Sunday, April 26, 2009

The UNEDITED Book Talk with Jesse Joshua Watson

My answers for I AND I - Bob Marley "Book Talk" on the Lee & Low website were edited pretty severely and so I wanted to post the original answers for my people to get the full thoughts.

 Q: Does Bob Marley’s music have special meaning to you?  What have you learned from his music? 

A: I first heard Marley’s music when I was around 12 years old and it opened my eyes in a way I had never experienced. I became an instant devotee. And while I love and listen to so many other reggae artists as well, his music always holds a very special place.  I learn from Bob’s songs all the time. I am reminded of the pursuit of righteousness and the never-ending fight against injustice. I learn about the glories of Africa and the ancient history of Ethiopia. I learn what it means to suffer and fight against the system.  I learn about the indestructible spirit of the poor and “helpless” and the movement of Jah people. I am inspired to do good works and live my life for others more than my selfish ambitions. I learn of the heroes forgotten by the history books. And I learn about how in all things, we give thanks and praises to the Most High.


 Q: What was the biggest challenge in creating I and I Bob Marley?

 A: An early challenge in I AND I was to find out how to condense a lifetime of admiration into 40 pages. I had to decide what to include and what to omit. And then, I wanted to include visual themes that would be developed through the entire book.


As far as the depiction of Jamaica itself, I was very conscientious to remember the feeling of coming from a grey, cold Pacific Northwest into the sweltering color of the Caribbean. I walked off the plane into a wall of heat. The sun is so much more intense near the equator that the colors are all that much more saturated than way up north, where I live. My eyes will never forget the colors of Jamaica. I did my best to bring it to the book so that those readers who have not had the treat of visiting yet will get a taste of the real thing.


In this realistic style of illustration, I take photographs of ****** to work from in my paintings. And since Bob is not with us in flesh for me to photograph, I had to get creative. I used two ******, one for young Bob and one for the older Bob. However, since everybody knows what he looks like so well, I had to find a way of getting the face to look just like Bob did through these different stages of his life. That was a very challenging task. There are so few photographs of him as a young boy and teenager that it made my job extra tough. Yet, I am so happy with the results and some of those pieces are among my very favorite in the book.


 Q: It’s been almost 20 years since Bob Marley died. How has the world changed? How is it still the same?

A: Doesn’t it seem like Bob knew what was coming? I definitely consider him a prophet for all people. Those who can hear, let them hear - The voice of one calling in the wilderness.


We have grown closer as a planet, through media and technology and we have made great strides. But we are still plagued by so many of the same problems Bob fought during his life.


Racism has been a part of our lives and continues to persist. The election of a black president in America is a great step but it does not mean there is not still a very serious condition under the surface. Every country has its own struggle to see past color, creed and caste. Our beautiful children may be able to kill this beast once and for all, but it will require those of us who are the older generation to release them from our grip; from our prejudices, our bitterness, our dogma, our grudges inherited from our parents. Let’s not pass that burden on to our children.


Greed and oppression are also as prevalent as ever before. In fact, it seems that corporate injustice has even gotten worse. In light of the recent banking quagmire, I feel like most people see the financial institutions as oppressors. They beg handouts from the governments and then turn around and cause the people to suffer even more, while they bask in their wealth. But as Bob has reminded us over and over again: If you are the big tree, we are the small ax, sharpened to cut you down, ready to cut you down.

Q: Why do you think Bob Marley’s story is an important one for children to learn?

A: Children in every country on earth can look to Bob and take heart that no matter how hard your living is, no matter how unimportant you may feel, you are unique and mighty and you can achieve anything you set your mind to. Just look at Bob. A smart person would have written him off as just a tiny, poor, country kid without a chance. He had way too many roadblocks; no education, no money, no hope of escaping the cycle of poverty. And yet he climbed to the pinnacle of fame. But not by wanting to be famous! He didn’t let that desire overcome his mission to bring love and justice to the people of the world. Obviously he was just a man and had many flaws, some of them glaring. However, like all of our greatest heroes his story is one of passion and determination. His message fits more perfectly into our world now than ever before, making him our very own humble prophet.


Q: Are there particular challenges to illustrating a book largely about music – translating or connecting something auditory to something visual?

 A: Yes, that is a challenge that comes with visually depicting somebody we are all used to hearing. I have enjoyed finding ways of bringing out the musical character of artists I have portrayed for years in my fine art. This book shares a lot of that. When you get a likeness of a person down but miss the spirit of that person then the work feels hollow. I need a painting to encompass the musician more, bringing the spirit of their music and message to the canvas somehow. It begins to not only look like that person but to become them. I see my duty as being similar to shaman’s in a way. I take a piece of art and I breathe a heartbeat into it. If I do my job well the viewer can hear the music coming from the painting sitting on a wall. It dances. It has life within. And this is maybe my highest calling as an artist.

 Q: What about Bob Marley’s life intrigues you the most?

 A: I am intrigued by Bob’s journey of faith. He seemed to be on a lifelong search for a father. He preached about the black king he found in Ras Tafari/ Haile Selassie, whom he adopted as a father figure. When Selassie was killed, one can observe such a conflict within Bob. It must have been like the crisis that the disciples of Jesus faced when he was killed.  It was during that time that he wrote one of my favorite Marley songs ever, “Jah Live”; a beautiful and heartbreaking song about his undying faith in the person of Ras Tafari.

Bob was not particular to one specific faction of Rastafari, like the Bobo Ashanti or Nyabinghi or Twelve Tribes. He was able to bridge the gap between them all.

Then there was a gradual evolution in Bob’s faith. He went from worshipping Selassie as the second coming of Jesus and in fact as God, to following Haile Selassie’s own direction denouncing emperor worship, instead worshiping God alone. Shortly before his death, Bob was baptized into the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, taking the name Berhane Selassie, which means “light of the trinity.” Bob’s mother revealed that his last words were “Jesus take me.”

In my heart I believe that Bob found the father he was looking for all of his life in the Father of life. I believe I will see Bob one day with my own eyes and I will thank him for what he has given me. Jah live! Children, Yeah!


 Q: Many different artists have depicted Bob Marley in their work over the years. How did the abundance of other artwork inspired by Marley make it harder or easier to work on this book?

 A: To be perfectly honest, I don’t think I looked at a single piece of anyone else’s artwork of Bob Marley during this entire process. I don’t like to be influenced, even subconsciously when I have a task to do like this one. Of course I have seen art around over the years, but I just did my thing. This book is something I have been training to do my whole life. The many paintings I have done of Bob over the years must be smiling from their art collectors’ walls at this book. It feels like a culmination of twenty+ years of practice. And it really is just nothing but love. They say to paint what you love. This is what I love.


 Q: Any last thoughts? 

A: I am very grateful to have been a part of creating this book. With so much commercial pillaging of sacred things, I am proud to say that this book has none of that. The author and I are lifelong fans of the music of Bob Marley and we have abounding admiration and praise for the man. There is a deep connection in this artwork that comes from time I have spent in Jamaica, my Jamaican friends, my Rasta people and from this musical form that has helped raise me into a man. I am stronger because of reggae music and the culture of Rastafari, which I admire so deeply. I fight against the system of oppression and have since I was a teenager because of the empowering lyrics carried to the world through reggae music and through Bob Marley. And if I can leave one message myself, it is that I desire the youth to be wise and strong and to never grow feint of heart but press on to the mountaintop. The darker the night, the brighter the dawn that is coming! One bright morning, when my work is over I will fly away home!