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No sun will shine in my day today
Real sunless days are rare in Jamaica, a Caribbean island famous worldwide for its tropical weather. The blacked-out sun here is certainly metaphorical.
Another classic Wailers tune, "Sun Is Shining," composed around the same time as "Concrete Jungle," stood as a kind of lyrical counterpoint to the dark imagery found here:
Sun is shining
The weather is sweet
Make you wanna move
Your dancing feet
Interestingly, though, despite the cheery lyrics, the musical underpinnings of "Sun Is Shining"—especially its deep bassline and its eerie melodica solo—lend that song some of the same ominous feeling that permeates "Concrete Jungle."
Darkness has covered my light
The song's intense darkness and lightness symbolism draws heavily from Biblical imagery found in passages like "God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all."
In the Christian tradition, light has often been used as a metaphor for God, faith, and life itself. Just check out the famous intro to the Gospel of John:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. [...] All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.
Bob Marley was, of course, not a Christian but a Rastafarian. But Rastafari itself derived, in part, from the revivalist Protestant Christianity that was a powerful force in traditional Jamaican culture.
Rastas accept the Bible as sacred text, even while they typically reject the Christian church as an institution. Rasta elders tend to cite Biblical chapter and verse extensively, usually by memory, in the course of their reasonings.
So, Marley's description of Concrete Jungle as a place where darkness covered light, where life and love were nowhere to be found, tapped into a powerful religious metaphor with deep roots in both Christian and Rasta thinking.
Instead of Concrete Jungle
"Concrete Jungle" isn't merely a metaphor for a harsh urban environment. It's the actual name of a troubled housing project located within the sprawling slums of West Kingston, Jamaica, Bob Marley's hometown.
Concrete Jungle has played a central role in the violent history of modern Jamaica. The community is one of the most notorious of the government-built housing schemes Jamaicans have aptly come to call "garrisons."
West Kingston's first garrison was Tivoli Gardens, a brutalist housing bloc named rather fancifully after a Danish pleasure garden. Tivoli was a modern concrete project built on the ground of a cleared shantytown called the Dungle—that's short for "dung hill"—in the late 1960s by the ruling Jamaican Labour Party.
The right-wing JLP rewarded its fiercest supporters with subsidized housing and patronage jobs in Tivoli. Over time, the project became home to armed gangs of thuggish JLP enforcers. Followers of the leftist People's National Party risked their lives simply by entering the project and Tivoli became a JLP garrison.
In 1972, the rival PNP won national elections to take over control of the government. The party then built its own hulking concrete garrison a few miles away from Tivoli at a place officially called Arnett Gardens, but known to all the sufferers in West Kingston as "Concrete Jungle."
For much of the next 30 years, PNP-affiliated gangsters from Jungle waged so-called "tribal war" against JLP-sponsored gunmen from Tivoli and another JLP garrison called Rema. The politicized violence rooted in the garrisons has ripped Jamaica apart, making Kingston one of the world's most dangerous cities as Junglists and Tivolites carry on their long-running vendetta.
The equivalent in the U.S. would be if the Bloods and Crips of Los Angeles had been armed and protected by the Democrats and Republicans, respectively, through 30 years of gang warfare.
Bob Marley wasn't joking around when he described Concrete Jungle as a place where good life was nowhere to be found.
Where the living is hardest
Living conditions in modern "government yards" like Concrete Jungle were meant to be better than in the sprawling tin-shack shantytowns around them. But conditions in the new projects were hardly luxurious.
The name "Concrete Jungle" itself was derived from the Arnett Gardens project's heavy brutalist architecture, its lack of easy points of entry and exit, and the sheer density of tiny apartments located there. Residents often complained that basic amenities like running water didn't function properly.
So, life in Concrete Jungle certainly didn't much resemble the tropical paradise experienced by tourists visiting the famous Jamaican resorts on the other side of the island. And that's before we even mention the horrific gang warfare that made the project so deadly.
No chains around my feet but I'm not free
This is one of Bob Marley's most famous and oft-quoted lyrics.
Slavery in Jamaica ended in 1833. But much of the island's subsequent history represented only a cruel mockery of freedom for much of the Black population.
