Saturday, July 11, 2009

Would Bob Marley be rolling over in his grave or am I being oversensitive?

This morning someone sent me this video of Bob Marley's song "Three Little Birds" being covered by Britain's Got Talent's young 6-year old phenom, Connie Talbot:



Now, I know that it's not fair to rip on a little girl. And I'm not trying to quibble about Talbot's talents (although I am personally not fond of young children's voices doing covers of some of my favorite songs), but when I watched the above video, I had a viscerally NEGATIVE reaction to hearing and more importantly SEEING the image of this blond, white British child covering black Jamaican Bob Marley's song, all the while traipsing about the island and coming to the aid of the poor beleagured black Jamaican children in her video.

It reminded me of the scene from Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye where an adolescent African American girl, Pecola, explains why she hates blue eyed, blond haired baby dolls--why she wanted to gouge out their eyes -- why she HATED these dolls and only later, as she grew older, did she learn to turn that hatred into love, a very twisted form of love born out of being conditioned to SEE the blue-eyed, blond haired doll as being the epitome of beauty and worthy of love and affection.

And so I just have to wonder, do the little black Jamaican girls in the music video feel like they wish THEY could be singing Bob Marley's song and making a video where THEY are the one's covering the song by this man who is from THEIR country, who is like THEM and not like the blond little white girl who is here on Easter vacation but who will go back to her own island nation--the same island nation that had colonized Jamaica, killed off the indigenous people, and enslaved men and women who were the ancestors of the little black girls in the video as well as Bob Marley.

[OK, before everyone jumps all over me, let me say that yes I do recognize that the racial politics of Jamaica are complex and reducing Marley or any of these girls into "black" Jamaicans obscures a history of racial mixing (one borne out of violence in many ways) and ignores the multiracial and multiethnic history of Jamaica--but if you go to the sidebar or search for my past Jamaican posts, you'll get a sense of me writing about this topic already]

Am I over-analyzing? Perhaps. It's what I do. So in an effort to show you that I am open to acknowledging the author's intention, let me direct you to an excerpt of the lyrics for "Three Little Birds" and a wiki answer for what those bird symbolize within the song:


"Don't worry about a thing,
'Cause every little thing gonna be all right.
Singin': "Don't worry about a thing,
'Cause every little thing gonna be all right!"

Rise up this mornin',
Smiled with the risin' sun,
Three little birds
Pitch by my doorstep
Singin' sweet songs
Of melodies pure and true,
Sayin', ("This is my message to you-ou-ou:")

Singin': "Don't worry 'bout a thing,
'Cause every little thing gonna be all right."
Singin': "Don't worry (don't worry) 'bout a thing,
'Cause every little thing gonna be all right!"


So a lot of sites talk about how the 3 little birds are a reference to the holy trinity or another biblical reference about birds and forgiveness and love, or that the 3 little birds are a reference to Marley's 3 backup singers. But according to the booklet in Marley's Songs of Freedom,

"When Bob and his brethren at the Island House would pick the cannabis seeds out, the birds would eat them off the floor"

Which means, when you re-read the lyrics, it's basically about how smoking weed helps you to relax and not worry. Which also puts the above video by little Miss Talbot in an odd context...a six-year old endorsing marijuana use to chill out.

And in case, like me, you needed to get the above video (and voice) out of your head, here's "Three Little Birds" sung by the one and only Bob Marley:

22 comments:

Mamabelle said...

I don't generally have a problem with white artists doing covers of songs by black artists, but I would definitely have a problem if it were, say, Redemption Song, or something related. Or, "Why I Sing the Blues" by BB King.

I'm a big fan of Bob Marley, and no, I don't think he'd be turning over in his grave... you are aware that Marley is biracial, right? His father was a white Jamaican. One of of his many children, Damien Marley, is also of mixed Heritage. Damien's mother is Cindy Breakspeare of mixed (mostly white) heritage.

I think Marley wanted his music to be for everyone to enjoy.

Now as far as a child singing about smoking weed to chill out, that is another issue entirely!

Jennifer said...

Mamabelle,
Yep, I know that Marley is multiracial--hence the caveat I included about being aware of Jamaica as a multiracial space.

