Life That Whip
posted by March 20 at 14:01 PMon
Now is as good a time as any to put some thought into two reggae classics: Bob Marley’s “Slave Driver” and Gregory Isaac’s “Slave Master.”
Both are were recorded in the mid-70s, and both imagine a confrontation between a slave and his cruel master. But in substance, the songs are very different. To understand this difference we must examine the function of the whip sound in each song.
In “Slave Driver” (the version on Catch A Fire), the whip is represented by a double clap (“clap-clap”). Bob Marley sings: “Every time I hear the crack of a whip/my blood runs cold/I remember on the slave ship/How they brutalized our very souls.” After Marley sings “crack of a whip,” the hands of Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh make the double clap. This double clap is repeated for several measures and effectively becomes the song’s beat.
“Slave Driver,” in short, is about a painful memory. To Marely’s present, it transmits, by way of memory, the pain of a slave who was whipped in the past. This is why the song is not easy to dance to—you are dancing to the lashes a slave received from his master. But this whipping, this painful memory, is of vital importance to Marley’s mission because without it the youth of his day will not, he fears, be angry enough to revolutionize the world they’re given—their given enslavement to the world market system (“Only machine make money”). The youth must hear/feel that whip and be enraged by the pain of their ancestors.
Whereas “Slave Driver” is about igniting a revolt in the tenement yards of Kingston, Gregory Isaac’s “Slave Master” is about becoming accustomed to the situation of slavery. This is why Isaac’s song is not really about black slavery but the human condition.
Again, let’s examine the sound of the whip, this time in Isaac’s classic. He sings: “Every time I hear the music/I move my hips-my hips/Slave master comes around with his whip-a whip.” The whip is not about memory but about disciplining the slave’s pleasure, which is a creative pleasure—pleasure from musing, dancing, dreaming, drinking. The ultimate slave master wants to punish the pleasures of being human with his whip. But the desire to be creative is too strong. The human, the slave, must create, must have his pleasure, must dip his hips (“a dip-a dip”).
At the end of the song, Isaac reasserts this creative desire: “[Slave master], back out with it/because I’m accustomed to your whip/And if the chalice is around/I will surely take a sip-a sip/I’m accustomed to your whip.” Here we have the universal wisdom of Cook Ding, the ancient Chinese butcher who dances as he deals with death—a dead ox. As we live, create, play, and drink wine, we must always tell the slave master, who is always Hegel’s Absolute Master (death, nothingness, the negative): “I’m accustomed to your whip-your whip.”