Lifting material from a speech by pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey, calling for a second emanicipation from "mental slavery", "Redemption Song" is a simple call for awakening that is at once hopeful protest and heartbreaking resignation. The final line of the chorus, "All I ever had, redemption songs", reads like an epitaph for Marley's struggle.
While the anthem of that struggle was "No Woman, No Cry", "Redemption Song" is the antidote. The narrator is powerless: "Old pirates, yes, they rob I/Sold I to the merchant ships/Minutes after they took I/From the bottomless pit". At the same time, he is divinely empowered: "We forward in this generation triumphantly".
The idiomatic uses of "I" for "me" and "We forward" root the song in its Jamaican context, in the same way as the imperative "No Woman, No Cry". From this idiom, Marley had an ability to create honest protest songs such as "Get Up, Stand Up" that surpassed his own Rastafarian beliefs, and to reach beyond a strict identity:
"My father was a white and my mother was black. Them call me half-caste or whatever. Me don't dip on nobody's side. Me don't dip on the black man's side nor the white man's side. Me dip on God's side, the one who create me and cause me to come from black and white."
With two verses, a repeated chorus, and a simple chord progression, "Redemption Song" is a folk singalong from the reggae tradition. Written at the time of Marley's diagnosis with cancer, it evidences the increasingly religious nature of his songwriting on the 1980 album Uprising. The spiritual does not, however, overshadow the call to awaken against tyranny, and the message is the possibility of redemption, no matter how slim.