Third Annual Symposium on Pop Culture and International Law: Subverting Otherness Against Oppression – Decolonizing International Legal Scholarship Through the Music of Bob Marley and the TWAILers

Third Annual Symposium on Pop Culture and International Law: Subverting Otherness Against Oppression – Decolonizing International Legal Scholarship Through the Music of Bob Marley and the TWAILers

[Matheus Gobbato Leichtweis is a PhD Candidate in International Law at Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS), Porto Alegre, Brazil.  He holds a Master’s Degree in Legal Studies at UFRGS and an LLM in Environmental Law at University of Dundee, UK.]


The first ‘Third World superstar, Bob Marley rose to become one of the most important voices of resistance against the enduring legacies of colonialism in the international order. Due to the militant character and the universality of his lyrics, Marley and his ‘songs of freedom’ became widely recognized as world cultural symbols of resistance against oppression, with his message against poverty, racism, inequality and violence, and his call for love, solidarity and unity echoing in every part of the so-called Babylon. Even today, Marley’s face can be seen emblazoned on murals and T-shirts across the many Global Souths, and his songs have continued to be sung as a way of celebrating love and music as weapons of resistance and emancipation. It can be said thus that the Jamaican artist has become an icon of mass popular culture, and his work undoubtedly a milestone of cultural and spiritual struggle against racial, colonial oppression and exploitation. 

Building on that perception, this intervention explores the international political and legal dimension of Bob Marley’s songs. It focuses on a specific set of Marley’s lyrics that, in dealing with difference and ‘otherness’, provide subsidies for a better understanding of international law from a TWAIL perspective.

Dynamics of Difference: Exclusion and Inclusion Along Cultural and Racial Parameters

The ‘Dynamics of difference’ refers to a logic of exclusion that lies at the heart of international law. According to Antony Anghie, the concept stems from an understanding of international law emerging from the colonial encounter as a means of hierarchizing peoples and distributing rights of political sovereignty and economic dominance according to cultural and racial parameters. The concept can be understood as the act of ‘Othering’, that is, of identifying, hierarchizing and then excluding the ‘Other’ from the ‘universal’ and the ‘human’ which law represents. At its core is the debate about the meaning and practical use of the concept of ‘civilization’, which has often served as a placeholder for other concepts that also reassert difference and power structures, such as ‘race’, ‘culture’, ‘progress’, ‘governance’ and ‘development’. In sum, the concept refers to the creation and maintenance of the difference between sovereigns and non-sovereigns, justifying specific types of political and economic domination in colonies — including the system of transatlantic slavery, which profoundly marked the Americas and the Caribbean.

Framing the dynamics in terms of the relationship between international law, global capitalism and imperialism, Ntina Tzouvala proposed an understanding of civilization as a specific pattern of legal argumentation used to create hierarchies, manage (neo)colonial enterprises and ensure the development of new forms of dependency and exploitation of Third World peoples. Her book uncovered the functioning of the argumentative mechanisms through which the logics of exclusion and inclusion operate in international law and eventually come to shape the international system in such a hierarchical and unequal manner. 

More important for this intervention is Rob Knox’s proposal for a materialist understanding of Anghie’s ‘dynamic of difference’, which highlights race as a central element in the division of the world and distribution of power and resources, and racism as the primordial substance of ‘difference’ in international law. Knox (p. 109) gives centrality to the process of racialization as a fundamental element to ascribe sovereignty and legitimize accumulation, claiming that ‘[r]acial abstractions played a crucial role in determining the distribution of legal benefits and subjectivities, with full legal subjectivity available to the white, European subject.’ importantly, Knox (p. 111) focuses not only on the process of racialization but also on its material background: following Fanon’s insights, he is interested in identifying ‘key moments in the accumulation of capital in which racialisation played a central role’. In this sense, Knox sees international law as ‘structurally rooted in both capital accumulation and racialisation’, mediating and articulating the expansion of capital ‘through racialising certain territories and societies’.

Embracing Otherness Against Oppression: The Subversion of Difference in Marley’s Lyrics 

In light of this debate, this post analyzes the lyrics of a few Marley’s songs that, by making use of the we/they poetic structure, specifically deal with this dynamic difference between the civilized and the uncivilized, although in a subversive and revolutionary way. The objective is to demonstrate how Marley’s lyrics not only represent or illustrate the mechanisms described above, but that they reveal instead a stance of subversion and anti-colonial resistance, in the sense that, instead of simply denying the racial and cultural markers of difference created by colonialist powers to exclude and dominate, Marley radically appropriates and instrumentalizes them in favour of the fight against colonial oppression and international exploitation. It is a call to arms against Babylon (metaphor for the Western civilization) whereby, first, by embracing the otherness created to justify colonialism, slavery and racial oppression, and, second, by radically aligning himself with the oppressed — the ‘savage’ (‘We’) — against the oppressors — the (supposedly) civilized (‘They’) — Marley strategically appropriates and subverts difference, imbuing it with a revolutionary meaning, and eventually using it to propose the transformation of the world (metaphorically or otherwise). It is in this sense, I argue, that his poetics can be read as a theoretical support tool for international lawyers committed to advancing the unfinished project of decolonizing the international order.

In Slave Driver (1973), Bob Marley conveys a potent message of defiance against the enslaver and their descendants:

Slave driver, the table has turned
Catch a fire so you can get burned now

The song reflects upon the legacy of slavery in the lives of Jamaica’s poor people. Contemporary forms of oppression, such as poverty and illiteracy, have replaced traditional slavery, while ‘they’ — the civilizers, with their false promises of ‘freedom’) — work to conceal this reality.

