“Reggae Star Shot: Motive probably political.”
The diplomatic cable announcing the December 3, 1976 attempt to assassinate Bob Marley, and to silence his calls for peace, along with social equality, saddened and shocked the world.Marley was fomenting opposition to the ruling Jamaican government–and establishing himself as a freedom fighter in songs like Get Up, Stand Up and Buffalo Soldier.” He was a threat to ruling “war machines” everywhere.
Marley’s fiery politics, along with his still iconic music led to a friendship with another politicized musician/storyteller in the tradition of Woody Guthrie (and later Bob Dylan). Lee Jaffe, a harmonica player, and tour organizer for Marley, wasn’t in Kingston that December night. But the two musicians shared common political views (and taste for other “jamming” pleasures).
Passionate critics against racist-colonial institutions that built “Concrete Jungles” and oppressed the common man, they hoped to Stir it Up–to make life more of a Kinky Reggae party.
That jamming would end for Marley in May, 1981. Cancer silences his pleas for political uprising. Jaffe’s messaging would continue.
Moving beyond “Talkin Blues (one of the songs Marley wrote was triggered by his harmonica-playing, free livin’ friend), Jaffe initially helped Peter Tosh with his first solo album (1976-77), then moved to New York to make his own riveting, “bold and blunt” statements. Moving into a Lower Manhattan studio (1982), Jaffe did a series of History Revisited paintings/sculptures, billboard-sized works that combined animal materials, archival documents, and fish scales to fashion a devastating picture of America’s past. One eminent (and unnamed collector bought the entire series, and secreted them away). But they’ve resurfaced at a current New York exhibition (the Nohra Haime Gallery), and their original intensity, debunking thinking about “race, power and violence” still resounds.
Discussing how his portrait of Green George (Washington, surrounded by US dollar bills), and his haunting Portrait of Sacco and Vanzetti mock traditional verities, Jaffe says, “My father told me Malcolm X was right…I come from a music background of Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan….protests…immigrants Sacco and Vanzetti accused of being traitors, were falsely persecuted….victims of prejudice against Italians.“When I did these works, I just didn’t want to decorate walls. I make statements. I hope to raise a certain consciousness.”
In the aftermath of the 2021 Washington D.C. Capitol insurrection, Jaffe’s Portrait of John Brown and Nat Turner (featuring a rope and gallows) is a veritable call to “action,” kindling thoughts that injustice and bitterness still color race relations.
“As stated in the catalogue for the (New York) exhibition, I hoped to take history apart ‘bone by bone.’ Now these works have even greater relevance…all the social injustices…prejudices against people. I was very emotionally moved to see them hanging again in a gallery. They are powerful, and now they are breathing again.”Reviving the dead, icons with seminal messages is Jaffe’s predilection and talent.
A long-time close friend of Jean-Michel Basquiat, he’s written a book about their relationship and collaborations (to be released this coming Spring). Crossroads will profile this neo-expressionist known for enigmatic epigrams, vibrant color schemes, and “deconstructionist” theories of race. Like Marley, he too protested against economic inequities.“Basquiat was always listening to music, especially jazz and reggae,” recalls Jaffe, affectionately. “His work was important to me. He never softened his message.”A hint of sadness in his voice, Jaffe quickly adds, “Jean-Michel was a dear friend. A pioneer among artists in breaking down barriers.”
Written by Edward Kiersh
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