Thanks for your comment--I think we're going to have to agree to disagree, but at least we are both Marley fans!

Mamabelle said...

here, here!

I'm always surprised how many people don't know his biracial background, so I wasn't sure.
Glad I came across your blog!

Jennifer said...

Mamabelle,

I do appreciate you stressing Marley's biracial background--it is too simple to say that he is "black" in some respects, although I also think that he was really committed to black liberation issues and was certainly black identified.

If you are interested in another post I did about my own family's Jamaican connections, you can click on the "Multiracial Jamaica?" link on the sidebar of the blog or do a search within this blog on "Chinese Jamaicans."

Thanks for stopping by and hope to hear from you again!

Genepool said...

My own experience with children makes me think that while ALL children like to be the center of attention, I doubt any one of them cared about what color the others were, unless there were adults there to bring it to their attention and force them to dwell on it.

As for Bob Marley, I don't really know much about him. Reggae and Country music simply don't get much playtime in my house. Even so, how could he be angry about ANYONE singing a song he wrote about love and forgiveness? Even if the underlying theme was about smoking pot.

I know what you mean about that "viscerally NEGATIVE reaction" though. I get the same feeling when rappers sample material from some of my old favorite 60's and 70's songs.

Sorry, had surgery the other day and I'm feeling a bit disjointed. Since cannabis is illegal, I'll have to settle for the vicodin they gave me. Peace and Love!

Jennifer said...

Genepool,

I think, truth be told, I'm not a fan of children singing ANYTHING. Any child any song. I'm not a fan of kids' voices. Yes, the soul of an 80 year old man is trapped in my body. I AM that grumpy neighbor who yells at kids to get out of her yard.

I do disagee about the kids' seeing race thing. I think kids' do notice race, and I would guess (although I'll need some social scientists for help here) that esp. kids of color will notice race or be aware of race/racism at an earlier age than their white peers--I imagine this is esp. true for African American kids and maybe less true for Asian American kids living in the 'burbs.

But on a totally different note, I hope you are surviving your surgery (you can tell me the details in a private email message if you like) and I'm glad to know they gave you vicadin--I had some for my root canal and I was flying like a kite! Yes, I did not worry about ANYTHING while on vicadin and did think everything was going to be alright!

Alex said...

I definitely agree with your post and the negative reaction you got from this video. I did as well- especially when the little white girl is wagging her finger in the faces of the Jamaican children while singing "Don't worry about a thing." I had a very negative colonial feel from it. It was just creepy.

whatsername said...

I don't necessarily have a problem with a little white girl covering a Bob Marley song, but that video is extremely problematic to me. Little white girl running around solving little black girls problems? Comforting them like some little angel from above? Leading the procession of little Black children through the sand? It's the same old racist trope of idealizing this blonde haired blue eyed beauty of perfect white womanhood and how the "natives" should worship her.

But if the video wasn't so shockingly in bad taste in that regard, I wouldn't necessarily mind the song. She's certainly talented, doesn't have that "kids voice" you usually hear.

Jennifer said...

Whatshername,

Yes, that was the reaction I had to the video--I just thought it was in poor taste. I mean, partly it's a combination, for me, of really loving that song (it's probably my favorite of the Marley songbook, although Redemption Song is up there too) and then being horrified by the "story" that the video was telling about this little white girl rescuing these black girls from troubled families.

Thanks for stopping by--hope to hear from you again!

Alex said...

I had the same reaction that you and whatsername had. Especially seeing the white girl wag her finger into the ''native'' girls' faces. That was pretty offensive to me.

Thelma Evans said...

yeah, maybe white people should feel this way when blacks play classical music. then we can all shoot each other. let's stick to what the media and those in charge tell us to play, according to race and country. furthermore, no woman should write male characters and no men should write female characters. makes sense. thanks for being a visionary.

Jennifer said...

Thelma,

I'm sorry you had such a strong, negative, and hostile reaction to the post and/or to the discussion thread that followed. If you look at the sidebar on the right, you will see that there are certain guidelines I am politely asking commenters to follow to allow for respectful disagreeements and productive dialogue to occur.

