‘Africa Unite’ delivers Marley’s message

By Talia Whyte
Originally published in the Bay State Banner

Each year, on Feb. 6, music fans around the world gather to celebrate the birthday, life and legacy of reggae legend and social critic Bob Marley. Now, fans can relive possibly the biggest Marley celebration of all time in the comfort of their own homes.

Director Stephanie Black’s film “Africa Unite: A Celebration of Bob Marley’s Vision,” recently released on DVD, documents the 2005 concert and commemorations to celebrate Marley’s 60th birthday, held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and attended by over 300,000 people.

The weeklong celebration represented a realization of Marley’s dream to promote pan-Africanism and social justice around the world. Those who gathered in Addis Ababa to continue pursuing that dream included all of Marley’s children; his widow, Rita; his mother, Cedella Booker; and a host of celebrities, including singers Lauryn Hill and Angélique Kidjo, among others.

“Bob Marley expressed his passion for Africa through his music,” says actor Danny Glover in the film. “The fact that we are here is very important.”

It was no coincidence that the commemorations took place in the East African nation. Black does an excellent job of explaining the relationship between Haile Selassie I and the Rastafarian culture of Marley’s Jamaica, a movement founded in the 1930s to pay homage to the Ethiopian emperor, whom Rastafarians accept as God incarnate; the lyrics from Marley’s famed song “War” were derived from Haile Selassie’s 1963 speech before the United Nations General Assembly on racial injustice and anti-colonial struggles.

The film follows Ras Bongo Tawney, a 73-year-old Jamaican Rastafarian who travels to Ethiopia for the birthday observances. During his journey, Tawney tells his own tale of being discriminated against and physically harassed for his Rasta lifestyle in Jamaica, providing some of the film’s most absorbing moments.

Tawney’s story culminates when he visits Shashamane, a small town outside of Addis Ababa that gained international attention in 1948 when Haile Selassie granted the land as a gift to allow those displaced in the African Diaspora to return to the continent, and Addis Ababa’s majestic Cathedral of St. George, where Haile Selassie was crowned emperor in 1930.

Keeping true to Marley’s vision of social activism, the commemorations also brought together 40 youth delegates from all over Africa to participate in a symposium to discuss how to improve the continent politically, socially and economically.

According to the United Nations, nearly 40 percent of Africans are under the age of 22, so youth participation in such a discussion is vital because, as one delegate says in the film, “we are the future of Africa.” From HIV/AIDS to women’s empowerment, there was no shortage of opinions from this group of African teens, but trade justice was the top issue for this group.

During the discussion, Jimmy, a Ugandan peasant’s son who had to pay his own way to the birthday observances because his government couldn’t afford to send him, called for Africans to unite against global militarism and focus on the real issues affecting Africa, such as fair trade on agricultural products.

“We don’t want millions of dollars from the World Bank,” he says in the film. “We can make our own money. Let’s buy more seeds, not weapons.”

With “Africa Unite,” documentarian Black continues to shine a light on economic disparities in the developing world. Her first film, 1990’s “H-2 Worker,” deals with the exploitation by U.S. corporations of Caribbean men who migrate to work in Florida’s sugar cane fields, and her widely acclaimed 2001 documentary “Life and Debt” examines how the economic policies of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank affect the social and political fabric of Jamaica.

But for all the discussion of economic justice, “Africa Unite” is really about the power and quality of Marley’s music, and there’s no shortage of that in the film, either. Viewers get a chance to see Ziggy Marley and family, all on the same stage, set the audience to swooning with a stirring version of the song that gives the documentary its title.

Black hopes that viewers of “Africa Unite” will be inspired, as Bob Marley was, to do what they could to become agents for change in the world.

“There’s not an artist in the world who was both the commercial success and the inspiration that Bob was,” Black says in an article on the film’s Web site (www.bobmarley.com/africaunite). “We approached this film not as a way to gaze upon Bob, but to direct the viewer’s gaze on the things that were important to Bob: His Majesty [Haile Selassie], Ethiopia, a united Diasporic movement.”

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