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Bob Marley: Zimbabwe’s Soul Rebel

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In 1979, Robert Mugabe was running for Prime Minister of Rhodesia (Colonial Zimbabwe) and was in favour of the country gaining independence from the white minority. In order for the Mugabe to reach his goal, much support would be needed. The country eventually had the support of an individual who was influential and popular at the time. As a lot of his lyrics discussed topics like world peace, equality and freedom, it was no surprise that this man ended up being Bob Marley. By 1976, Marley was an international superstar who was being recognized as a world-wide political voice. Songs such as “War” and “Zimbabwe” advocated for decolonization, liberation of black people, and universal peace. Marley was an activist and used music as a tool to raise awareness about the problems being faced by the poor and oppressed. That is why the purpose of this essay is to argue that Bob Marley was an inspiring and symbolic aspect of Rhodesia gaining independence and becoming known as Zimbabwe through his calls to pan-Africanism and liberation. It will discuss the state of Rhodesia (Colonial Zimbabwe) leading up to their independence, why Bob Marley was an influential figure within the country at the time, what specifically lead to him coming to perform at the independence ceremony and the effect that his performance had on the people in attendance. 

In order to make sense of the many factors that contributed to Zimbabwe gaining independence, it’s important to know why Zimbabwe was fighting for independence in the first place and why the country was experiencing oppression from the white minority up until the 1980 election. In 1965, the Prime Minister of Rhodesia, Ian Smith’s Rhodesian Front Government (RF) had signed the Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI). The UDI was a minority white settler government that aimed to rebel against the British Crown. The British Crown wanted to establish a black majority rule in Rhodesia and the UDI wanted to stall this plan. British Prime Minister Harold Wilson refused to use military force to stop this and this forced African nationalist parties, such as the Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (ZANU PF) and Zimbabwe African Peoples Union (Zapu), to conduct guerilla attacks against the Rhodesian settlers in order to gain black majority rule. Much of the British government failed in their attempts to resolve the conflict and it became known as ‘the Rhodesia Problem’. In 1971 Harold Wilson’s successor, Edward Heath at the time brought forth the Anglo-Rhodesian Agreement which foresaw the possibility of independence for Rhodesia. Black Africans had not been a part of the Anglo-Rhodesian Agreement negotiations and thus had nothing to say for it when they were asked to provide an opinion or argument at the 1972 pierce commission. This ultimately caused the fight against Rhodesian colonial rule to be renewed. By the year 1977, a new Anglo-American initiative was created by British foreign secretary David Owen in order to solve the problem happening in Rhodesia. The initiative ultimately failed but laid out a valuable foundation which consisted of an independence constitution, a ceasefire fire of all combat, and an election. The ceasefire in particular which was successful thanks to British Foreign Secretary Peter Carrington and the Foreign and common wealth office, caused the end of the civil war happening within Rhodesia at the time between ZANLA, RSF and ZIPRA forces. In 1979, “Britain assumed direct rule of its errant colony and dispatched Christopher Soames, a member of the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government, to Rhodesia as Governor”. Chris Soames duty was to overlook the Rhodesia’s transition to independence, which would be completed once national elections took place in 1980.

By the year 1980, Black Africans of Colonial Zimbabwe had experienced severe civil war, oppression, racism, segregation and white supremacy. Much of the civil war taking place in the 1970’s stemmed from the oppression that black Africans felt that they were suffering from the hands of the white majority. In 1978 a man by the name of Joshua Nikomo wrote an article to a political committee to discuss black Africans struggle with the white minority rule that had been taking place in Colonial Zimbabwe. Nikomo made it clear that: “We are fighting for fundamental change. The war is not against white people, but against a system of racism that keeps African people in a state of slavery”. He goes to mention more heinous acts committed by the white majority, such as detainment of thousands of Zimbabweans, hanging people in secret and legalized torture simply to maintain power. Segregation was also an issue that plagued many black Africans in Colonial Zimbabwe. For Zimbabwe Prime Minister elect Mugabe, the end of segregated living, the freedom for his children to attend any school and the chance to grow professionally based on merit and not skin colour was what he had envisioned for the country after independence.

