Below are excerpts from the forthcoming publication: ‘The Making of a Sprinting Superpower – Jamaica on the Track’, by Arnold Bertram.
IN THE four years between the Beijing and London OlympicGames, Usain Bolt has joined Bob Marley as the two most easily recognised Jamaicans in the world today.
Both are supreme performing artists, Marley on the stage and Bolt on the track, and the genius of each is reflected in the consistency with which they carry their particular art form to unprecedented levels of excellence and the intensity with which they communicate to their respective audiences. It is difficult to watch them dispassionately.
Both Bolt and Marley have their roots in the Jamaican peasantry and were nurtured by the resourcefulness, resilience, Christian values and creativity which characterise this stratum of Jamaican society.
Despite these similarities, their journeys have been vastly different.
Marley was a product of the decade of the 1960s. He was nurtured at a time when the war in Vietnam had brought western civilisation to the brink of a moral abyss; a time when college students of all races in North America were prepared to sacrifice life and studies to put an end to the racism that had poisoned the American society for centuries; a time when the struggle for African liberation dominated the international agenda.
Born in 1945 in the same part of Jamaica that nurtured Harry Belafonte, Marley’s career as a performing artist can be observed in two distinct stages. The first stage began after he migrated from the hills of St Ann to the urban community of Trench Town where he learnt first-hand the survival techniques of deprived urban youth even as he seized every opportunity to develop his talents as lyricist, performer and artisan.
His first recording in 1960 at 16 years of age was a fairly innocuous single, Judge not, which he followed with a version of Brook Benton’s One Cup of Coffee. He was clearly a work in progress, for a closer look at the lyrics which followed reveals his experiences of a world restricted to his community and the relationships, aspirations and patterns of social behaviour that he observed in everyday life.
The second stage emerged with his embrace of Rastafari, which underpinned his moral outlook and deepened his spiritual connection to Africa and people of African descent. His consciousness expanded with Jamaica’s growing involvement in the global struggle for freedom and, in particular, the African liberation movement. It was at this stage of Marley’s development that he met Michael Manley. No Jamaican leader expressed the international fight for justice and freedom with more eloquence and passion than Manley, who became leader of the People’s National Party in 1969.
In 1971, Manley went on an islandwide tour to present his philosophy to the Jamaican people as he prepared himself for the general elections of 1972. Included in the ‘Bandwagon’, as Manley called his tour, were the leading popular artists of the day, and among them were the young Bob Marley and The Wailers.
They had already carved out their own niche in the cultural landscape. People who observed Marley on that tour were struck by the rapt attention with which he listened as Manley described the injustice and racial oppression in Jamaica and the world, and pledged himself to the upliftment of the disadvantaged. Marley’s world expanded suddenly and dramatically and he was never the same again.
In this new phase, his first hit was Trench Town Rock, which came out in 1971. This was followed by Catch A Fire (1973), Burnin (1974),Natty Dread (1975), Rasta man Vibration (1976), Exodus (1977),Survival (1979) and Uprising (1980). The album Rasta-man Vibrationcracked the American charts with the single War, which became the most profound articulation of his protests against aggression.
ONE LEGEND GONE, ANOTHER ON THE RISE
Marley died in 1981 and, in death even more so than in life, exercised an inordinate influence on national consciousness and impacted progressive humanity in a manner that few, if any, artists have done before or since.
Freedom fighters in Africa and Asia went into battle with his songs on their lips. Jamaicans were immediately identified all over the globe as belonging to Marley’s country. In 2001, the BBC recognised Marley as the Artist of the Century and the winner of the millennium award for his single One Love, while TIME Magazine rated Marley’s Exodus as the album of the century.
Bolt grew up in the last decade of the 21st century, which was dominated by the emergence of a globalised capitalist economy which facilitated a global sports industry and created the environment which made it possible for him to emerge, not only as a superstar on the track, but the most sought-after athlete by entrepreneurs the world over.
Bolt’s potential for greatness was identified before he became a teenager. I recall his early mentor and coach, former Olympic sprinter Pablo McNeil, inviting his friends to the Western Relays to watch a 12-year-old, who, in his words, “was Jamaica’s next Olympic champion”.
Despite his talent, success was not immediate. It was in his third year at ‘Champs’ that Bolt had his first success, and what a success it was – a record-breaking performance in Class II, which earned him a place in the consciousness of the athletic fraternity from which he has never been removed.
Whereas Marley’s consciousness was shaped by the contemporary struggles of Mohamed Ali, Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm ‘X’ for civil rights and the liberation of Africans on the continent and in the diaspora, the world that Bolt grew up in was dominated by a focus on the accumulation of wealth.
Arnold Bertram is a historian who served in both Houses of Parliament and held a range of portfolios as a cabinet minister. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org