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Book Break — A Brief History of Seven Killings

A Brief History of Seven Killings

I’m taking a break from discussing the law to rave about the best new novel I’ve read in years.  Marlon James’ (@MarlonJames5) A Brief History of Seven Killings is ostensibly about the 1976 assassination attempt on Bob Marley.  In fact, Marley isn’t really a character in the book; he’s more of an idea that motivates the novel’s characters, and the attempt on his life is a device used to tell the story of Jamaica’s upheavals in the 1970s.  That story is told through dozens of narrators, each of whom carries a distinct voice.  It takes some getting used to, and I’ve read a fair criticism that the lengthy internal dialogues of James’ characters distracts the reader from the often brutal action unfolding in a given scene.  But that’s a small price to pay for a book this gritty, urgent and full of evil energy.

For me, one of the biggest thrills in this book is how it highlights many criminally-overlooked roots-reggae artists of the 1970s.  These artists and their songs have little in common with the kitchy, good-time reggae music that you often hear at summer music festivals.  To the contrary, much of the roots-reggae recorded in the 70s is tough-as-nails, telling unsentimental stories of a hard life, and making pointed political demands.  Consider, for instance, In The Roots of the Ghetto, in which Johnny Clarke’s bleak portrait of ghetto-life (where people are “weeping and crying because they’re starving,” compared to people living in the “residential area[s],” who are “having fun”) seamlessly rolls into calls for revolution.

Linval Thompson is even more direct in Blood Gonna Run.

Similarly, in his song Marcus Garvey, Big Youth — one of Jamaica’s best “toasters” — stirred a boiling pot with his stories of “false leaders” and “blood running in the country.”

And over lilting horns and fat organ stabs, Willie Williams matter-of-factly sings “A lotta people won’t get no justice tonight, so a lotta people going to have to stand up and fight.”

These few songs are, literally, just the tip of the iceberg.  There is a world of vital Jamaican music that was dangerously close to being completely forgotten.  Reissue labels like Blood & Fire and Pressure Sounds have rescued a lot of this music, but something like A Brief History of Seven Killings presents a rare opportunity to introduce a new generation to these crucial artists and songs. Let’s hope that opportunity isn’t squandered.1Marlon James curated a Spotify playlist as an introduction to the music that swirls around his novel.  Aside from all the great reggae, the playlist also reminds me that Shadow Dancing was a near-perfect pop song.

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