This was then quite controversial, as - after all - the prize was implicitly intended for literary authors, and awarded as such. More specifically, fiction-writers. George Bernard Shaw, Gabriel García Marquez, Albert Camus, and Ernest Hemingway were among the authors receiving this honorary prize, which has been awarded since 1901.
It was stipulated in the will and testament of Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel that prizes should be given “for those who confer the greatest benefit on mankind”, and in different fields. The Nobel Peace Prize is also well-known. Besides Peace, there are 4 other Nobel prize categories: Physics, Chemistry, Medicine, Economics, and the already mentioned Literature.
I guess it is some kind of honouring those with merits for mankind, and I imagine that many in the world have this idea about the Nobel prizes, as connected to some type of idealism.
NOBEL PEACE PRIZE
This is most clear and explicit with the Nobel Peace Prize, awarded to those, such is formulated, advancing the “fraternity between nations” and, well, “peace” worldwide.
Regarding the other Nobel prizes than this Peace one, though, this idealism is to a degree vaguely formulated, even cryptic, and often a matter of controversy. “Outstanding contributions” in the said fields is an explicit criterium, but “influence” or advances in a certain field – say Chemistry -, does not necessarily mean that the world got better, more equal, etcetera, as a result. This nonetheless seems to be implied in initial stipulations since the prizes started in 1901.
Specifically regarding Literature the Nobel prize is equally cryptic and vague in its criteria. Literally, Alfred Nobel stated to award authors "in the field of literature, with the most outstanding work in an ideal direction".
Quite cryptic and general, and open for interpretation. Some read “idealistic” instead of “ideal” for instance.
The list of laureates of the Nobel Prize for Literature since 1901 is in fact quite varied regarding the “type of writers”: these include those influential artistically, or even popular, but not always very politically or socially engaged, say “idealistic”, writers, though the latter are certainly among the laureates.
As can also be read on Wikipedia, the controversy was always there, with some considering the awarding of Nobel Literature Prizes to certain writers/people as too biased, either too politically motivated, or too little. Others notice a European and pro-Western bias.
An overview of all the Nobel prize laureates up to the present unfortunately confirms this pro-Western bias, regarding all the said fields. Most laureates are from the US and United Kingdom, followed by Germany, France, and Sweden. After this follow many country with fewer laureates, though the Netherlands with 21 are relatively well-represented (compared to e.g. 8 of a country like Spain).
Then there are some countries with one or a few laureates or none at all, especially developing countries. Only recently for the first time an Ethiopian became the first laureate: the Nobel Peace Prize of 2019 to Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed Ali. Nigeria also has still only one, of Literature, to Wole Soyinka, awarded in 1986.
So, hesitantly over the years it became more international, those Nobel prizes, while still remaining definitely skewed and biased.
In spite of all this controversy - including just critique - over the years since 1901, the Nobel Prize for Literature has nonetheless become the world’s most prestigious literary prize.
As said, in 2016 musical artist Bob Dylan won the Nobel of Literature. Of course, this also met controversy, such as among more conventional “writers” (i.e. of novels), while others in turn appreciated the broadening of “literature”, to include song lyrics.
An interesting idea, to include song lyrics. It is an interesting art form, after all. As in every art form – though - there is a lot of “cliché” and kitsch among it: unoriginal, uncreative, non-innovative lyrics, with no philosophical “depth” or message for mankind. Romantic love songs recur throughout all popular music genres globally, albeit reflecting some cultural differences, of course. Disturbed male-female relationships, machismo, or feelings only betraying an egoistic worldview, or an urge for sexual intercourse, generally do not result in literary interesting texts, though there are some nice poetic texts and lyrics putting “love” or even “sex” in a more original, deeper or more humorous, perspective.
That Bob Dylan won the prize in 2016, however, shows perhaps the socially engaged aim Nobel implicitly had with the prize. Dylan is known more for his socially engaged or philosophical lyrics than for “lovey dovey” lyrics.
I find that this choice is quite arbitrary, though, as others might argue with other laureates over the years (“why this one, and not that one..”) of this prestigious award..
I argue that another musical artist named Bob, Bob Marley, would be an equally valid laureate for this Nobel prize of Literature as Bob Dylan, perhaps even more so. Purely lyrics-wise.
In February 2020 there is some kind of anniversary as it’s the 75th birthday of Bob Marley, born the 6th of February in 1945. He would have been 75 years old, were he still alive. He unfortunately died quite young – as other great musicians – but was very influential internationally. As to be expected – as best known Reggae artist – many tribute festivities on Bob Marley will be held around the 6th of February in this year, 2020, in several countries. Also in the Netherlands, where I live.
