Socioeconomic Issues in Bob Marley’s Song Buffalo Soldier

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1437 words

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“If you know your history, Then you would know where you're coming from, Then you wouldn't have to ask me, Who the heck do I think I am?”(Bob Marley) In other words, if people understand their narrative, then they’ll know their lineage, so others need not question their fight for equality, reparations, and sovereignty.

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“Buffalo Soldier” is a reggae song written by Bob Marley and Noel Williams and recorded by Bob Marley and the Wailers. In 1980, Bob Marley produced the third album in the trilogy Confrontation, which launched after his passing in 1983 and includes his smash hit Buffalo Soldier. The main purpose of this essay is to analyze how the Reggae song, “Buffalo Soldier,” relates to the issues of race, class, and socioeconomic inequality, especially amongst blacks in America. Further, it provides a thorough classification of the Reggae genre, style, tempo, and instrumentation, along with a general overview of Bob Marley’s biography.

Reggae came into existence from three well-known Jamaican genres classified as Mentor, Ska, and Rocksteady. These genres shaped Reggae considerably, that to appreciate reggae one needs to recognize and grasp its line of descent. Mento is native to Jamaican folk music and choreography. Its foundations are for the most part European and African, with a sharp Jamaican melody. For example, mento typically features acoustic instruments, such as acoustic guitar, banjo, hand drums, and the rhumba box.

Subsequently, the genre that grew out of Mento was Ska, which merged Mento, American R&B, Doo-wop, and Jazz. Distinctly, “it separates itself from other musical genres due to its walking bass line accented with rhythms on the upbeat.” Around 1966, ska struggled to gain more popularity, shaping the way for Rocksteady. Rocksteady grew out of the poor districts of Kingston, otherwise referred to as the ghettos, after Jamaica’s independence in 1962. Rocksteady’s distinct instruments include the piano, drums, and bass. Rocksteady could forgo the highest quality horn section, thus, manufacturing was cheap. The electric bass, interwoven with the drums, pulls together its explicit acoustic style; this symphonic quality, known as riddim, later transferred to reggae.

Reggae emerged in 1968 replacing Rocksteady, in Trench Town, an impoverished locality in Kingston. The fundamental difference between rocksteady and reggae is the enhanced robust and vivacious cadenced guitar, which typically achieved a two-chord pattern in melody to the bass and drum riddims, and the projection and intricacy of the bass line in reggae.

Even though some reggae songs focused on oneness, romance, and joy, the theme of reggae was unlike rocksteady. Reggae, instead, became a powerful medium to express grievances against sociopolitical inequality, prejudice, and socioeconomic disparity, placing a particular emphasis on the hardship of the day-to-day life of black Jamaicans.

Thus, the term reggae is synonymous with the typical local majority in the “trenches” otherwise known as the “ghettos” of Kingston, Jamaica. As an example, Bob Marley demonstrates the theme of reggae in “Buffalo Soldier,' a militant song that emphasizes the need for blacks in the diaspora, especially America, to fight against political and social inequality. Contrary, to the contemporary portrayal of Marley’s music as the symbolization of solidarity, unification, love, hope, and Rastafarianism. “Bob Marley ranks among both the most popular and the most misunderstood figures in modern culture.” 

The undisputed best-renowned reggae musician, Robert Nesta Marley, (aka Bob Marley) was born on February 6, 1945, in St. Ann’s Bay Parrish, Jamaica and died May 11th 1981. The son of a white European father, and black Jamaican teenage mother. Marley relocated to Kingston at the age and would stay in the ghettos of Kingston for his entire boyhood. Marley's father died when he was only ten years old. He began his career as a singer at age fifteen upon the release of his first Ska record, “Judge Not.” In 1963, Marley’s career in Ska music began to thrive after he became a leader of the Wailers music group, which comprised Peter McIntosh (aka Peter Tosh) and Neville ‘Bunny’ Livingston (aka Bunny Wailer).

In 1966, Marley married singer Rita Anderson, who later became a part of his backup vocalist the I-Threes. Also, in 1966, he relocated to Wilmington, Delaware, in the United States for a short time to live with his mother. Upon his return to Jamaica, Marley, and the Wailers began to integrate Rastafarianism in their lyrics and Marley’s style transformed distinctively with his signature dreadlocks. In 1971, the Wailers recorded their biggest hit thus far in Jamaica: “Trenchtown Rock.”

