November 27, 2002

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Slave history

Bob Marley is the only pop star from the third world that we have.
Gilberto Gil

THE WRITING WAS on the wall, spray painted as cryptic graffiti by an unseen hand on a Brazilian street. "Bob Marley died because besides being black he was Jewish. Michael Jackson still resists because besides becoming white he became sad."

The Brazilian musician Gilberto Gil saw these words, didn't know what they meant, and in 1989 wrote a samba about them, "From Bob Dylan to Bob Marley." He subtitled it "A Provocation Samba," his attempt to understand Marley and Jackson's hold on the Brazilian imagination as martyrs and rebels, why their names – in death and in sadness – would be shot across Brazilian cement. But his response became something more, something as cryptic as the graffiti, something that praised Snow White as a racial hero because she loved all the seven dwarfs equally. It began with Dylan going Christian and "abandoning the people of Israel" and ended where the graffiti began, with Marley rescuing Dylan's orphans and becoming reggae music's most famous discoverer of Israel's lost tribes.

Gil's lionization of Marley (the black-power ranger with an agenda of panracial unity) over Dylan (the identity chameleon who sheds skins and leaves them behind) and Jackson (the chameleon who stayed white) shouldn't have been a surprise. For years Marley has been a kind of musical and political event horizon for Gil. His name has made his way into Gil's songs ever since the dark-skinned mulatto from Bahia realized, with the help of the Black Panthers and the liberation movements in Africa, that in the eyes of the world he was a black man, not the part-white, middle-class son of a doctor with a private-school pedigree and a bossa nova bug he thought he was.

In a recent conversation I had with Gil, he explained that "historically, the mestizo class in Brazil have been conditioned to go into a whitening process, and they aspire to become a member of white society. So for me, simulating the black side of the family was never a priority." But it quickly became one as the '60s brought black activism to Brazil and Gil became a leftist who, as a part of a black arts festival, took off for Nigeria for a month. Then came Hendrix, then Marley, then the official birth of the new Gil, the one who, as he put it, "had reached a new level of consciousness" and was ready to play the role of the politically minded black Brazilian singer.

Gil has just released Kaya N'Gan Daya (WEA), a tribute to Marley that finally cements the relationship between these two black liberationists from developing countries who never met (Gil went to a Marley show in Los Angeles in 1978 but Marley took off before Gil made it backstage). It is a rare document of the cultural conversation that corporate globalization so often shields from view: a musical coalition between a mixed-race Brazilian and a mixed-race Jamaican, the former looking to the latter as a model for how to turn a history of slavery into a future of social freedom. Marley's career-long commitment to singing against the "Babylon system" that created slaves out of Africans and instituted the racial hierarchy that to this day continues to define culture in the Americas is a natural fit for the Bahia-reared Gil. Throughout the 19th century, Bahia was the capital of Brazilian plantation society, and the Bahian life that Gil grew up knowing was a life marked by slavery's residue: miscegenation, syncretism, mixture.

Last year Gil's longtime ally and fellow self-styled mulatto Caetano Veloso released Noites do Norte (Nonesuch), an album entirely devoted to the role of slavery in Brazilian culture. Veloso organized his song cycle around 19th-century Brazilian abolitionist Joaquim Nabuco's claim that slavery is central to Brazil's national character – he called it "the indefinable sigh half-heard in our moonlit northern nights." Veloso's new Live from Bahia (Nonesuch) delivers many of Noites' most pointed moments to a local Bahian audience, giving immediate weight to songs like "13 de Maio," an account of the day slavery was abolished in Brazil in 1888, and "Zumbi," Jorge Ben's paean to a 17th-century runaway slave revolutionary. Veloso sings of slave bosses as if they were standing right in front of him, "watching the harvest of white cotton, gathered by black hands."

The slave history that joins Veloso and Gil's Brazil to Marley's Jamaica is the anchor of Gil's tribute, which begins with "Buffalo Soldier" and its tale of men "stolen from Africa, brought to America." But Kaya N'gan Daya is not simply Gil singing Marley's songs; he's interpreting them for Brazil. When Gil does "No Woman, No Cry," "Time Will Tell," and "Lively up Yourself," he interrupts Marley's English verses with his own in Portuguese and does what Marley asks in the lyrics to "One Drop." He extends these drum beats, these rhythms "resisting against the system," to people who still need to hear their message, ensuring that redemption speaks the language of all those who are still waiting.

E-mail Josh Kun at jksfbg@aol.com.