Every time I hear the crack of a whip, my blood a-runs cold
I remember on the slave ship
How they brutalized our very souls
Today they say that we are free
Only to be chained in poverty
Good God, I think it’s illiteracy
It’s only a machine that make money

In Them Belly Full (1974), the use of the ‘we/them’ structure as a poetic resource stands out, with Marley openly expressing his affinity with the poor and the hungry. 

Them belly full, but we hungry

A hungry mob is an angry mob

The second verse reveals Marley’s awareness of social and economic rights as essential for peace and as legitimate causes for popular revolt, a theme that also appears in songs ‘Get Up Stand Up’ and ‘Burnin’ and Lootin’

The song ‘The Heathen’ (1977) is central to understanding Marley’s subversive process of transforming oppressive language into a weapon against the oppressors. Historically, the original use of the word ‘Heathen’ in the Caribbean is associated with the enslavement of African people and the Slave Codes. As explained by Sherman-Peter

The Caribbean was where chattel slavery took its most extreme judicial form in the instrument known as the Slave Code, which was first instituted by the English in Barbados. Passed in 1661, this comprehensive law defined Africans as “heathens” and “brutes” not fit to be governed by the same laws as Christians. The legislators proceeded to define Africans as non-human—a form of property to be owned by purchasers and their heirs forever. The Slave Code went viral across the Caribbean, and ultimately became the model applied to slavery in the North American English colonies that would become the United States’

The Rastafaris however seem to have re-appropriated the term, using it instead as a way of referring to non-believers and enemies of the Rasta faith. As Dawes teaches, for the Rastafari, ‘[a]ll who seek to do ill to the righteous are the heathens. The heathens are those who do not know the truth or who will not accept the truth’. The word ‘heathen’ thus can be seen as an example of a community embracing the otherness that has been imposed on them through language, inverting it, and then using it against oppressors with an emancipatory sense.

Vivien Goldman refers to ‘The Heathen’ as

a psychological preparation for not just battle but victory. A defiant war chant with the rhythm of a Zulu prebattle stomp echoes in the percussive elongation of the lyrics. The repetition of the refrain, [‘Heathen back dey ‘on the wall’] works like a mantra or a positive affirmation, giving courage the more it’s steadily repeated.

Marley’s vocal rips in calling all the fallen warriors to reassert their fight against the oppressors 

Rise up fallen fighters

Rise and take your stance again

‘Tis he who fights and run away

Live to fight another day

In this context, the song can be interpreted as a wake-up call from Bob Marley to face his enemies and put them against the wall once again. As for the evocation of the spirit of all those fighters who have perished along the battle, as shrewdly interpreted by Dawes (p. 202), ‘here is Toussaint rallying the Haitian warriors to face the French in the battle for freedom’. In this regard, the value of the Haitian revolution for a critical understanding of the racist and imperialist foundations of the international legal order cannot be underestimated.   

Initially to be titled Black Survival, the album Survival (1979) — Marley’s most political album — consolidates the militant international character of Marley’s music. The song ‘Zimbabwe’ kicks off with a call to arms and unity, using the language of rights to assert resistance against colonialism and imperialism.

Every man gotta right to decide his own destiny

So arm in arms with arms
We’ll fight this little struggle

To divide and rule could only tear us apart

Top Rankin’’ also addresses the ‘divide and rule’ strategy:  ‘They don’t want to see us unite / All they want us to do is keep on fussing and fighting’.

In ‘Babylon System’, Marley calls for rebellion. The song starts with Marley speaking on behalf of his people and proclaiming their rejection to conform to the image that Babylon has imposed on them (in other words, rejection to conform to ‘Western’ Civilization patterns):

We refuse to be
What you wanted us to be
We are what we are
That’s the way it’s going to be

In Western capitalist ideology, people are taught to pursue wealth. However, Marley emphasizes that these teachings do not necessarily lead to the liberation of his people. On the contrary, the education system and its false promises of ‘equal opportunity’ are closely connected to the exploitation of black people in America and the inequality that remains despite the end of formal slavery and colonialism.   

You can’t educate I
For no equal opportunity
Talkin’ ‘bout my freedom
People freedom and liberty!

The song also launches an attack on the educational and religious systems of Western civilization, the ideological pillars of the imperialist colonial order: 

Building church and university 

Deceiving the people continually 

This part calls for epistemological independence, in terms similar to the famous lines from ‘Redemption song’:

Emancipate yourself from mental slavery

None but ourselves can free our minds

Ambush in the Night’ continues the argument against the status quo of colonial and imperialist domination. The song shows Marley’s skepticism and distrust not only of his friends, but of Babylon’s operations in general (political theories, ideologies, educational or religious precepts)  

Finally, the song ‘Survival’ sums up Marley’s stance in this post-colonial economic and legal system built on the blood, sweat and tears of slavery, on the open veins of the colonial system. 

 We’re the survivors

The Black survivors 

In this refrain Marley makes clear his self-identification with the struggles of black and disenfranchised people (not only in America, but in Africa and beyond), and declares the very state of survival that living in Babylon means.


Reinforcing the power of music as a pedagogical tool for international legal studies, this intervention sought to show how Bob Marley’s poetics can be used to understand central aspects of the third-world critique of international law. It has sought to demonstrate how Marley manages to address the dynamics of difference from a subversive and even revolutionary point of view, subversively embracing Otherness and mobilizing it against oppression. In other words, by radically aligning himself with the oppressed — the ‘savage’ (‘We’) — against the oppressors — the (supposedly) civilized (‘They’) — Marley strategically appropriates and subverts difference, imbuing it with a revolutionary meaning, and eventually using it to propose the transformation of the world. Importantly, Marley is able to do so by rejecting Western parameters of civilization without neglecting the universal dimension of his message of love and redemption. It is in this sense, I argue, that his poetics can be read as a theoretical support tool for international lawyers committed to advancing the unfinished project of decolonizing the international order.

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