By Mike Rimmer
Undoubtedly, those who had built their lives and businesses around Bob Marley and his music felt threatened by his decision to be baptized. Most ignored it as an embarrassment, while others dismissed it as a mere formality without meaning. But Judy Mowatt, one of his famous “I-Threes” backup singers, tells an even more amazing story, of the reggae superstar’s deathbed conversion.
I am sitting in the Hard Rock Café in Birmingham watching the big screen, which is showing a classic Bob Marley clip of “Jammin'” and watching the distinctive figures of three magnificently dressed ladies – Marcia Griffiths, Judy Mowatt and Rita Marley – swaying gently to the music as they sing backing vocals. I am transfixed because only days earlier I had interviewed Judy Mowatt, and she was remembering this period of her life.
The trio had met working in the studio, and their voices had immediately blended into something special. Marley himself had recruited them to be part of his backing band, The Wailers.
Judy remembered, “The first song we did was ‘Jah Live,’ and Bob wanted us to work with him on his ‘Natty Dread’ album. The I-Threes continued to work with Marley until his death.”
As you’d expect, Judy was totally engrossed in Rastafarianism, as she explained, “I was a Rasta for 22 years and I was genuine. I embraced the objectives of Rastafari, knowing that one of the aims and objectives were to repatriate to the land of our ancestors. And also to make music to let people be aware of who they are as a people and knowing that the western hemisphere is only a place for them to pass through, but we should return to our father’s land. That was my plan, but God had a different plan! After 22 years I became very unfulfilled, dissatisfied; not by any one thing or by any one person, but I started to search inside because I realized that there was something else that I needed that I could not put my hand on. I knew that God was calling me into deeper waters. I was a little bit fearful because I was wondering what my brothers and sisters would say and what would be their reaction. So I was a bit fearful.”
At the same time as her search, the singer’s personal life was filled with difficulty too, where two family members were in serious situations. She didn’t go into detail but confessed, “I was at a place where I thought I wanted to die but I never had the strength to take my own life. I started praying and I said, ‘God, I really don’t know you because if I knew you, then all of this would not have been happening to me.’ Not knowing that God had used that situation to draw me to him, I started reading my Bible. I had read my Bible three times from cover to cover, and I started reading, but the things I was seeing this fourth time were what I never saw in the three times I read my Bible.”
She continued, “I was seeing it through another pair of lenses. I read, ‘Wherein, there is no other name given among men whereby we must be saved, but by the name of Jesus Christ.’ That flew out of the Bible and into my spirit, and that really turned the key. Whenever you have a mindset and you seriously believe something, you’re not going to open to anything else, and I wasn’t open to anything else. But God opened me to start seeking and searching.”
Listening to an interview with Haile Selassie really challenged Judy’s thinking.
She remembered, “The interviewer asked him, ‘Why is it that people say you are the returned Messiah?’ and he answered through an interpreter – ‘I’m a mere man. I will be replaced by the oncoming generation and a human being should not be emulated for a deity.’ Somebody gave me a book, an autobiography and selected speeches of ‘His Majesty’ and I see where ‘His Majesty’ is a Christian king! I recognize now that instead of worshipping him, I should be worshipping who he is worshipping! So I see ‘His Imperial Majesty’ as my teacher.”
On stage at the 2004 Birmingham Gospel Festival, Mowatt was dressed splendidly in white looking younger than her 52 years. She shared some of her experiences, testified to the truth she’s discovered and sang songs from her excellent album “Something Old, Something New.” The crowd clearly loved it.
She became a Christian in the mid-’90s amidst a wave of other successful reggae artists finding Christian faith like Papa San, Stitchie, Chevelle Franklin and Carlene Davis. After her performance, I asked her what she thought Marley would have made of her conversion. It was here that she made my jaw drop!
She shared, “When Bob was on his dying bed, his wife Rita called me on the phone and said to me that Bob was in such excruciating pain and he stretched out his hand and said, ‘Jesus take me.’ I was wondering to myself, ‘Why is it that Bob said “Jesus” and not “Selassie”?’ But I never said it to anyone. Then I met a friend of mine and he said his sister, who is a Christian, was a nurse at the hospital where Bob was before he passed on, and she led him to the Lord Jesus Christ. So when Rita saw him saying, ‘Jesus take me,’ he had already received the Lord Jesus Christ in his life.”
Judy said telling the truth about Marley’s conversion isn’t popular in Jamaica: “People need to know, because they would be drawn also to Jesus Christ. But nobody wants to promote that, and in Jamaica, I said it on a popular television program and a Rasta man met me and asked me why did I have to say that? I said, ‘Because it’s the truth!’ But he never wanted me to reveal that, and I think [because] so many people would be drawn to the gospel.”
Thinking back to the ’70s explosion of reggae and its association with Rastafarianism, is it possible that this latest wave of gospel reggae artists might be part of another movement? Could the power of the Spirit see another grassroots movement born and the music be part of leading many to the real truth of Jesus?
Judy shared her thoughts: “I see another grassroots movement being born inside of the people of God. Because I think what God did inside the birth of reggae message was to uplift the people that were in degradation, the people who suffered. I mean, the music was birthed out of suffering! Out of Trench Town. It was inside of the pain and the agony that people started singing about it. It is inside of the pain that people are experiencing, where God has given us songs, and He’s using the gospel as a vehicle to go inside places where we probably would not be able to go. But I see this as a continuation of what took place in the ’70s in Jamaica.”
Our thanks to CrossRhythms for permission to reprint this story. Please visit their website at CrossRhythms.co.uk.