Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” Lyrics Meaning
Arguably more so than any other popular musician of the late-20th century, Bob Marley was perceived by his fans as being a prophet. And it is songs such as “Redemption Song” which helped him earn such a reputation. No, this is not to imply that the lyrics predict the future. Rather it is Jah Bob’s ability to analyze the times, from the standpoint of his oppressed people in conjunction with his understanding of “the book” (i.e. the Bible), which gives the lyrics such a feel.
This is on top of the fact that some of the wording has been derived from the teachings of Marcus Garvey (1887-1940). It is worth noting that Garvey himself is seen by many as the greatest Black prophet of the early-20th century.
Meaning of the Lyrics of “Redemption Song”
The lyrics actually start off in the past, with Bob making a reference to the Transatlantic Slave Trade. For readers who aren’t aware of this moment of history, it marks an era in which millions of Africans were exported out of the Motherland, primarily to serve as chattel slaves in the Western Hemisphere.
It was indeed a harrowing ordeal both in transit and destination, one in which the narrator and those like him should not have survived and thrived. Yet via divine intervention he and his people are still able to move “forward… triumphantly”.
Meanwhile in the subsequent chorus, Bob Marley likens “redemption songs” to “songs of freedom”. And all things considered, the latter reads like a reference to the Negro spirituals of old which, in their own way, helped carry Black people through slavery.
Indeed the singer says that these tunes are ‘all he ever had’. And that further alludes to the notion that they, like his belief in “the Almighty”, are an act of faith. Or stated otherwise he and his people were cast into a position where they had nothing to lean in terms of being optimistic for the future. The only thing they had was their faith, which was often expressed through song.
At the beginning of the second verse is where Bob Marley channels the aforementioned Marcus Garvey with the famous “emancipate yourself from mental slavery…” line. Marcus Garvey was an early-20th century Black leader and holds the distinction, even up to a century later, of leading “the largest mass movement in African-American history”.
He is also recognized as the founder of Rastafarianism, the religion which Bob Marley adhered to, even though he didn’t sport dreadlocks himself. And the aforementioned quote centered on Garvey basically putting the onus on his people to ‘free their own minds’ as they had already been, rather-freshly, freed from physical bondage of slavery.
Thus Marley is putting forth a similar idea, that it is up to them to ‘emancipate themselves’ from being held down by a detrimental mode of thinking, which can be further said to have been picked up during the days of slavery.
He then goes on to address what was actually a hot topic in popular music during the early-1980s, the prospect of nuclear war. He knows that most people are utterly and completely powerless in the face of such. But still he is telling them to “have no fear”. He is confident of this because of a prophetic idea that basically reads like ‘what will be will be’. In other words, yes, the leaders of the world may possess the wherewithal to construct world-destroying weapons. But ultimately they are just playing their role in the divine grand scheme of things.
He then issues what would likely be a reference to Martin Luther King (1929-1968), Malcolm X (1925-1965) and other slain Black leaders – as well as perhaps Jesus himself – in terms of them being martyrs. But more to the point Bob, expresses anguish – one may even say disgust – at the idea that in the wake of their killings the people whom they served just “stand aside and look”. He then concludes the verse pointing, once again, to the divine scheme of things. And in that regard he is no longer judging the people for being passive. Rather he more or less concludes that the death of such individuals, as well as the (lack of) reaction of the people, is also the fulfillment of prophecy, so to speak.
So conclusively, “Redemption Song” is very prophetic in nature. As will be elaborated on in this post’s final section, Marley put it together during a time when his own death was imminent. That may be why he dedicates a good portion of it to looking not only into the future but also the past, even if he does so macrocosmically.
And also, it should be noted that facing death does not minimize his concern and hope for his people. He is hoping that one day they will verily achieve true mental as well as physical freedom. And tunes such as this serve as an expression of that longing, which is why he is encouraging others to sing along also.
All in all, Bob Marley, acting more or less as a prophet, still hopes for the complete “redemption” of his oppressed people.
Release Date of “Redemption Song”
This track is from Bob Marley’s album “Uprising”, the 12th studio album between him and the Wailers. Said project also holds the distinction of being the last album Bob Marley (1945-1981) actually dropped during his lifetime. In fact being released by Island Records on 1 January 1979, it is also the last of the legend’s singles released during his lifetime.
At the time Bob Marley released this tune, he had already been diagnosed with the skin cancer which ultimately took his life. As such the lyrics of “Redemption Song” are often regarded as a final message he left behind to world.
Indeed according to his wife Rita Marley, via ‘this song particularly’ Jah Bob “dealt with his own mortality”. In fact this was one of the tunes Bob performed during his last performance, which took place in Pittsburgh on 23 September 1980.
Notable Version of “Redemption Song”
Although this song is credited to Bob Marley & the Wailers, in actuality, unconventionally, the version we are most familiar with features an acoustic Jah Bob both singing and playing the guitar. Also it is one of the few songs he ever put out which is not to be based on a reggae rhythm.
However, for those who prefer a standard instrumental, there is a Band Version of “Redemption Song” also present on “Uprising”. In fact the latter, which features the Wailers, actually came first. And it was the person who produced the tune alongside Bob Marley, Island Records’ Chris Blackwell, who convinced the singer to cut an acoustic version by himself, which once again is the version that actually blew up.
Writing Credits and Success
Meanwhile Bob Marley is the sole writer of this track. And “Redemption Song” is one of his most-celebrated works. That is to say that in 2003, Rolling Stone ranked it the 66th ‘Greatest Song of All Time’. Also in 2009, well-known Afrocentric poet Mutabaruka declared this the most-influential song in Jamaican history. And just to note, Redemption Song did chart in New Zealand.
Artists who have covered this tune include some of the biggest names in the industry, such as the following:
- Jackson Browne (1995)
- Wyclef Jean (2001)
- Johnny Cash (alongside Joe Strummer, 2003)
- Rihanna (2010)
- John Legend (2020)
Additionally this track made a notable appearance on Will Smith’s 2007 sci-fi flick “I Am Legend”.
NOTE: “Redemption Song” is not to be confused with Blackman Redemption, a much lesser-known single Bob Marley & the Wailers came out with in 1978, though it does deal with some of the same topics.
Music Video for “Redemption Song”
An official music video to this track did not come out until 6 February 2020. It was in recognition of what would have been Jah Bob’s 75th birthday, had he survived. The clip is an animated affair put together by a couple of French artists named Theo De Gueltzl and Octave Marsal and was ultimately released by the Marley Family.
And in terms of the effort the artists put behind the visual, it consists of nearly 3,000 original drawings, including depictions of the aforementioned Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.
More Facts about “Redemption Song”
According to Rita Marley, while writing the song, Marley was in great physical pain and knew he was about departing this world forever. While writing the song, Marley was suffering from cancer – an illness which eventually claimed his life less than a year after the song was released.
Bono of the rock band U2, because of the sheer power of “Redemption Song”, he used to take the song with him to every meeting or encounter he had with a politician.
This Bob Marley classic is one of the most covered song in the history of music.
Singer Rihanna said the song was a very special song for her. According to her, growing up, she played it whenever she found herself in a “difficult situation” because it has the power to inspire and liberate.