Although political and social factors contributed to Colonial Zimbabwe’s independence, black Africans suffering from the white minority had gained significant inspiration to fight for independence and change from Bob Marley and his music. Up until the 1980 election, Bob Marley had spent the last decade writing songs that advocated for the very things that Colonial Zimbabwe hoped to gain through independence. A good example of this is his 1976 song “War”. The lyrics of the song were based on a speech given to the United Nations in 1968 by the emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie. The lyrics highlighted the causes of physical violence and ongoing war happening in Africa and it referenced racism, classism, dehumanization and colonialism. A good example of this from the song’s lyrics are: “Until the philosophy which hold one race superior and another inferior is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned. That until there are no longer first class and second-class citizens of any nation. Until the color of a man’s skin is of no more significance than the color of his eyes That until the basic human rights are equally guaranteed to all, without regard to race”. Marley believed black populations to be sufferers of violence from colonial societies and his songs reflected this and framed him as a pan-Africanist that wanted to see unity among African nations. Marley was attracted to Selassie’s speech to the United Nations because “it showed the emperor to be a pan-Africanist who saw the movement towards independence in the rest of Africa as a necessary part of the movement towards freedom in Ethiopia”. “War” is as much about liberating the black population as it is about peace and de-colonialization. The song expressed the feelings of the oppressed people of Zimbabwe and having a popular international figure sing a song that expressed the values and benefits that would be gained when a country is not under colonial rule instilled inspiration into black Zimbabweans that independence was achievable. Marley’s 1978 album “Survival” was a symbolic call to arms and Marley’s attempt to gain revolutionary credibility. The song “Zimbabwe” touched upon the Rhodesian civil war and conflict that was happening in the country at the time. Marley wanted the people of Zimbabwe to have an anthem to help them persevere through the oppression and suffering that was happening at the hands of the white minority and as a result, his song became an anthem for the Zimbabwean freedom fighters: “Every man, got a right to decide his destiny. And in this Judgement, there is no partiality. So, arms and arms, with arms we will fight this little struggle. Cause that’s the only way we can overcome a little trouble”. “One Drop” is a song about the oppression of slavery as well as colonial hardships, as he calls out to “resisting against the system”. These are just a few examples from Marley’s discography that highlight the fact that he saw himself as an activist, with music being his weapon for bringing awareness to the public about the issues being faced by the oppressed.

With Marley’s music calling out for African unity, as well as freedom from colonial rule, it is no surprise that his stance on these issues would eventually bring him to Africa. In 1979, Marley performed the song “Zimbabwe” for the first time in Boston, at what was called the “Amandla concert”. The concert was put together to raise money for African liberation and managed to raise $250,000. During the performance, Marley professed that people must come together for Zimbabwe and that Zimbabwe must be free by 1983. By 1980, Marley had become the most famous pan-African, anti-colonial figure and this left a large impression on the liberation movement that was happening in Zimbabwe. As a result, he received a formal invitation to attend and preform at the country’s independence ceremony on April 17th, 1980. The performance was praised by Zimbabwe’s new Prime Minister Robert Mugabe as he was quoted saying: “You must know Marley had written the song Zimbabwe. It was extraordinary! The beat was fantastic! And he sang it that night!” Although the performance was praised, it was also very tense. Tear gas had been thrown by the white minority who were retaliating against the country becoming independent. As dangerous as the situation had become, Marley continued his performance, determined to not back down from the oppressors.

Through my research, it’s clear how much Bob Marley was an inspiring and symbolic aspect of Rhodesia gaining independence and becoming known as Zimbabwe through his calls to pan –Africanism and liberation. Bob Marley was a man who was passionate about change. His gift of songwriting allowed him to use music as a tool to help the people of Zimbabwe feel like independence wasn’t impossible but rather something that had to happen. He was a determined promoter of unity and peace and despite his death in 1981, one year after Zimbabwe’s independence, the message in his music continues to inspire the world in all kinds of ways.


  • Onslow, Sue. Freedom at Midnight: A Microcosm of Zimbabwe’s Hopes and Dreams at Independence, April 1980. The Round Table 97 (2008) 737-746.
  • Hagerman, Brent. Everywhere is War: Peace and Violence in the Life and Songs of Bob Marley. The Journal of Religion and Popular Culture 24:3 (2012). 380-392.
  • Mulenga, Marvin. Bob Marley Live in Zimbabwe (Full Show). Filmed in Salisbury, Zimbabwe, April 18th, 1980. YouTube. 34:50. Posted February 21st, 2017.
  • Niaah, Jahlani. Towards a New Map of Africa Through Rastafari ‘Works’. Africa Development 35 (2010) 177-199.
  • Nikomo, Joshua. The Principles of Unity and Struggle in Zimbabwe, The Black Scholar 9 (1978), 21-26
  • Tendi, Miles-Blessing. Soldiers contra diplomats: Britain’s role in the Zimbabwe/Rhodesia ceasefire (1979-1980) reconsidered, Department of International Development 26 (2015), 937-956.

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