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A Rasta pays tribute to the reggae king.
Snow fades on the TV screen, revealing a third-generation video copy of an interview by host Gil Noble on his public affairs show Like It Is. The guest is Bob Marley. Slouching on the sofa in a bright-yellow T-shirt, Marley fusses with his lanky locks as he answers questions about life in Trenchtown, Jamaica, about the Rastafari faith, about the attempt on his life. He responds humbly, as if totally unaware of his stardom.
Twenty years after the show first aired, Dera Tompkins, in her easy chair in front of the TV on a cold January night, leans over and laughs. “You see that innocent, boyish look he gets?” she asks. Boyish, yes, but Marley’s words betray the inner wisdom of a prophet. Noble asks him: What would he have young black Americans strive toward? “The unification of Africa,” says Marley. The year was 1980, and the popular reggae artist had already written the songs “Zimbabwe,” “Exodus,” and “Africa Unite” to voice his politics.
Tompkins’ eyes brighten. “What if Africa could be united?” she wonders. “Wow…If we could have a United States of Africa…” The thought seems to transport her to another world.
Apart from the yellow Adinkra cloth hanging in one window, Tompkins’ Petworth row house looks like any other from the outside. But inside, her living room is like a tour of the African continent. Colorful masks project from the walls, kente and mud cloth adorn the couch and chairs, and African sculptures guard every corner.
There’s also a spirit roaming the house: the spirit of Marley. Seventy Bob Marley and Marley-related CDs, nestled next to the player, including releases by his children and various artists’ tributes to him. Four Bob Marley videos on the coffee table. Three bookshelf ledges dedicated to his life, reggae, and Jamaica. Two Bob Marley magnets on the refrigerator door in the kitchen. One box, hidden under a table, holding pictures of Tompkins with Marley, taken in Zimbabwe in 1980.
When you get to the basement, there’s more. Tompkins starts sifting through file cabinets stuffed with Bob Marley concert ticket stubs and a red-gold-and-green Bob Marley license plate, among other items. Then she finds a piece of fabric with his image on it.
“Oh, my Bob Marley patch!” she exclaims.
It all culminates a couple of feet over with her extensive record collection. She proudly pulls out 7-inch and 12-inch 45s, and vintage collector albums with “almost”—she says with chagrin—every song Marley ever put out, chronicling his career from “Judge Not” to “Redemption Song.” It’s the same stuff she has upstairs, but preserved in its original vinyl beauty.
“I’ve got a problem,” she admits, chuckling: She’s hooked on Marley’s messages. Her friends encourage her addiction. To track the man who came to represent so much of what she is about—reggae, the Rastafari movement, and revolution—she had to go outside her house, drive to the airport, and jump on a flight to Jamaica. That was 23 years ago. Today, as another Feb. 6 nears, marking Marley’s birthday—for the 19th time since his Rasta spirit flew away home to Zion—Tompkins is paying public homage in yet another tribute that she swears will be her last.
The year was 1974. Tompkins was a freshman at Howard University. She had a friendship with Kwame Ture, the man who made “Black Power” a household chant. One day in September, Ture came back from a trip to Jamaica. “He said, ‘Dera, there are some people in Jamaica who are Pan-Africanist, socialist, and believe the black man is God,’” Tompkins recalls. “And I found that really curious.”
With raised eyebrows, the Bostonian embarked on a meticulous three-year study of Jamaica, collecting as much information as possible on the country, on the Rastafari faith, and on reggae. She frequented West Indian grocery and record stores. She read the book Reggae Bloodlines, listened to former Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley’s speeches, watched the film The Harder They Come, and combed through the daily Jamaica Gleaner, learning all she could about the people Ture was talking about.
Finally, in 1977, she felt ready. She phoned two girlfriends, who agreed to go on a vacation with her.
When their plane landed in Kingston, Darren Green, the friend-of-a-friend who picked them up, drove right to 56 Hope Road, Marley’s house and recording studio. She had seen pictures of the place before. She had seen pictures of people with dreadlocks before. But by the time Tompkins got out of the car, she had turned green. “I knew these were the people I was supposed to talk to, but I just didn’t know how to communicate what I wanted,” she remembers. Marley wasn’t there, and they left shortly for a Negril Beach Village hotel, where Tompkins soaked up the sights, sounds, and sensations of Jamaica.
While sitting in the dining area of the hotel, she noticed another man with locks, selling red-gold-and-green tams—knitted hats that rastas cover their heads with—and matching belts. She decided that buying a tam was a good way to approach the vendor. “I couldn’t understand everything he was saying, but every third word would come through, and they were words like ‘colonialism,’ ‘imperialism,’ and ‘Pan-Africanism.’ So I could agree and shake my head.”
The man was Mutabaruka, now a dub poet widely known in Jamaica. But at the time, he was a man who lived a simple life in the hills, bathing in the river, planting his own food, and engaging tourists in conversations about the island’s culture. Negotiating between her English and his patois, they talked for 12 hours straight as the hotel’s all-night entertainment continued around them. “As the sun came up, he said, “‘Daughta, yuh mus’ come go up ina de hills.’”
The trip required riding in an overpacked minibus as it careened around the country’s steep hillsides, then walking barefoot up a slippery slope. But the invitation meant more. It was the gesture of an older mentor wanting to take a promising student under his wing.
In the months to come, Mutabaruka and his wife, Yvonne Peters, would write Tompkins letters every week and call her frequently to teach her the tenets of the Rastafari faith. Because Mutabaruka was very close to the Marley circle, Tompkins slid easily into the fold. And because there was no formal introduction, she can’t even remember the first time she met Marley.
