“—the problem with a book is that you never know what it’s planning to do to you until you’re too far into it.” – Seven Killings
Looking for a new read can be a daunting task sometimes. You end up searching via genre, author, best seller lists, and then eventually asking friends for book recommendations. And, let’s be honest, we know which of our friends to ask before we even start scrolling down the whatsapp list. No book reading adult wants someone to recommend ‘The Help’ to them: That could ruin a friendship.
No one wants to start the process of reading a 500 page book only to realize, “Wait, this is trash. I just wasted time reading drivel when I could’ve been ‘Netlixing’ Daredevil season 2.” So when Huffington Post and Google led me down the path to Marlon James’s novel “A Brief History of Seven Killings”, I read up a bit and was intrigued but not totally sold on it. After all, I’m not the biggest Marley fan, but the author’s back story and a kick ass title made me want to give it a shot anyway. So I headed to Logos to pick it up, read the first 100 pages only to be told, “This is a Christian book store, and we feel that 7 killings is a title a little too graphic for us. It doesn’t live up to our Christian ideals”.
Too much sex, too much violence, too nihilistic, and all written by a Caribbean author, under 50, set in both the Jamaica and the US between 1976-1991, with heavy patois throughout? Awesome way to start a book I’d say. I went down the rabbit hole of the Internets and unearthed this gem from author Marlon James.
“My next book will be the African Version of Game of Thrones.”
Are we sure this guy isn’t from Wakanda?
He didn’t stop there, he followed that up with this –
“I realized how sick and tired I was of arguing about whether there should be a black hobbit in Lord of the Rings. African folklore is just as rich, and just as perverse as that shit. We have witches, we have demons, we have goblins, and mad kings. We have stories of royal succession that would put Wolf Hall to shame. We beat the Tudors two times over.”
Do you see that shit? That’s what nerds throwing literary/casting shade looks like. The gauntlet just got thrown down at George R.R. Martin, the HBO Game of Thrones show runners, and everyone associated with Lord of The Rings/Hobbit franchise because, as any sane observer would ask… why in hell are all the people in the these fantasy worlds all white?
I’ll wait… Stay woke.
So this is the perspective of the author who wrote 7 Killings. The book follows the same chapter constructs as Game of Thrones with chapters singularly focusing on specific characters: Josey Wales, Bam Bam, Pap Lo, John-John K, Kim Clarke, Nina Burgess, and Alex Pierce are the main attractions. Between gangsters, reporters and regular Jamaican citizens, author Marlon James paints a detailed tapestry of the country and the events revolving around the assassination attempt on Bob Marley on December 3, 1976.
In the book, Marley is referred to almost solely as, “The Singer”. The device allows readers to view Marley not as a icon, not as the man whose music echoes through sanitized Caribbean environments, or the man whose image adorns college dorm room walls. Rather he is viewed instead as someone is fully aware of the pedestal he sits on, the responsibility it brings and the gravity of each decision he makes. “The Singer” is someone on a mission to make an significant change on his beloved country while simultaneously smoking a shit ton of weed. The perch he sat on went beyond music and spoke to his place in Jamaican society and in the world at large. This was an era in history where being a revolutionary wasn’t a symbol of cool you could monetize and put on a t-shirt, but was instead something that could actually make a difference.
We see Marley as he looked to the people of the ghetto – as the kid that made good, really good. Then the man that had so much that he was hated, persecuted and plotted against, ultimately leading to his assassination attempt. Even his tragic death, it’s all there and I assure you, you haven’t heard the story from this perspective.
The book delves into the ramifications “The Singer” and his peace concert had on Jamaican politics. It gave a peek behind the curtain to see how these politicians used gangs to balance communist and socialist ideals while being manipulated by post colonial capitalism. There are tons of avenues here, but Josey Wales, Bam-Bam and Papa-Lo provide the edge to the book and are the real reasons I think HBO bit and decided to option the project. They’re the reason the network will eventually turn the novel into a critically acclaimed TV show. It’s waiting in the wings as a possible Game of Thrones replacement and is in line with HBO’s content strategy. It seems like a perfect fit. There’s some executive out there who thought, “Well we have the Wire in the Caribbean and there’s Bob Marley and the CIA: this can’t miss.”
