One of the first acts performed by Prime Minister Mia Amor Mottley upon Barbados attaining republic status was to name pop mega-superstar Robin “Rihanna” Fenty national hero. Along with former cricketing great Sir Garfield Sobers, she became the second living national hero of that country.
The question on the minds of many Jamaicans is whether the likes of our own Robert “Bob” Nesta Marley and Usain St Leo Bolt should not be added to the current list of national heroes: Alexander Bustamante, Norman Manley, Marcus Garvey, George William Gordon, Sam Sharpe, Nanny of the Maroons, and Paul Bogle.
Several notable personalities, some on the pages of this newspaper, have also added their voices to the call for others to be named national heroes.
Editor-at-Large H G Helps, on his Jamaica Observer opinion page Sunday Brew, July 12, 2021 edition, made a plea for former prime ministers to be added to the current list of national heroes. St Ann South Eastern Member of Parliament Lisa Hanna, in another of her useful contributions to this newspaper, April 3, 2022 edition, and in keeping with a motion she tabled in Parliament, made the case for Bob Marley to be named national hero in the “republic” of Jamaica.
Who else is deserving of the nation’s highest honour?
An August 2017 Bill Johnson poll sought to determine this by asking the following question: “As you know, Jamaica has seven national heroes. Is there anyone else that you think should be named a national hero of Jamaica?” Of those responding, 55 per cent said no; no one else that should be named a national hero of Jamaica.
The pollster followed up with another question to the 45 per cent who answered yes. “Who would you recommend for the award of national hero?” The answer: 17 per cent said Bob Marley; 16 per cent said Usain Bolt; two per cent said Michael Manley; and one per cent for each of the following individuals: Portia Simpson Miller, Vybz Kartel, Edward Seaga, Louise Bennett-Coverley, and Andrew Holness.
What does it mean to be a national hero anyway? Could Barbados be confusing national hero with national icon? I am personally not in favour of giving this award to people who are still alive or who made it big in a narrow field of endeavour as seemed to have been done in the case of Barbados. I rather like the example of India in honouring such people.
In 2013, under the late President Pranab Mukherjee, 25 people were honoured with the Greatest Living Legend Award for rendering distinguished service in their respective fields.
According to information on the National Honours and Awards Act, found on the Jamaica Information Service (JIS) website, the Order of National Hero is conferred upon any person born in Jamaica or who, at the time of death, was a citizen of Jamaica and rendered to the country service of a “most distinguished nature”. The order’s motto is, “He built a city which hath foundation.”
There is no established universal set of criteria that all countries must follow in identifying and naming national heroes. Generally, though, a national hero is a person who has had a transformative effect on his or her country and has made significant positive contributions to the advancement of society, the impact of which will be felt by generations not yet born. There should be an element of courage and selfless sacrifice for the greater good in his or her life’s work. Because national heroes serve as role models for the young, lifestyle, ethics, values, and morality cannot be overlooked as determining factors.
Bob Marley’s contribution to Brand Jamaica has only increased with each passing year since his death 41 years ago at age 36. The accolades heaped on this self-made philosopher and lyricist are too many to recount. Two of the most significant: the British Broadcasting Corporation naming of his One Love recording as Song of the Millennium and Time magazine declaring Exodus Best Album of the 20th Century, establishing him as a global icon whose influence transcends his talent. His progenies have continued to build the Marley legacy as ambassadors of Jamaica’s culture and music.
Marley’s near assassination on December 3, 1976 and return to stage the One Love Peace Concert inside the National Stadium on April 22, 1978 at the height of Jamaica’s most virulent political war is the stuff of which legends are made.
As the period since his death lengthens, memories of issues relating to lifestyle and religion have receded and changing legislation and cultural norms have removed much of the stigma surrounding the use of ganja.
In officially launching the celebration of Jamaica’s Diamond Jubilee on April 13 under the theme ‘Reigniting a nation for greatness’, Prime Minister Andrew Holness said the following: “This [taking inspiration from the extraordinary achievements over the past 60 years] means that we must not focus only on celebratory activities, but we must ensure that we foster and promote legacies of pride in self, commitment to national development, patriotism, excellence, mutual respect for others, and an openness to other cultures and peoples.” Who better personifies these ideals than Robert Nesta Marley, OM?
To be considered for the honour of national hero, one must possess far more than transient qualities, such as talent, popularity, money, or personal achievement.
Bob Marley’s impact has withstood the test of time. Promoting him to join the ranks of Jamaica’s seven national heroes also has transactional value.
Perennially listed among the highest-earning dead celebrities, his estate may pay a price, such as in the use of his image, which is undoubtedly one of the most recognisable in the world. But there is no single act that could do more to monetise Jamaica’s culture and music.
There will be detractors, such as Observer letter writer Coretta Burgess who, in the April 19, 2022 edition, expressed the view that “all the guy did was sing a couple of songs trying to make a dollar”. Jesus said, “A prophet is not without honour, save in his own country and in his own house.” (Matthew 13: 57 KJV)
Jamaica’s continued undervaluing of its assets, including its people, culture, music, and so much more, opens the door for others to benefit more than we do from our bountiful blessings.