Survival is an album with an outwardly militant theme. Some critics speculate that this was due in part to criticism Marley received for the laid-back, ganja-soaked atmosphere of his previous release, "Kaya", which seemed to sidetrack the urgency of his message. In the song "Africa Unite", Marley proclaims Pan-African solidarity. The song "Zimbabwe" is a hymn dedicated to later-independent Rhodesia. The song was performed at Zimbabwe's Independence Celebration in 1980, just after the official declaration of Zimbabwe's independence.
Survival was originally to be called Black Survival to underscore the urgency of African unity, but the name was shortened to prevent misinterpretations of the album's theme.
The album's front cover depicts 48 African flags, 15 of which (in italics) are now obsolete. 2 of them are actually political flags instead of national ones, both representing Zimbabwe (at the time, Zimbabwe Rhodesia). The cover also depicts the flag of Papua New Guinea, the only non-African country in the artwork.