Over the next two years, she would travel to Jamaica six times, attending functions like “The International Year of the Rasta Child,” Reggae Sunsplash ’79, and a monthlong nyabinghi—a traditional gathering whose name translates as “death to all downpressers, black and white” where Rastas would camp out, drum, and chant. Tompkins would be invited to tour with Marley to Philadelphia for the Black Music Association conference, to Harlem’s Apollo Theatre, to Madison Square Garden, to his shows here in D.C. And she was in Zimbabwe when he performed for that country’s independence celebrations in 1980.
It was April 17, and Tompkins was standing right next to Marley when she saw him cry. They were on a hill near the stage, getting ready for the performance a few hours later, when they heard marching and a cappella music. The Zimbabwe African National Union freedom fighters rounded the corner, chanting—men and women soldiers wearing green fatigue pants and multicolored shirts: red, yellow, green, and black, the colors that would rise on the new Zimbabwean flag.
Months later, Tompkins, while working as a medical librarian at a satellite library under the National Institutes of Health, would get a call from Marley’s doctor, Carl “Pee Wee” Fraser, a close friend of hers from Howard. He asked her to research information on melanoma. Marley was ill.
“By the time I finished compiling the information, I was very sad, and I was crying,” Tompkins recalls. “Because I knew whatever time he had left to live, it was very short.”
Tompkins was born a land mass and many waters away from Jamaica. She grew up in Roxbury, Mass., where Louis Farrakhan grew up and Malcolm X lived for a while. The oppression that she faced daily, she says, was the same oppression Marley sang of in the slums of Trenchtown. During the ’50s, in Jamaica, poor people like Marley were being thrown in jail, beaten, and shot by the police. In Boston, Tompkins’ peers called her a “nigger”; bus drivers slammed the door in her face; and her junior-high school teacher pulled her outside the classroom and asked her, “What do you people want?” when there was some sort of news report of black protest.
Marley’s art left Tompkins with enough ammunition to continue to fight long after the 1968 student takeover at Howard, long after the words of Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X would be replaced by an uncomfortable silence.
Almost every year since 1982, Tompkins has hosted celebrations in honor of Marley’s birthday. For her first tribute, she played his recordings layered with a synopsis of his life as “Sister Ikeda” on WPFW-FM’s Jah’s Music. The next year, she formed I & I Productions and took her observances out of the studio and into packed reggae evenings at the Kilimanjaro nightclub, with nyabinghi drummers, video excerpts, and dancing. After a while, Tompkins says, she was secretly hoping someone else would take the baton.
But this year is different: It’s a new century. The nightclub Nation just happened to be available when she asked about the date of Marley’s birthday. The international reggae band Steel Pulse agreed to do the show. And original Wailers member Junior Marvin decided to come along to play a few Marley songs.
“I was thinking, if Bob could be alive and understanding all the drama that’s taken place in the world coming into this century, if he could say one thing, what would it be?” asks Tompkins. The answer, she believes, is “Africa Unite.”
“We have a history really different from most people,” Tompkins says. “We were really scattered quite forcefully. We were denied our culture and our language. And so now we have to go back and kind of pick those things up and make those connections.”
The “we” she’s referring to is black people. The same “we” as in Marley’s songs.
“You can interpret them many ways, but when you listen to Bob’s interviews and understand who he was and know where he’s coming from, it’s so clear. They weren’t just universal songs about love and happiness,” she points out. Citing lyrics like “Old pirates, yes they rob I” and “I don’t know how we an’ dem going to work it out,” Tompkins says, “Even when he said, ‘One Love,’ he was talking about one love between us—African people. He wasn’t talking to white people, really. He was really working to bring us together, to make us understand, to warn us, to teach us about our history, even to talk to us about love and relationships.”
The media took time to acknowledge “the king with a common touch,” whose powerful messages still reach people across the world, from every walk of life. TNT aired the “One Love: The Bob Marley All-Star Tribute” concert that took place in Jamaica, which brought everyone from Tracy Chapman to Busta Rhymes to do renditions of Marley’s classics. Tuff Gong/Island has released the CD Bob Marley: Chant Down Babylon, which follows the same idea. And Time magazine selected “Exodus” as the album of the century.
The recognition is thrilling, but Tompkins is more excited by reports in the Washington Times and the Washington Post of the recent coup in the Ivory Coast, which seemed to be fueled by the reggae beats of the Rastafarian movement. Alpha Blondy and Tiken Jah Fakoly had been singing songs to the sufferahs, inciting people to rise up against oppression. In an effort to suppress the revolutionary messages, President Henri Konan Bedie had banned reggae music from the radio stations. But the day after his government was forced to step down, rebel music blessed the airwaves once again, with even more conviction than the national anthem.
“There are different ways to get where we’re going,” Tompkins says. “We can do it through love….That’s one level. We can do it through talking. And sometimes it comes down to fighting, when you have your land and people to save.” Not owning a gun, Tompkins has decided to channel her cultural and political commitment into music. “I can’t sing,” she says. “So my best contribution was to sweep a path for those that can.” CP
“Africa Unite: A Bob Marley Birthday Tribute,” featuring Steel Pulse, DKGB, Willie Paul & Monsoon, Kan Kouran West African Dance Company, Nyabinghi Drummers, and MC Papa Wabe of WPFW, with special guest Junior Marvin, starts at 6 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 6. Doors open at 5 p.m. at Nation, 1015 Half St. SE. $20. (202) 554-1500.