"Bob Marley died because besides being black he was Jewish. Michael Jackson still resists because besides becoming white he became sad." This cryptic graffiti was spray-painted by an unseen hand on a wall on a Brazilian street. The Brazilian musician Gilberto Gil saw the graffiti, and though he didn’t know quite what to make of it, he was inspired back in 1989 to write the samba "From Bob Dylan to Bob Marley" in response. He subtitled the piece "A Provocation Samba." It was his attempt to understand the hold of Marley and Jackson on the Brazilian imagination as martyrs and rebels. But Gil’s response was as cryptic as those spray-painted words. "From Bob Dylan to Bob Marley" praises Snow White as a racial hero because she loved all seven dwarfs equally. It begins with Dylan’s converting to Christianity and "abandoning the people of Israel" and ends where the graffiti began, with Marley rescuing Dylan’s orphans and becoming reggae music’s most famous discoverer of Israel’s Lost Tribes.
Gil’s lionization of Marley (the black-power ranger with an agenda of pan-racial unity) over Dylan (the identity chameleon who sheds skins) and Jackson (the black chameleon who became white) shouldn’t have been a surprise. For years, Marley has been a kind of musical and political event horizon for Gil. His name has made his way into Gil’s songs ever since the dark-skinned mulatto from Bahia realized, with the help of the Black Panthers and the liberation movements in Africa, that in the eyes of the world he was a black man, not the part-white middle-class son of a doctor with a private-school pedigree and a bossa nova bug that he thought he was.
When we spoke recently, he explained that "the mestizo class in Brazil have been conditioned to go into a whitening process, and they aspire to become a member of white society. So for me, simulating the black side of the family was never a priority." But it quickly became one as the ’60s brought black activism to Brazil. Gil became a leftist who as a part of a black-arts festival spent a month in Nigeria. Then came Hendrix, Marley, and the official birth of a new Gil, the one who, as he puts it, "had reached a new level of consciousness" and was ready to play the role of the politically minded black Brazilian singer.
Gil has just released Kaya N’Gan Daya (WEA), a tribute to Marley that cements the relationship between the two black liberationists from developing countries who never met (Gil went to a Marley show in LA in 1978 but Marley took off before Gil made it backstage). It documents the kind of cultural conversation that so rarely surfaces in a world dominated by corporate globalization: a musical coalition between a mixed-race Brazilian and a mixed-race Jamaican, the former looking to the latter as a model for turning a history of slavery into a future of social freedom. Marley’s career-long commitment to resisting the "Babylon system" that created slaves out of Africans and instituted a racial hierarchy that continues to define culture in the Americas is a natural fit for the Bahia-reared Gil. Throughout the 19th century, Bahia was the capital of Brazilian plantation society, and Gil grew up in a culture marked by the residue of slavery, by words like miscegenation, syncretism, mixture.
Last year, his long-time ally and fellow self-styled mulatto Caetano Veloso released Noites do Norte (Nonesuch), an album devoted to the role of slavery in Brazilian culture. Veloso organized his song cycle around the 19th-century Brazilian abolitionist Joaquim Nabuco’s claim that slavery is central to Brazil’s national character — Nabuco called it "the indefinable sigh half-heard in our moonlit northern nights." On his new Live from Bahia (Nonesuch), Veloso performs many of Noites’ most pointed songs in front of a Bahian audience, giving immediacy to "13 de Maio," which recounts the day in 1888 when slavery was abolished in Brazil, and "Zumbi," Jorge Ben’s paean to a 17th-century runaway-slave revolutionary. Veloso sings of slave bosses as if they were standing right in front of him, "Watching the harvest of white cotton, gathered by black hands."
The slave history that joins the Brazil of Veloso and Gil to Marley’s Jamaica is what anchors Gil’s tribute, which begins with "Buffalo Soldier" and its tale of men "Stolen from Africa/Brought to America." But on Kaya N’Gan Daya, Gil doesn’t simply cover Marley’s material, he reinterprets the songs for Brazil. His versions of "No Woman, No Cry," "Time Will Tell," and "Lively Up Yourself" embellish Marley’s original English verses with his own in Portuguese. And he does what Marley asks in the lyrics of "One Drop" — he brings the drum beats and rhythms that were Marley’s way of "Resisting against the system" to people who still need to hear the message, ensuring that redemption will speak the language of all those who still wait for its gifts.