You are certainly entitled to disagree with this post, my opinions, and those of anyone else leaving a comment, but I found the *tone* and content of your comment not to be in the spirit of respectful engagement that I'm asking people to contribute.

Also, the more correct stereotype to invoke are Asians/Asian Americans being upset when African Americans perform classical music (of course, I jest). I think you will find that you will create more dialogue and discussion using less inflamtatory/sarcastic language, if it is dialogue you are seeking.

If you are just here to flame me or others, I'll just delete future comments because I'm interested in a productive discussion not a ranting session.

Anyway, thanks for stopping by!

Christopher Alix said...

i actually don't like the british kid singing it because she probably has no idea what it means, but i don't think bob marley would be turning over in his grave because he wasnt racist and was all about unity. I am not jamaican but i am of haitian and filipino descent,(people mostly think i am dominican or puerto rican) and I know that the only problem I have with it, is that the kid probably doesnt know what it means.

madeleinemorley said...

I don't think any one in this video is in any way "disadvantaged". This scenery looks very manicured and the children look well fed. I saw one incident of "domestic" abuse. I don't see a race issue here; I see a class issue here. I see a video done in a tourist back drop likely involving children of well off Jamaicans. And, yes, there are well off Jamaicans of all "colours". You assume that because the children are "black" they are disadvantaged. This is called unconscious racism. I did not like this version of the song or the singing very much. On the other hand I could listen to Bob Marley singing anything at anytime! He was not hung up on race---he was hung on respect, equality and dignity for all. Being hung up on race is convenient because it allows those with power and wealth to focus on superficial race issues and not on real poverty issues. Focus on race and we sustain economic oppression. Bob had that all figured out.

Jennifer said...

This post was written a while ago while I was cranky, although I still stand by my gut level reaction of revulsion to seeing/hearing this little girl sing this song.

Just as a point of clarification to the more recent posters. I am defining racism as an institutional system of privilege and power. Whether or not Bob Marley was racist is not the point--the fact that this girl operates under a system of white privilege because of her skin color and that Jamaica has a very complex history of skin color privilege tied to power and money is what is important to recognize.

Also, using language like "hung up" obscures the point of this post and this blog in general. Let me gently guide you to the posts I have written on the right side bar that talk about the purpose of this blog (productive dialogue/discussion about race) and my other posts talking about race and racism and privilege and about what we can all do to be allies in ending all forms of oppression.

Jenny Esser said...

I saw this video as upbeat, optimistic and universally reaching children. I think that if there were more children who weren't black, not many wouldn't have found this offensive. I agree that by keeping a closed mind, especially to an innocent 6 year-old, we will continue to have oppression and racial divide. Let's celebrate the fact that the little girl singing wanted to befriend the other children and that Bob's message has resonated.

rainbowbubbles said...

If YOU think ANYONE should not be allowed to do something solely because his or her skin color, that makes YOU the racist. How would you feel if white blogs posted about how black children should not be allowed to sing songs originally by white artists, or to push it further, about the Holocaust or struggles in Ireland?

Jennifer said...

rainbowbubbles,
The point I'm making is more complicated than just saying artists don't have a right to cover a song cross-racially. There are many things I could say to explain my point, but I will just add here:
1) Your reaction seems bound up in the fact that I'm critiquing a little girl--our society tends to treat children as innocent angels who are beyond reproach.
2) You brought up the Holocaust--you lose, (ie: the minute anyone has to reference Hitler, the Nazi's or the Holocaust as a rebuttal, their ability to create a credible and coherent counter-argument has been shot to hell).

Jennifer said...

rainbowbubbles,
The point I'm making is more complicated than just saying artists don't have a right to cover a song cross-racially. There are many things I could say to explain my point, but I will just add here:
1) Your reaction seems bound up in the fact that I'm critiquing a little girl--our society tends to treat children as innocent angels who are beyond reproach.
2) You brought up the Holocaust--you lose, (ie: the minute anyone has to reference Hitler, the Nazi's or the Holocaust as a rebuttal, their ability to create a credible and coherent counter-argument has been shot to hell).

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Jennifer said...

honey K,
Thanks so much for your comment and feedback--it really inspires me to try to write, again, in the blog--will try to make some new posts soon!
Best,
Jennifer

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