“Exodus: Movement of Jah People” by Bob Marley & the Wailers (1977)
Two days before he was scheduled to play at a concert called Smile Jamaica in Kingston, the capital of his home country, Bob Marley was shot. So were his wife, Rita, and two others who happened to be at the Marley home at the time.
The identity of the perpetrator still is up for debate, but some sources point a finger at the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. Former CIA officer Phillip Agee, in the Marley documentary “Rebel Music,” confirms that Bob’s style of music may have gotten him into trouble: “The CIA would look upon the radical political content of reggae as dangerous because it would help to create a consciousness among the poor people, the great majority of Jamaicans.”
Whatever the case, Marley performed as scheduled on Dec. 5, 1976, then did what any sensible person would do: got the hell out of Jamaica. He settled in England, regrouped with band members including the legendary sibling rhythm section of Aston “Family Man” Barrett on bass and Carlton Barrett.
The result often is cited as one of the greatest albums of all time, with Time magazine calling it the most important album of the 20th century.
With “Exodus,” Marley certainly presents a revealing document of the Jamaican experience, particularly on the hard-edged title track, an epic that equates his countrymen’s situation with that of the Biblical Israelites: “Open your eyes and look within/Are you satisfied with the life you’re living?/We know where we’re going, we know where we’re from/We’re leaving Babylon, y’all, we’re going to our father’s land.”
Of course, Marley had taken strong political stances before, especially with “Get Up, Stand Up” and “I Shot the Sheriff” on the Wailers’ “Burnin’,” which many an aficionado prefers to “Exodus.” What gives the latter album an advantage is its crafting of a series of eminently accessible songs, transforming reggae from esoteric Caribbean music to the mainstream.
Whether that’s a good thing is in the eye of the beholder. But “Exodus” helped lift Marley to international star status, with his stature showing no signs of waning three-and-a-half decades later. (His early death and association with ganja don’t hurt matters, either.)
The music, though, is what counts, and “Exodus” is as strong a set as Marley ever delivered.
“Natural Mystic” starts proceedings with a sense of foreboding, as Bob pulls no punches in describing conditions in Jamaica: “Many more will have to suffer, many more will have to die, don’t ask me why/Things are not the way they used to be, I won’t tell no lie, one and all have to face reality now.”
Despite an upbeat tempo and chord structure, “So Much Things to Say” reveals further consternation, drawing on historical and contemporary figures of unjust punishment: “But I’ll never forget, no way, they crucified Jesus Christ/I’ll never forget, no way, they stole Marcus Garvey for rights/I’ll never forget, no way, they turned their back on Paul Bogle.” (History lesson: Bogle was a Baptist deacon who was executed by the British government for his part in Jamaica’s Morant Bay Rebellion in 1865. His image is on the country’s 10-cent coin.)
“Guiltiness” returns to a minor key, emphasized by a horn section, and continues the theme Marley made famous with “I shot the sheriff” of oppressors vs. the oppressed: “These are the big fish who always try to eat down the small fish, just the small fish/I tell you what, they would do anything to materialize their every wish.”
An ominous riff drives “The Heathen,” another call to the downtrodden: “Rise up fallen fighters, rise and take your stance again/’Tis he who fight and run away, live to fight another day.”
Perhaps the most well-known song on “Exodus” has reached that status through exposure that has nothing to do with the song’s message. “Jamming” has been used by the National Basketball Association with its promotional material for seven-foot men stuffing balls through hoops. NBA fans probably aren’t aware of some of the lyrics: “No bullet can stop us now, we neither beg nor we won’t bow, neither can be bought nor sold/We all defend the right, Jah children must unite, your life is worth much more than gold.”
The latter part of “Exodus” does seem to lighten the mood a bit with upbeat compositions that have become Marley favorites: the love song “Waiting in Vain,” the atmospheric “Turn Your Lights Down Low” and the melodically optimistic “Three Little Birds.” Closing the album is “One Love,” best remembered for its “Let’s get together and feel all right” line. But Marley can’t help but to include a call for divine retribution: “Let’s get together and fight this Holy Armageddon/So when the Man comes there will be no, no doom/Have pity on those whose chances grow thinner/There ain’t no hiding place from the Father of Creation.”
In 1981, cancer did the job that assassins couldn’t do five years earlier. Reggae still has its strong adherents, but it seems unlikely that anyone ever will take Jamaican music to the place Bob Marley did in his relatively brief lifetime.