In the early 1970s, Bob Marley and the Wailers unofficially sponsored the ‎People's National Party-(PNP) and Prime Minister Candidate Michael Manley, who went on to win the national elections in 1972. As a result, the correlation between Marley, Reggae music, and politics intensified. Also, in 1972, the Wailers produced their first album with Island Records Catch a Fire, which included songs such as “Stir It Up” while successful, was criticized for its hybrid reggae and rock sound. Subsequently, their album Burnin’, which started incorporating traditional Jamaican folk rhythms such as the Burru drums, which can be heard in “Rastaman Chant.” The album Burnin includes songs such as “Get Up Stand Up” and “I Shot the Sheriff.”

In 1974, internal disputes within the group drove Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer to leave the group and launch solo careers. As a result, Marley reconstructed the group to include the Barrett brothers on bass and drums and officially renamed the group Bob Marley and the Wailers. The new sound, heard on the next album, Natty Dread (a reference to the dreadlocks worn by Rastafarians), added a heavy blues/rock amplified electric guitar sound and a gospel-influenced female backing trio, known as the I-Threes. In 1980, Bob Marley produced the third album in the trilogy Confrontation, which launched after his passing in 1983 and includes his smash hit Buffalo Soldier.

Marley’s “Buffalo Soldier” was inspired by the tyrannical subjugation and continued marginalization of blacks in America. For example, Jim Crow and many other policies were a part of the United States liberal history from 1776 until 960’s. Marley uses the analogy of the Buffalo Soldier to illustrate the heroism, fearlessness, and courage of blacks in America, now the ancestors of African slaves, who were brought from Africa to America. As an example, Marley starts the song by saying “There was a Buffalo Soldier in the heart of America, Stolen from Africa, brought to America, Fighting on arrival, fighting for survival”. While the Buffalo Soldier pertains to the black U.S cavalry regiments, (aka the Buffalo Soldiers) an army at the battlefront in the Indian Wars following 1866. Marley equates their fight for survival and revolutionizes it as symbolizing black resistances, bravery, and patriotism.

The song aims to shed light on the significance of blacks in the betterment and enrichment of America, which under such consideration are equally deserving of basic civil liberties, free from oppression, marginalization, and inequality. As exemplified in Marley’s charismatic tone “Then you wouldn't have to ask me, Who the heck do I think I am,” here, Marley affirms his frustrations of why the need for basic civil rights of blacks in America leaves no room for inquiry.

Marley’s song “Buffalo Soldier” gives blacks the confidence to rise above oppression and inequality, and as such galvanize blacks in the diaspora to gain their sovereign liberties in America, by fighting against the status quo of prejudice, racial injustice, and socioeconomic disparity. Marley utilizes repetition (Said he was fighting on arrival, fighting for survival) and the analogy of the (Buffalo Soldier) to express the significant contribution of blacks in the development of America, thus deserving of equal rights. 

In “Buffalo Soldier,” there is a single guitar playing the chords on the offbeat, like in reggae where the offbeat is usually accentuated with a rhythm guitar.” Additionally, the trumpets are heard in the beginning, following the metal drums and possibly a bongo. In turn, “Buffalo Soldier,” exemplifies the main theme of reggae as a powerful medium to express grievances against oppression. The reggae genre is a revolutionized music movement that arose in the “ghettoes” of Jamaica, its evolution from Mento, Ska, and Rocksteady allowed it to achieve success across international borders.

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However, Marley moved reggae to the mainstream. His literacy and subjective experience on oppression, Rastafarian spirituality, slavery, Black Power Movement, Women's - rights movement, Civil Rights Movement, and the end to Colonialism; influenced his music and the reggae genre immensely. Therefore, reflected the direct interconnections between music and issues surrounding race, class, gender, sexuality, and other definers of identity in songs such: Buffalo Soldier, No Woman No Cry, Redemption Song, I Shot The Sheriff, Get Up Stand Up, and many others. Contrary, to the contemporary portrayal of Marley’s music as the symbolization of solidarity, unification, love, hope, and Rastafarianism.

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Dr. Charlotte Jacobson

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Socioeconomic Issues In Bob Marley’s Song Buffalo Soldier. (2021, November 22). GradesFixer. Retrieved September 21, 2023, from
“Socioeconomic Issues In Bob Marley’s Song Buffalo Soldier.” GradesFixer, 22 Nov. 2021,
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