STORIES

The Artist Behind Reggae's Lasting Iconography

By David Jenison on May 11, 2017

If not for Neville Garrick, the aesthetic of reggae music and culture would be much different. The Jamaican-born artist now living in Los Angeles designed such iconic Bob Marley album covers as Rastaman Vibration, Exodus, Kaya, Babylon by Bus, Confrontation, Buffalo Soldier and Survival. The former Kingston Daily News art director, who came to live with Marley and the Tuff Gong crew at 56 Hope Road, also designed iconic covers for Bunny Wailer, Peter Tosh, Ras Michael, Burning Spear, Rita Marley, Judy Mowatt and Steel Pulse (notably the dramatic Earth Crisis cover that included historical figures like Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II, a Klansman and wartorn Vietnamese and famine-starved African children). Garrick also designed the colorful backdrops for the 1980s' Reggae Sunsplash Festival and the light show for the Wailers' tours. 

Garrick is a truly gifted artist, but his work is also important for the larger spiritual and cultural themes they convey. The imagery connects the music to the Rastafari faith, African culture and spiritual symbols like the Lion of Judah. Ethiopia plays a major role in the imagery, and Garrick published the photobook A Rasta's Pilgrimage: Ethiopian Faces and Places in 1999. As the man responsible for the most iconic Marley iconography, Marley Natural naturally recruited him to design the limited-edition Anniversary Herb Collection featuring the Marley Gold (sativa), Green (hybrid), Black (indica) and Red (high-CBD) lines. PRØHBTD spoke with Garrick to learn more about the ideas behind his transformational artwork. 

The use of red, gold and green, as I understand it, is a nod to the Ethiopian flag. 

Yeah. I'll let you finish the question, but I have something I'd like to say on that. 

I wanted to ask what deeper associations you see between reggae and Ethiopian culture?

Ethiopia is our foundation, what the whole thing is about. I noticed that you said "red, gold and green," which is actually the flag of Bolivia in terms of that color arrangement. The Ethiopian flag is green at the top, gold in the middle and red at the bottom, and before it was taken over by the military juntas with the monarch in charge, a symbol of the Lion of Judah sat in the middle. 

In my artwork, I can speak for getting that right and really putting forward the history of Ethiopia because it's still a relatively unknown mystery. I've been trying to get movies made about the great history that Ethiopia has had over a long time. Ethiopia was mentioned in the Bible. As Rastas, we always go back to the roots. That's the significance of Ethiopia being, not only where they found Lucy and the oldest remains, but the center of creation. In my artwork, and I guess in the art of other people who did reggae album covers, I incorporated those symbols. The record shops became my art gallery, and in terms of getting the message out there, I reached more people with album covers than I would have making paintings and hanging them up in galleries where only one percent of the people would see them.  

So the artwork became a tool for me. Not being a singer or a musician—I ended up playing percussion but only because Bob encouraged me to—I used the art as a vehicle to project the whole concept of Rastafari and African history. In the early days [of the music industry], the record cover and artwork wasn't a major concern. The [music artists] had no control. They basically recorded the tracks, and the record company packaged it. I took the whole [art] thing in house because these weren't just ordinary records. This was a concept. This was something we were trying to portray in our work. I returned to Jamaica after going to UCLA, but I knew visually, from living in California during that period of time, that it was show business, and you had to present something. 

Bob's earliest audience, and probably right up to his passing, was about 75 percent white college kids. That's why it was important for me to use the visuals to keep the message in there so it wasn't just a free-for-all smoking dope and getting high. The message was the content. Basically, I just color the music. I try to enhance what Bob and the Rastafari movement was trying to present to the world, and apparently it really caught on. Look at how many people wear dreadlocks now. Not necessarily as part of a Rastafari faith but more as fashion. In the early days, we were smart men and we wore dreadlocks, but we were really looked down upon. So there's been a lot of changes. 

I guess I said a mouthful there. 

That was fantastic. Speaking of Ethiopia, next year is the twentieth anniversary of A Rasta's Pilgrimage: Ethiopian Faces and Places. If you were to take more photos and add a chapter to the book, what would you want to add?

That's a good question. Ethiopia has this history as a moving capital so there are many places that were the seat of power, from Axum in the beginning to Addis Ababa in the end, but you also have Mek'ele and Gondar and then Ankober for a time,which is where [Emperor] Menelik II was from. I spent two and a half months there, and I already captured most of them. The beauty about Ethiopia is that hardly any of those things have changed. Lalibela, which I forgot to mention originally, was one of the most sacred places that I've been to, and since I shot those photos, there have been some damages to those monolithic churches. In other words, what I captured, I captured at the right time. 