“I and I no come to fight flesh and blood, but spiritual wickedness in high and low places..” (from Bob Marley & the Wailers – song So Much Things To Say).
I am a Reggae fan, and write a lot about Reggae on this blog, including some articles/essays on Bob Marley. In some, I criticize the commercial exploitation OF him (not BY him, but OF him), and his watered-down sound for White audiences. At the same time, I expressed respect and appreciation for Marley as overall a great artist, and person, “keeping it real” with his message as much as possible, while helping to popularize and spread Reggae music world wide.
Personally, though, I am a broader Reggae music fan, and not just of Bob Marley. Not even primarily. Other Reggae artists I listen more to, and find more authentic, and Marley was just another great Jamaican artist and songwriter. As there were several since the 1960s.
“Why can’t we be what we wanna be. We wanna be free” (from song Rebel Music).
His fame “above Reggae” can be attributed to commercial manipulations by Island boss Chris Blackwell. Some assume racial motivations, with Marley being promoted for being half-White, whereas other contemporary Reggae artists – even with already some popularity – who were more fully Black, less so.
Others, while recognizing these commercial influences, still point at “special” musical talents or gifts of Marley, making his fame not fully arbitrary or racial. His outstanding charisma (also on stage) is mentioned by many – in Jamaica and outside -, even his physical attractiveness, in reaching people.
More musically, some point at his strong songwriting skills – even since he was a teenager -, showing throughout his many catchy, appealing songs. Jamaican producer Lee Perry, who had worked with Marley, specifically indicated how Marley “had the best melodies”. Some also like Marley’s singing.
“Life is one big road with lots of signs. So if you ride into the ruts, don’t you complicate your mind” (from Wake Up And Live).
I recognize all these things, but only partly. They do not explain his fame “beyond other Reggae artists”. He was a fine singer, but his singing voice was not the best one in Jamaican Reggae, at least in my opinion. He used it well musically, though. There were further other great songwriters in Jamaican Reggae, some even almost as prolific, such as Bob Andy, Dennis Brown, Gregory Isaacs, John Holt, Ijahman Levi, Ken Booth, and others. Some of these had strictly speaking better singing voices than Bob. Like Bob, they had good musicians around them too, rendering some great Reggae songs. Also, other artists were just as charismatic as Marley.
“Mysteries I just can’t express. How can you ever give your more to receive your less” (from Misty Morning).
BOB MARLEY'S LYRICS
There is one quality, though, that I am willing to accept as being outstanding of Bob Marley, even within the varied and culturally rich Reggae field. A quality described by Lee Perry as well: good, conscious lyrics, but “worded in simple ways, so that everyone can understand”.
“When it’s time to have your fun, you see the tears run on down from your face. Then you stop and think a little, oh.. you’re the victim of the system” (from I Know).
I agree with that: Marley’s lyrics were in my opinion his strongest point, not so much his voice, his guitar-playing, or even his songwriting. His songs are mostly fine and good, but do not always “blow me off my socks” because of their musical strength, as other Reggae songs achieved with me. Ijahman Levi, the Mighty Diamonds, the Abyssinians, the Wailing Souls, Burning Spear, Dennis Brown, the Viceroys, Hugh Mundell, and several other Reggae artists, had great beautiful songs that even mesmerized me, taking me magically to other spheres.
A few songs of Marley, I admit, achieved that with me too. I like for instance Ride Natty Ride, Rebel Music, Misty Morning, Guiltiness, Trench Town, and Forever Loving Jah. Fine, engaging musical pieces, that touched me, but also because of their lyrics..
“Only a fool leans upon his own misunderstanding” (from Forever Loving Jah).
However, what I personally mostly recall and appreciate from Marley’s entire oeuvre, are lyrics and phrases that stand the test of time, even if the songs are not among my favourites, or could be produced “edgier” musically or rhythmically, etcetera. That is the field of “literature”, these lyrics.
“Every man’s got a right to decide his own destiny.. And in this judgement there is no parciality” (from Zimbabwe).
Bob had many good, seemingly simple lyrics, about the human condition, especially regarding poor people of colour, in Jamaica and other developing countries, with many references to Rastafari and Africa. Yet, I contend, that these lyrics were universal regarding the human and world conditions. They were educational and insightful beyond the Rastafari movement, or the Jamaican ghetto. Inspired by it, but broadened and made accessible for all kinds of people, all over the world. Bob had the talent to do that with his lyrics and songwriting.
