How one of Bob Marley's greatest tunes was born in Nova Scotia

Published on February 28, 2017

Bob Marley


Many familiar with Bob Marley’s famous "Redemption Song" might not be aware of its Nova Scotia roots.

The connection, and how it ties in with African Nova Scotian history and the history of racism, is explored in Bedford-based author Jon Tattrie’s latest book, "Redemption Songs".

While writing "The Hermit of Africville" in 2009, Tattrie often listened to Marley. One day he stumbled upon an online claim that "Redemption Song" was based on a speech given by Marcus Garvey in Sydney, N.S. in 1937.

“Sadly it didn’t have a footnote so I set out to investigate and to find out if it was really true,” Tattrie recalled.

After researching and conducting several interviews, he learned Sydney was indeed where the speech that inspired "Redemption Song" was delivered.

“Marcus Garvey gives this speech basically at the end of his life, at the end of his career. He dies in 1940 alone and not quite penniless but can’t get back to his family in Jamaica because of the war and this is his really last great moment as a public figure,” Tattrie said.

“You go ahead to the late 1970s and Bob Marley is dying of cancer but hasn’t really told anyone that, and he records his last album and he actually hands it in to the record executives - and they say there’s a missing song here, go and do more work.”

That’s when Marley wrote "Redemption Song", using Garvey’s Sydney speech for inspiration.

“It becomes his last great work, the last song he wrote picking up the torch from falling hands and carrying it on. And it was the song he would close his last concerts with quite often,” Tattrie said.

“Marcus Garvey took the puzzle of race and racism as far as he could in his lifetime and then Bob Marley picks it up and carries it into the promised land that Marcus Garvey couldn’t reach.”

In 1937, Garvey told his Nova Scotia audience, "We are going to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery because while some might free the body none but ourselves can free the mind."

This becomes the core lyric of Marley’s song, “emancipate yourself from mental slavery-none but ourselves can free our minds.”

“I think a lot of the emotion of the song also speaks to Garvey’s visit to Nova Scotia and his encounters with the African Nova Scotian communities here,” Tattrie said.

Readers of Tattrie’s latest book won’t just learn about Marley and Garvey, but about African Nova Scotian history from Mathieu da Costa’s 1604 arrival to more recent times.

“I hope that (readers) will have a fresh appreciation for African Nova Scotian history, and learn some stuff they might not have learned before and really to think about racism as a solvable problem,” he said.

“It’s not God given or built into us.”

Copies of "Redemption Songs" will be available at the official book launch at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic at 7 p.m. Tuesday. They can also be purchased online via Amazon or Nimbus.