They’re not wrong.
Nearly everything in here actually happened. Which seems like a crazy thing for anyone to believe decades later. Sure there’s creative license taken by James, but the real gangsters represented by Josey Wales and Papa Lo, Lester Coke (aka Jim Brown, the father of Dudus Coke) and Claude Massop actually existed.
The violence in their stories make the book pop. Once this gets turned into something visual I’m sure the name of every thug mentioned will start to be digested into people’s social media with an accompanying area code. Weeper, Tony Pavarotti and Demus will become fan favorites, but the sex and the violence just bring you to the table for the main course.
James ends up presenting a detailed, intertwined web, and after a few chapters you begin to actually taste the food, feel the heat of the Jamaican sun, embrace the vibes, encounter the fear, and battle with the hopelessness. Then there are the mystical elements you don’t see coming that make us confront our own mortality and how it affects the political pontificating of those who have, versus those who do not.
The entry points for Seven Killings are prime for everyone. The perspective of white tourists, reporters, black, yellow, white, brown and mixed Jamaicans with a carousel of different philosophies all existing in the same space and reflecting back on our current-day ways of thinking.
Then there is Marley’s impact and his “meaning “ to the above mentioned white people in the book. Much like for Jamaica, for the Caribbean, his persona is prime breeding ground for the culture vultures. Our region’s own economic dependence on tourism in fact encourages the behavior we promote i.e. the package and sale of the culture from the music to the festivals to the dialect. We are, after all, in the “service” industry. Killings addresses this through Nina Burges, a woman who swears Marley wrote Midnight Ravers about her.
You can never fully visit a country on a vacation: you can only visit the idea of it. That’s what people did with Marley. They listened to a CD and visited the idea of a sufferer. That’s literally all they did; sometimes that was enough to rattle cages in the 70’s. If the appropriation and the selling off of one’s culture could happen to Marley, as it did, and there were forces determined to stop the “movement.” What it spotlights is that all that needs to be done to derail any movement is for the capitalization of its product. This is of course coming from someone who owned multiple Bob Marley shirts, had said posters in his college dorm rooms, Googled “occupy wall street t-shirts” and wondered if there were #blacklivesmatters backpacks. It’s all a funny game now or, as Nina says regarding another ism,
“You know, most of this feminism business was nothing more than white American women telling non-white women what to do and how to do it, with this patronizing if-you-become-just-like-me-you’ll-be-free bullshit,”
In light of everything else that was going on, cultural appropriation must have seemed cute, but the political instability and violence in Jamaica affected “The Singer” and his music. He in turn used his influence to impact those factors. Politicians cavorting with gangsters isn’t new, it’s a tried and tested relationship that goes back to times before we even knew what writing was. Violence itself ends up becoming a kind of resource to be farmed, cultivated and dispersed at the appropriate time. Violence that ends up being the only recourse of the disenfranchised in a political system they know doesn’t really work for them unless they used what they had….violence. This was what “The Singer” wanted to see end.
So what stands out amidst the violence, the conspiracy, the drugs, the wailing for the dead, the gnashing of teeth and the failed revolution is that ultimately they needed the people to vote. For all the master manipulation that went on, what the real fight was over was how do we get the masses to agree to what we want? This is what made “The Singer” dangerous: he could influence his people. HIS people – being anyone that listened. This made him dangerous not to just Jamaican politicians, but to the Americans as well. They were busy with the COINTELPRO program, crushing their own “dangerous” domestic political organizations. Their fear of communism had become so pervasive that anything the FBI/CIA did during this time period seems almost made up, much like the plot of Seven Killings. But it’s not. It’s all real.
Most are going to gravitate to the drug dealing aspects of the story. It’s sexier and easier to digest. It’s akin to much of what we’ve seen before in other gangster movies, but there is more here to this story than that. It’s almost 600 pages, and every page is worth your time. James drops bars continuously and sometimes you’ll have to close the book, walk away, and whisper to yourself, “What the fuck did I just read?” I couldn’t recommend this highly enough and I can clearly see why this book got such critical acclaim and why we’re going to see it on screen someday: That’s not bias, talking that’s just a fact (even if I’m 1/8th Jamaican).