“No bullet can stop us now. No need to beg, no we won’t bow. Neither can we bought nor sold. We all defend the rights. Jah Jah children must unite. Life is worth much more than gold..We’re jamming..” (from Jamming).
Not for nothing, his lyrics appealed so much to many people, especially poor people, world wide. They recognized his struggle, and he even spoke for them. In Africa and elsewhere. Not unlike the roles of Fela Anikulapo Kuti, or Bob Dylan, but perhaps even more international. Kuti and Dylan have fans worldwide, like Marley, but with a stronger regional specialization. Dylan in the US and Kuti in Nigeria and Africa, even if later broadened.
Marley’s lyrics touched “sufferers’“ themes that needed to be touched, combined with the right to-the-point formulations, at the right places within the songs. This showed his songwriting talent.
“They say it’s hard to speak. They feel so strong to say “why we?” (from Trench Town).
In addition Bob’s lyrics mostly rhymed well, as is the norm for pop songs: sentences in lyrics have to rhyme. Take the lyric from Bob’s Misty Morning: “The power of philosophy floats through my head.. Light like a feather, heavy as led”.. Good, deep lyrics, and at the same time rhyming well. Marley was a maestro in those kind of lyrics. Dylan maybe too, but the other Bob too..
“They’re sailing on their ego trips.. on their space ships. million miles from reality. No care for you, no care for me..”(from So Much Trouble In the World).
Even from his love songs. Also his “lovey dovey” lyrics often stood the test of time: early in his career the sweet, sensitive lyrics of I’m Still Waiting, to interesting reflections as on Is This Love, nice sensuality as in Turn Your Lights Down Low. These songs, and the fine Waiting In Vain, also appealed to people worldwide, and from different cultures. There must be a reason for that. Some songs I heard by now too much, I admit, such as Is This Love, and the bland, watered-down Island production does not help, but I still see their quality and potential appeal.
“Love to see when you move in the rhythm. I love to see when you’re dancing from within..” (from Jump Nyabinghi).
Bob’s Rastafari-inspired and “conscious” lyrics also go beyond formulaic Biblical quotes, just repeating wise words of others, like Marcus Garvey, or repeated standard Rasta sayings or phrases, stated as well by other Jamaican artists. They rather have an uniqueness and sense of direction in them, making them even open eyes and minds. The line “These songs of freedom, is all I ever had”, the line in Redemption Song, one of Bob’s latest studio recordings before he deceased, is of course of an intense beauty.
“Never let a politician grant you a favour. They will only want to control you forever” (from Revolution).
INFLUENCES AND CONTEXT
Granted, not all lyrics of Marley were unique. Like other Rastafari-inspired Reggae artists he quoted Marcus Garvey and Haile Selassie I, repeated tested Rastafari and Black Power expressions, used Biblical allegories and references, or even just general expressions known in several European languages.
Lines such as “big fish (always) eat up the small fish” – in Bob’s great song Guiltiness - is a standard expression that I know from Spanish: I remember my Spanish mother saying it sometimes, even before I heard Guiltiness. I imagine it is also an expression in English, or maybe it is mentioned in the Bible. The same might apply to “how can you give your more to receive your less”, while a phrase like: “the rich man’s soul is in the city, but the poor man’s heart is in his family..”, is nice, but from the Bible..
The famous line “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds” is a great line, but is a quote from Marcus Garvey, one of the inspirers of the Rastafari movement and Marley.
In these cases, it is rather “how” and with what purpose Marley used these standard expressions. That purpose was redemption and liberation of Black people, Africa, and poor people, or even stimulating “fraternity” between nations, as also formulated as aim for the Nobel Peace Prize.
“You must have had the wrong interpretation, mixed up with vane imagination” (from Stiff Necked Fools).
One also might - justly – argue – do not worry I’ll do it for you, haha – that other Reggae artists had good, unique lyrics too. Many even. I was however talking before about the international influence as criterium of the Nobel prizes, for mankind as a whole. Bob simply reached more people worldwide because of his fame as “King of Reggae”, while great and talented Jamaican artists like Culture, Ijahman Levi, Bob Andy, Dennis Brown, the Abyssinians, Israel Vibration, or Burning Spear became more international, but mainly among knowledgeable Reggae fans. You might even say that Marley “represented” them internationally with his fame. This makes a Nobel Prize for Literature for him even more sensible and appropriate: representing Rastafari-inspired Reggae lyrics globally.