Much of the militant social protest that animated Marley's music derived from his deep conviction that true freedom required something more than the poverty and violence that marred life in places like Concrete Jungle or the neighboring Trench Town shantytown where Marley himself was raised.
I am bound here in captivity
Slavery lies at the heart of Jamaican history. The dark legacy of the slave past continues to shape Jamaican society, culture, and politics even today.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, sugar was one of the world's most valuable commodities. Sprawling sugarcane plantations in the Caribbean produced fortunes in wealth for their European owners and provided much of the impetus for European colonization of the Americas.
And the planters soon turned to African slave labor to conduct the hard work of planting, harvesting, and processing sugarcane.
Conditions in the cane fields were brutal and dangerous: the mortality rate for Jamaican slaves was devastatingly high. And more slaves were imported into Jamaica than into all the continental North American colonies combined, but the Black population in North America soon far exceeded that of Jamaica, simply because so many Jamaican slaves died every year.
Emancipation came to the British Empire in 1833, but much of Jamaica's impoverished Black population never fully realized the dream of freedom. In Bob Marley's view, ongoing modern-day oppression found in places like Concrete Jungle represented nothing less than a new form of slavery.
I'll be always laughing like a clown
Clowns can often serve an unsettling purpose in art.
Let's be real: clowns terrify small children, and even adults.
Clowns sometimes, to paraphrase another Marley lyric, find themselves "laughing when there is no joke." It's their job to make people laugh whether they're amused or not. And clowns sometimes speak truth to power, like the medieval jesters who could risk insulting kings by passing off their barbs as mere jokes.
Bob Marley's demeanor was typically anything but clownish. His usual attitude was, instead, dread serious, fueled by the spiritual conviction of his Rastafarian beliefs and the militancy of his social consciousness. In a song full of bleak imagery, the idea of Marley sitting in the dark wasteland of Concrete Jungle "laughing like a clown" may be the most unsettling image of all.
Why won't you let me be now?
For the sufferers of West Kingston—even for international reggae superstar Bob Marley—there could be no real escape from the ruthless violence of the garrisons.
Bob Marley and his Wailers bandmates Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingston grew up in the slums of Trench Town, in the heart of West Kingston's sprawling ghetto.
They grew up with all kinds of bad men and gangsters, including some who eventually became "dons" in the garrisons, the "top ranking" gunmen who led the political gangs based in Tivoli and Jungle and Rema.
After the Wailers became international stars following the Island Records release of Catch a Fire in 1973, Marley moved uptown, abandoning the ghetto for a nice compound in an elite neighborhood on Kingston's Hope Road. But even Bob Marley couldn't escape from Jamaica's tribal war.
In the lead-up to the 1976 elections, Marley was put under intense pressure from garrison-based bad men to throw his weight behind one party or the other. Shortly after he reluctantly agreed to appear at a PNP-affiliated concert, an unknown assailant—suspected to be a JLP tough-guy from Tivoli—broke into the Hope Road compound and tried to assassinate the reggae legend.
Marley, his wife Rita, and his manager Don Taylor were all hit with bullets. Miraculously, all three survived, and Marley even showed up to sing at the concert, defiantly waving his heavily-bandaged arm at the crowd while he performed.
Having proven his valor, Marley then opted for discretion, leaving the country without returning for the next two years.
Life must be somewhere to be found
This is, perhaps, the core idea of Rastafari.
Rastafari is a spiritual movement rooted in the experience of Jamaica's underclass of Black "sufferers."
Rastafari takes a rather fundamentalist reading of the Judeo-Christian Biblical tradition and fuses it with an Afrocentric sensibility and a faith in the living divinity of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I, while rejecting completely the organized churches of the Christian religion.
What ties the whole spiritual package together is a fierce insistence upon the inherent dignity and divinity of the individual, no matter how demeaning the material situation surrounding him may be. Rastafari insists that the lowliest inhabitant of a ghetto slum carries within him true divinity—and not in the afterlife, but here and now on earth.
For a Rasta, sweet life can be found—even inside the nightmare of Concrete Jungle—but it must be found within.