The song is considered one of Marley's greatest works, with Rolling Stone having listed it as #66 among The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. Some key lyrics derived from a speech given by thePan-Africanist orator Marcus Garvey.
At the time he wrote the song, circa 1979, Bob Marley had been diagnosed with the cancer in his toe that later was to take his life. According to Rita Marley, "he was already secretly in a lot of pain and dealt with his own mortality, a feature that is clearly apparent in the album, particularly in this song".
"Redemption Song" was released as a single in the UK and France in October 1980, and included a full band rendering of the song. This version has since been included as a bonus track on the 2001 reissue of Uprising, as well as on the 2001 compilation One Love: The Very Best of Bob Marley & The Wailers. Although in live performances the full band was used for the song the solo recorded performance remains the take most familiar to listeners.
Bob Marley – vocals, acoustic guitar, production With Bob accompanying himself on Guitar, "Redemption Song" was unlike anything he had ever recorded: an acoustic ballad, without any hint of reggae rhythm. In message and sound it recalled Bob Dylan. Biographer Timothy White called it an 'acoustic spiritual' and another biographer, Stephen Davis, pointed out the song was a 'total departure', a deeply personal verse sung to the bright-sounding acoustic strumming of Bob's Ovation Adamis guitar.— James Henke, author of Marley Legend==Meaning and influence ==
"I carried Bob Marley’s Redemption Song to every meeting I had with a politician, prime minister, or president. It was for me a prophetic utterance or as Bob would say ‘the small ax that could fell the big tree’. The song reminded me that freedom always comes with a cost, but for those who would prepare to pay it, maybe ‘emancipation from mental slavery’ would be our reward."
— Bono of U2The song urges listeners to "Emancipate yourself from mental slavery," because "None but ourselves can free our minds". These lines were taken from a speech given by Marcus Garvey in Nova Scotia during October 1937 and published in his Black Man magazine: We are going to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery because whilst others might free the body, none but ourselves can free the mind. Mind is your only ruler, sovereign. The man who is not able to develop and use his mind is bound to be the slave of the other man who uses his mind ...In 2009, Jamaican poet and broadcaster Mutabaruka chose "Redemption Song" as the most influential recording in Jamaican music history.