With Tony Medina and Jesse Joshua WatsonAuthor and Illustrator of I and I Bob Marley
About the Title: “‘I and I’ is a way of referring to oneself, yet it means more than simply ‘I.’ It can refer to the unity of God and every human—God is within all of us and we are all one people, equal under him. In Jamaican grammar, ‘I and I’ can also mean ‘we.’ It discourages thinking of oneself solely as an individual but instead as part of a community.”—Tony Medina
Bob Marley’s life and music have left an indelible imprint on the world. In their new book, I and I Bob Marley, poet Tony Medina and illustrator Jesse Joshua Watson illuminate Bob Marley’s journey from young, impoverished boy to famous artist whose music brought people together in Jamaica and around the globe. In this BookTalk, Medina and Watson share how Marley’s story and music have touched their lives and led them to create this book.
Does Bob Marley’s music have special meaning to you? What has it taught you?
Tony Medina: Bob Marley's music is important to me because its beats and rhythms are just as infectious as its message. His political poems are love poems. They show a love for people, particularly those that are oppressed and suffer economic, social, and political hardships.
Bob Marley's music continues to inspire me. It continues to show me the way. It helps to reinforce my own worldview and political beliefs when I feel, at times, that no one seems to get it or me. Bob Marley's music reminds me that I'm on the right track. It reinforces my notion of using art to relay important ideas. It reinforces a love for humanity and the world. It humanizes me.
Jesse Joshua Watson: I first heard Marley’s music when I was twelve years old and it opened my eyes in a way I had never experienced. I became an instant devotee. While I love and listen to many other reggae artists, Marley’s 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, and the indestructible spirit of the poor. I learn of the heroes forgotten by the history books. I am inspired to do good works and live my life for others more than my own ambitions.
What was the biggest challenge in creating I and I Bob Marley?
TM: The biggest challenge was trying to write about such a complex person, with his particular history and impact. I also was challenged by trying to do justice to Bob Marley’s language—his Jamaican patois—so that it is not undermined but still understandable to a general audience.
JJW: An early challenge was to figure out how to condense a lifetime of admiration into forty pages of illustrations. I had to decide what to include and what to omit. And I also wanted to include visual themes that would be developed through the entire book.
I was very conscientious about remembering my feeling of coming from the grey, cold, Pacific Northwest into the sweltering heat and 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 much more saturated than up north, where I live. My eyes will never forget the colors of Jamaica. I did my best to bring them to the book so that readers who have not had the treat of visiting the Caribbean yet will get a taste of the real thing.
For this realistic style of illustration, I take photographs of models to work from. Since Bob is not with us for me to photograph, I had to get creative. I used two models, one for young Bob and one for the older Bob. However, since everybody knows what he looked like, I had to find a way to get the face to look just like Bob 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 of a younger Bob are among my favorites in the book.
Jesse, are there particular challenges to illustrating a book largely about music – translating or connecting something auditory to something visual?
JJW: Yes, there is a challenge that comes with visually depicting somebody we are all used to hearing. When you get a likeness of a person down but miss the spirit of that person, the work feels hollow. I need to paint to encompass the musician, bringing the spirit of his or her music and message to the canvas. The image then begins to look like that musician and also becomes him or her. I see my duty as being similar to a shaman’s, in a way. I take a piece of art and I give it a heartbeat. If I do my job well, the viewer will hear the music coming from the painting. It dances. It has life within. This is maybe my highest calling as an artist.
It’s been almost thirty years since Bob Marley died. How has the world changed?
TM: We are all economically chained together and so when one nation's economy is strained, that seems to put a burden on all other economies. I think the poor are growing in numbers and wealth is even more concentrated in the hands of the few. I think that Bob Marley would have a lot to say about this, particularly when you see the HIV and AIDS and warfare that exist in Africa at this time.
JJW: Doesn’t it seem like Bob knew what was coming?
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 the United States is a great step, but it does not mean that 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 our prejudices, bitterness, dogma, and grudges inherited from our parents. Let’s not pass that burden on to our children.
Tony, in your introduction, you liken Bob Marley to the West African griot. Can you tell us more about the griot?
TM: A griot in certain African cultures was a historian, storyteller, and poet who preserved the history of his people through memory and the oral tradition. He worked closely with the leaders of these tribes to record and preserve the history, and pass it on. In modern times, poets, rappers, singers, and other artists who see themselves as griots usually deal with the past, the present, and the future to make people see, think, and change their conditions and the world. The job of these modern-day griots is to inform and inspire; to bear witness to truth and beauty.
Why do you think Bob Marley’s story is an important one for children to learn?
TM: Bob Marley's life is an example of how, with love and passion, you can overcome your conditions. His passion was music and his people—all people. He wanted to change the world for the better through his art and his ideas. I think he is a great example of a person with a deep love of his people in particular and humanity in general.
JJW: Children in every country on Earth can look to Bob and take heart that no matter how hard your life 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 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. Like all our greatest heroes, Bob’s 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. If I can leave one message myself, it is that I desire the youth of our world to be wise and strong and never to grow faint of heart; to press on to the mountaintop.
Any last thoughts to share?
JJW: For me, there is a deep connection in this artwork that comes from time I have spent in Jamaica and with 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.
This book is something I have been training to do for my whole life. The many paintings I have done of Bob over the years must be smiling at this book from their art collectors’ walls. I and I feels like a culmination of twenty-plus years of practice. It really is just love. They say to paint what you love. This is what I have done.
Learn more about I and I Bob Marley
I and I Bob Marley Book Trailer
Also written by Tony Medina
Christmas Makes Me Think
Love to Langston
BookTalk with Tony Medina on Christmas Makes Me Think
Also illustrated by Jesse Joshua Watson
Video Interview with Jesse Joshua Watson and G. Neri on Chess Rumble