about Garvey’s teachings. For Marley, mental emancipation was “the heart of the thing.” He often talked about internalizing oppression, that “the chains had been taken away from your feet and now they were in your mind,” says Erskine. Garvey gave the perfect poetic expression of the idea, and Marley paid tribute to the leader’s Nova Scotia speech by immortalizing it in song.


Redemption Song isn’t the only Marley song to borrow from Garvey, Erskine notes: he often ended his speeches with a cry of “One love!”

Thanks to Paul MacDougall at Shunpiking.com for his helpful pointers on researching Marcus Garvey.


BOX: An excerpt from the speech Marcus Garvey gave in Sydney: “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, because man is related to man under all circumstances for good or ill.”


 This article first appeared in the Sunday Chronicle-Herald Nov. 29, 2009.