This mornin’ I woke up to a curfew / Oh God, I was a prisoner too / Could not recognise the faces standing over me / They were all dressed in uniforms of brutality / Give me food and let me grow / Let the roots man take a blow / All dem drugs gonna make you slow / It’s not the music of the ghetto / We gonna be burnin’ and a-lootin’ tonight…
These lyrics are far removed from the general perception of Bob Marley. They don’t align with the image of a smiling fool who only produces feel-good music, music to smoke ganja to, good for nothing else.
The majority wouldn’t believe that there was once a time where this man would be serenely swaying to the riddim, alongside the rest of The Wailers but effectively alone. All eyes would be on the diminutive, wild-haired man holding center stage, each soul present moving in step with the haunting bass that flooded the room, paying respect to the ominous beat and the tightly-coiled spirit that controlled it.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is the psychologist that recognised the concept of flow, an intensely focused mental state of complete absorption with the activity at hand, a state where an individual is so involved in said activity that nothing else seems to matter - time does not move at the same pace, hunger is irrelevant. Those who can access this stream of consciousness are defined as autotelic, a word derived from the Greek αὐτοτελής, made up of αὐτός, ‘self’ and τέλος, ‘goal’.
Csikszentmihalyi elaborates: “An autotelic person needs few material possessions and little entertainment, comfort, power or fame, because so much of what they do is already rewarding. They are less dependent on the external rewards that keep others motivated to go on with a life of routine. They are autonomous and independent because they cannot be as easily manipulated with threats or rewards from the outside.”
In 1973, before they became a global force, Sly and the Family Stone invited The Wailers on a 17 date tour of the United States. They were to perform as the opening act, but five dates in were abandoned with the little luggage they carried on the side of a road outside Las Vegas. Each night they had taken to the stage and blown the crowd away, showing up their hosts. Led by Marley, they astounded with music that cut through the superfluous and found the root - there was no glitz and glamour, only genuine art delivered from the pit of the stomach, performed by a group seemingly on the wavelength of an incomprehensibly esoteric spirit.
Marley perfectly fits the description of an autotelic. He was renowned for pursuing his craft with ferocious intensity, not with a material pay-off in mind, but solely to produce art to the standard of excellence it deserved. Few realise that he lived with such ascetic devotion to his craft, and even fewer realise that music was not his only love. For this Jamaican, football was equally important.
Neville Garrick, his principal art director, explained how much so: “Bob loved football to the point that, if he was good enough, he would have pursued it over music. He wasn’t a big man, but he was very aggressive. When he tackled, he tackled hard, and we lost plenty of balls to his powerful foot. Hope Road [Marley’s base in Kingston] was basically a stadium back in the day. The field wasn’t that big, but we had some wicked three-on-three and four-on-four games, sometimes with big-time national team ballers - we used to command big crowds. His weakness as a player was also his strength. He was so aggressive and competitive, and sometimes you can be too competitive. But, bwoy, he would run, run for days.”
Dessie Smith, a close friend from Trenchtown, concurred, describing a typical day during a period spent in Miami: “He’d wake up and get some mint tea. He might burn a spliff, reason, read The Bible, read a psalm out loud and discuss it with us. After that, he take the guitar, and depending on the vibes him get, we might get a song. Might play some ball after that, play more guitar, eat, then back to the guitar. We played ball outdoors and sometimes indoors, inside the kitchen. Mrs. Booker [Marley’s mother] would often cry out: ‘Why yuh mash up the tings? Play ball outside!’”
Football is the only sport on earth that can be considered truly global. Simple and inexpensive, it is equally likely to be found in a tight Marseille banlieue, an obscure corner of a Lagos slum, and the heart of a Buenos Aires barrio. Marley’s music is similarly universal. It is the embodiment of the ghetto sufferah, the dispossessed street urchin whose never-ending battle for survival transcends continent and race.
The game of football is also natural, and slots neatly into the worldview of the Rastaman. For them, it is imperative to follow the laws of nature, not the smothering impositions decreed by Babylon. Life is sweetest when it is simple and clean, an arena where ital food and artisanal craft are essential ingredients. Music and football both qualify as craft, rare rhythmic vehicles of skill and competition.
