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. 

Redemption Song Lyrics

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”.

Chorus

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.

Chorus of Redemption Song

Second Chapter

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.

Verse 2 of "Redemption Song"

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.

Third Chapter

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.

The Third verse of "Redemption Song"

Conclusion

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.

Summary

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.

5 Responses

  1. Jali John Makiyi says:

    Marley’s songs have what it takes to provoke even idle minds.

  2. Kaya says:

    I think the song is also about the journey our souls take throughout their time on earth…

    Old pirates, yes, they rob I
    >I think he is talking about the British funded pirates of Caribbean that took the slaves from Portuguese and Spanish ships. But also how these same people still run the show. A world controlled by Old Pirates

    Sold I to the merchant ships
    >They didn’t release the slaves they resold them, a backdoor involvement directly by the British Empire
    Minutes after they took I
    From the bottomless pits
    >You don’t have pits in ships, they held the slaves inland and tortured them before reselling them. The pit was where they punished them
    But my hand was made strong
    By the hand of the Almighty
    >He has the strength of god and Jesus (Marley often refers to Jesus words in his songs “Judge Not”, “Babylon System” many more)
    We forward in this generation
    Triumphantly
    >We are going to win and overthrow our oppressors, this generation
    Won’t you help to sing
    These songs of freedom?
    ‘Cause all I ever have
    Redemption songs
    Redemption songs
    >He is asking us to join in a song for freedom no more regret and judgement no more need for sorrow

    Emancipate yourself from mental slavery
    None but our self can free our minds
    >We project our futures, if we are slaves in our minds we are slaves in body. Let go of fear.
    Have no fear for atomic energy
    ‘Cause none of them can stop the time
    >Look at the catastrophe that is atomic energy – Chernobyl, Fukushima – but this time is coming whether they like it or not
    How long shall they kill our prophets
    While we stand aside and look?
    >Bob Marley killed, John Lennon killed so many
    Some say it’s just a part of it
    We’ve got to fulfill di book
    >Bible:Revelation

  3. Jacqueline says:

    It’s was stated that Bob N.Marley was b4 his time. Some have even saidchecwas a prophet. Because he was a spiritful person, spiritual, spirit led, what ever, .. I’m choosing to comment only on he couldn’t have been b4 his time bcuz the word States that b4 any of us were formed our mother’s belly the LORD GOD (JAH) knew us. So the Lord, God saw to it 4 Bob Nester Marley to b sent to us during his lifetime chosen by (JAH). God speaks 2 all of us, & my belief is God spoke to Bob Nester Marley. Although most of us say he left tooo soon, even the way he left we question? But again God knows all, sees all, & hears all. Bob Nester Marley, accomplished what the Lord wanted him to. I’m sure he was n some pain b4 he closed his to see God. But we should always remember believers will see him again..1 other comment If 1 had the choice of nothing to do but, watch 2 performer sing, dance around in stage, while playing a guitar for the rest of my life, it would b Bob Nester Marley. More than that when he did interviews, he did what JESUS did, Bob’s answer would 1st b a question. I’ve read that he had a poker face (look). I had to ask my sister (an engineer) what that meant. I enjoy watching him lookup, around, his eyes would wonder, as if he sought an answer from on high. No one like him!

  4. SMF says:

    This is without a shred of doubt one of the most influential songs of all time. As the title suggests, it is a song that deals with redemption, freedom and total emancipation. Some of the lyrics were inspired by a famous speech titled “The Work That Has Been Done” given by the legendary Jamaican civil-rights activist and Pan-Africanist leader Marcus Garvey in Nova Scotia in Canada in 1937.

    The lines that talk about emancipating oneself from mental slavery and the one about none but ourselves having the power to free our minds from mental slavery were taken from said speech. In that famous speech, Garvey, among many other things, stated that the ruler of the individual is his mind. A well developed and used mind needs no other ruler. He added that the development of the mind can only be done by the individual themselves and that no external body can liberate one’s mind from slavery. And in order to break free from mental slavery, it is imperative to have sovereignty over the mind. He added that a person who cannot develop and use his mind will eventually end up being the slave of the other person who has developed his mind and is using it.

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