I'd really have to think about it because it's my desire—more like a dream—of actually moving to Ethiopia and living in a place like Gondar, which was one of my favorite visits in Ethiopia. So I couldn't say right offhand what I didn't cover from that book or what I'd do now, but I'm sure there'd be a lot of interesting things. The interesting thing to note is that presently there's a statue of Bob Marley in Ethiopia. 

That's amazing. 

Oh yes, and you need to Google that. It's really important because the only statues in Ethiopia really came from the time of the monarchy, and it was kings and emperors and higher Rases like Ras Makonnen, who was Haile Selassie's father. During the time, Ethiopia was associated more with Russia and there were images of Karl Marx and [Friedrich] Engles and [Vladimir] Lenin in Ethiopia, so it's iconic that Bob may be one of the first and only non-born Ethiopians that actually has a statue there. I think on the six corners of the statue, "One Love" is written in several languages. You know, that's a real iconic achievement. 

Which album cover first brought attention to your artistic abilities? 

The first significant album cover I did was Bunny Wailer's Blackheart Man [from 1976], and I did some posters for Bob Marley before I got to do the first album, which was [1976's] Rastaman Vibration. I had submitted something for [Marley's 1974 album] Natty Dread, but I wasn't really known or such an integral part of the group at that time. Island Records did something else instead. I'd say Blackheart Man started it off for me, and I also did an album cover previous to that for Ras Michael called Rastafari [from 1975]. 

Rastafari was the first time I featured the image of His Imperial Majesty [Haile Selassie]—first as a young seven-year-old boy—as a main thing. From the beginning, my whole thing was trying to create some kind of social impact on knowledge of what the whole Rastafari movement was about. 

With the Rastaman Vibration cover, Bob seems to have a Che Guevara look. Was that intentional?

That wasn't intentional, but I'm proud of that because Che has always been a hero for me. When I was in college at UCLA, I knew the history of Che Guevara, but the image I submitted but wasn't used for the cover—which is probably one of the most popular ones I shot—is the more militant one that looks like Che Guevara. In fact, I actually did something in Photoshop a few years ago where I took the Che Guevara image and replaced it with Bob Marley. 

So that was a revolutionary look, and it's funny because Bob lost that cap and jacket, which was one of his favorite jackets. To tell you the truth, that wasn't my first idea for Rastaman Vibration. It's unfortunate that I can't recover that now, but I basically did Bob Marley's profile view, or semi-profile view, in the map of Africa. This has been done a lot since, but I'm talking about 1976 when that had never been done before. There were some rainbows over the top, and if I can remember, Bob's head was where Ethiopia would be on the map, and a Lion of Judah and other images were in his head. I did Bunny Wailer's Blackheart Man before I had the opportunity to do Rastaman Vibration, and when Bob saw my original idea, he said it looked too much like the Blackheart Man cover. I didn't really agree. I said, "Well, what it has is the similarity of the concepts of Rastafari. Do you understand?" He asked if I could come up with something different. 

This was my first time meeting [Island Records founder] Chris Blackwell. He came down to [Jamaica] to collect the tapes and album cover. Bob had told him about me, and he knows I'm doing stuff, and he wanted to control that. I think Chris liked everybody, but Bob had that kind of comment. I told that story over and over where I was living at Hope Road at the time. Bob was upstairs in a little cottage, which eventually turned into the dining room when we started to press records, and I was living downstairs. Chris Blackwell said he was leaving on Monday, and this was on a Saturday, and he wanted me to come up with something different that Bob would like before he left. 

I went down to the room and thought about it. I was still at The [Kingston] Daily News the second time I had the chance to shoot Bob at Hope Road, and I made photocopies of the shots. They were faded and light, and they didn't come out good. I had one of the photocopies there, and I took out my watercolor paints and started painting over the image. I was basically colorizing this black and white image. Burlap was the main material I worked with at that time, and I cut [the image] out and pasted it on the burlap. Stepping back and looking at it, I heard Bob's voice through my window saying in Jamaican patois, "The album cover dat." I was actually able to get it ready for Chris, and we were able to finish it up in Miami when we were working at Criteria studios.  

You designed the Anniversary Herb Collection for Marley Natural. Can you tell me about the illustrations and what themes you wanted to convey?

The artwork had to be true to Bob and help people better understand what he was all about. He believed in the greatness of Africa, and he thought smoking herb could help bring everyone together. He would say, "Education is the key to liberation." I thought about the times I smoked with Bob and the inspiration it gave me, and I looked back at drawings I did during our travels together. The artwork includes the Malawi flag, women in a Kenyan marketplace, the Lion of Judah and other images associated with Africa, Rastafari, the music and our time together. 

David Jenison (david@prohbtd.com) is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD. Photo credits: Facebook, Facebook, Facebook


 

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