Another close to Marley was Gilly Gilbert, the Hope Road chef. He outlined the paramount role physical exercise played in his friend’s life: “Bob loved to exercise, he loved to train with us. We were hard, running all over Cane River and Seven Mile Beach. If we run ten miles, Bob run ten miles. When we finished, we ate the best fish with a dread named Gabby Dread. He was an inspiration to us because he was the man on the beach that have the steam chalice ready as well as the roast fish and the fish tea. I don’t see no entertainer right now who can step in Bob’s shoes. He took this thing serious, he was no joker-smoker. He was something special, one of a kind.”
Born and raised in Cork, Ireland, I was keen to experience this radical lifestyle, a synthesis of clean living and rustic excellence, paring things back to the root to see what I uncovered. On consecutive summer breaks from university, I travelled across the Atlantic Ocean to the Caribbean, working as an organic farmer. I lived in Trinidad and Tobago, in a predominately African community alongside many Rastafarians. Once the body grows accustomed to the wilting tropical heat and the intense manual labour, it becomes difficult to separate work from play. Everything bleeds together as one to emit a beautiful hue.
Once the mind is liberated from the constraints of life in the developed world, you learn to move to a different riddim. Utilising a machete, or a cutlass to use the colloquial term, to cut bamboo becomes a fine art as you learn the exponential difference in execution according to angle. You gradually understand the perfect method to tote yam, a dead weight, over your shoulder, while scrambling through bush slippery from tropical rain. Any sense of accomplishment in surmounting these obstacles are diminished as soon as you see a ten-year old split bamboo with a single nonchalant strike, or marvel at a dread in his mid-seventies effortlessly glide through the jungle with twice the weight over his back.
Once the sun falls beneath the horizon, a football is produced and the true competition begins. You play barefoot, in either the street, the yard or a vacant expanse of grass. Physically, I didn’t have a prayer of competing with the locals - in matters of both strength and pace I was severely lacking. But where I did excel was an expansive passing range. I would pick the ball up deep in the pocket and stretch the play, while my teammates would hoot at the white bwoy who wasn’t strong but knew the time of day. Every night I would ride challenges and confront the oppressive humidity, observed by bystanders and soundtracked by the simple sound of reggae.
The closer to the root, the better the reggae. Too many assume the modern, superficial incarnation of the genre is the default form, a school of music characterised by the empty repetition of positive affirmations. The same can be said by those who deride modern football, sceptics who dismiss the game as a convoluted soap opera played by overpaid prima-donnas and ruined by money. But, like reggae, the closer to the root, the better the football, the purer the soul of the beautiful game.
It can be a sport of breathtaking simplicity, and Marley understood this. He located this vein, latching on to the primordial link between the earthy vibration of roots reggae and the marriage of creativity and tenacity that is football played well. He executed it with a deft touch, articulating sentiments history’s greatest minds have struggled to ascertain.
It all feeds back to Csikszentmihalyi’s sentiment of flow, finding that place where nothing else matters. Marley was an expert at retreating into this state due to his tough upbringing. Half-black and half-white, he was fully embraced by neither community as a youth, growing up in Trenchtown, on the west side of Kingston, often homeless and hungry. The only means with which he had to escape a miserable life of desolation and obscurity was a powerful confluence of intense focus and inexorable will, the potent cocktail that enabled him to manifest his autotelic personality and become a veritable icon of the 20th Century.
His music was a reflection of this personality. He once said that his heart could be as hard as stone yet as soft as water, and this was most notably clear in his 1977 magnum opus, Exodus. Marley had fled Jamaica following an assassination attempt and recorded the album in London. The A-side was a spiky challenge to ruling society, an angry isolation of its excess, greed and corruption. In Guiltiness, The Heathen and Exodus, the title track, his accusatory gaze is dead-eyed and unforgiving.
But on the B-side, he outlines the path of resistance. Jamming, Waiting in Vain and Turn Your Lights Down Low are timeless celebrations of life, of finding the strength to seek respite and liberation through close friends and in the arms of lovers, of devoting yourself to caring for your body and mind and spending your time pursuing activities that nourish your spirit and make life worth living. For him, these were music and football.
This direct simplicity ensures Marley’s music will outlive us all, and it is what resonates as much with college students as slum dwellers. His work is an aural treatise on the essence of human existence, paying heed to the maxim of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” This attitude is inseparable from his love of football, a love not celebrated by sitting on a couch playing FIFA 18, but by physically engaging with it - mind, body and soul.
Alan is on Twitter @AlanFeehely.