“We refuse to be, what you wanted us to be..”(from Babylon System).
Marley shares as mentioned with e.g. Bob Dylan and Fela Kuti that he was a “spokesperson” for the poor and rebels with his lyrics, with the added aspect that Marley’s lyrics were more varied regarding the range of human emotions, like good literature. It was not just narrow “preaching”. Rebellious and angry were many of his lyrics, but some also “dreamy, reflective”, about daily life, some sincere and vulnerable, and some truly spiritual.
Okay, I more or less made my case in the above text, yet it might be necessary to analyze what makes Bob Marley’s lyrics so special, as to “deserve” a Nobel Prize of Literature? A good question.
According to Nobel prize criteria such as “outstanding contributions” and promoting fraternity between nations and peace globally, Marley’s mere international fame – as most famous Reggae artist, and first “Third World rock star” – make his lyrics meet those criteria more easily, after all reaching more people, while “crossing over” to many interracial groups on all continents, that before never listened to Rastafari-inspired Reggae lyrics, or even Caribbean music. He thus had international influence.
“No matter what games they play, we’ve got something they could never take away… And it’s the fire..that’s burning down everything” (from Ride Natty Ride).
He made the plight – and history - of the poor people and of Black people known more widely in the world, and made them more or less acceptable. To degrees, as some lyrics were considered “safer” than others (nonpolitical or nonrebellious love or party songs, for instance). Marley’s lyrics were partly censored in South Africa during Apartheid, especially those calling for African resistance and unity. His “lovey dovey” songs are mostly more accepted in mainstream (Western) Pop than his more conscious ones, that is also true.
Bob Marley was still known and had fans on all continents, having thus even a wider reach than other worldwide known “rock stars” (e.g. Michael Jackson, Bob Dylan, or the Rolling Stones), who are more connected to the Western world than Marley.
“You’re running away. But you can’t run away from yourself” (from Running Away)..
Marley's nomination for a Nobel Prize for Literature would moreover counter the criticism of Western bias, the prize received in the past, which according to facts are a just critique. It would be the first Jamaican laureate of a Nobel prize too, and have a nice symbolic meaning: just shortly after an Ethiopian became the first laureate of a Nobel prize, Ethiopia being so important in the Rastafari movement.
LITERARY AND ARTISTIC
There are also purely literary and artistic arguments I can give, to further make my case. Of course, other musical artists have interesting and varied, and poetically and well-formulated lyrics too, including with social or deeper messages. I can name, besides Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, Jimi Hendrix, the Talking Heads, Lou Reed, U2, and also artists like Tom Waits and Nirvana have interesting, mind-provoking lyrics. They lack, however, the mentioned universal appeal and spokesperson role of Marley, and the consistency of his social and global rebellious – and uplifting! - message.
“Why do you look so sad and foresaken. When one door is closed, don’t you know, another is open” (from Coming In From The Cold).
As I already said, Marley could formulate his message well, even rhyming, with the right word choice, and fitting these lyrics well musically in the songs in a varied way, referring to a wide emotional range of a strong personality. From rebellion, anger, and sadness, to love, celebrating life, and relief, and deeper philosophical and spiritual reflections.
These lyrics contained besides Rastafari references, recurring universal positive messages, identifiable for all kinds of people, not just Rasta brethren or Jamaicans, rendering them inclusive. That’s an important literary quality, not to be underestimated. Many cannot overcome “preaching for their own kind” even within higher art, but Marley could and did, appealing to different kinds of people.
In addition, they were indeed positive lyrics, lacking demeaning or patronizing stances toward women, and while pro-Black and Rastafari-inspired, the lyrics were not racist against other races, or persuasions. Rastafari adherents often have own ideas about “proper” lifestyles and morality, but even when discussing e.g. prostitution, as in the song Pimper’s Paradise, or other people “losing themselves”, he expresses human compassion.
“Every need got an ego to feed” (from Pimper’s Paradise).
For all these reasons combined, I can honestly not think of a better nominee for the Nobel Prize of Literature, according to its criteria of “international humanity”, than Bob Marley.
“Have no fear for atomic energy, cause none of them can stop Jah time” (from Redemption Song).
Yet, only 4 years after an exceptional musical artist and lyricist (Bob Dylan) - as opposed to usual novelists – won that Nobel prize, another musical artist as laureate might result in controversy, and (again) objections of “conventional” writers.
Still, in my opinion the idea stands solid as a rock.