Victorious over the many booby traps that guarded his older brother’s bedroom, a 17-year-old Kwame Dawes perched on the edge of his sibling’s neatly made bed and relaxed as the rhythms of a new Bob Marley and the Wailers album flowed from the record player.
The album, “Kaya,” was to be an escape for Dawes, a distraction from stressful pre-university exams that come in the final two years of high school in Jamaica. The work included intense English literature lessons, dissecting and interpreting the multi-layered verse of T.S. Eliot and Gerard Manley Hopkins.
The two poets were far from Dawes’ mind when the second-half of the album started spinning through “Misty Morning.”
“…the power of philosophy — yeah-ea-eah — floats through my head, light like a feather, heavy as lead…”
“I was reading along with the lyrics on the back of the album and they were confounding at first,” Dawes said. “Then, it was fascinating as this weird combination of my studies of Eliot and Manley Hopkins aligned with the lyrics in ‘Kaya.’
“When I applied practical criticism to the music, it all started to make sense. It felt like a natural thing.”
The approach helped Dawes realize that that the Reggae artist was writing from a very intimate place — an icon struggling with his growing popularity, repercussions from the 1976 assassination attempt, leaving Jamaica for England, and a troubled relationship with his home nation.
“That moment in my brother’s room led to one of my oldest, sort of credible, creative ideas — that someone should write a book on Bob Marley’s lyrics,” Dawes said.
Years later, and with further refinement through college and life experience, the concept became a reality with Dawes’ publishing of “Bob Marley: Lyrical Genius” in 2002 (Bobcat Books). The book assesses Marley’s classic lyrics in relation to the time they were written and how they endure as political poetry. Since publication, the book has become a primary resource for those wanting to learn more about the famed musician.
In researching the book, Dawes interviewed members of Marley’s family and inner circle.
“Getting to talk to people like Bunny Wailer, Rita Marley and Neville Garrick was one of the reasons I so enjoyed writing the book,” Dawes said. “Those interviews allowed me to go beyond the lyrics and learn about his writing process directly from those who lived it.”
Connections made through his creative activity and book research also offered Dawes opportunities to review multiple variations to the script for “Bob Marley: One Love.” The film, which follows Marley’s career and has been in development for a number of years, opens nationwide Feb. 14.
“I have not seen the movie, but from what I have read and from watching the trailer, my sense is the narrative will present Marley as the revolutionary or as the spiritual warrior,” Dawes said. “I am excited at the prospect of this film. It makes sense that Marley’s life and art can touch new generations.”
Dawes also hopes those who read “Bob Marley: Lyrical Genius” feel the same level of excitement and appreciation that he experienced while discovering “Kaya” in his brother’s bedroom.
“This is a book of appreciation, celebration and understanding,” Dawes said. “Some people see it as a biography of Marley’s career — which in a sense, it is. Others use it as a kind of reference, seeking out meaning as they listen to a specific Marley song.
“It was a great pleasure to write. I hope others are able to discover my passion for Marley and the joy I found in this book.”
Dawes is the George Holmes Distinguished Professor of English and Glenna Luschei Editor of Prairie Schooner magazine at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. He was born in Ghana, Africa, and grew up in Kingston, Jamaica.
His many awards include the Forward Prize for Poetry (1994), Pushcart Prize (2001), Musgrave Medal (2004), Guggenheim Fellowship (2012) and Campbell Prize for Poetry (2019). He has published two novels, several anthologies and his essays have been featured in numerous publications, including The Washington Post and USA Today.
In 2022, Dawes was awarded the Order of Distinction Commander class by the Jamaican government. The honor is reserved for Jamaican citizens who have demonstrated a record of outstanding service to the nation and its people.
Dawes continues to develop writings, including “Sturge Town,” a book of poetry that releases in the United States in June.