No other artist has generated the galvanic global effect of Robert Nesta Marley. Singer, songwriter and shaman, he has received innumerable honors: the Jamaican Order of Merit, a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, membership of the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Grammys. The New York Times calls him the most influential musical artist of the second half of the twentieth century and included his 1975 ‘Live At The Rainbow’ video in a time capsule. An international icon, he’s instantly recognized by his mane of flashing dreadlocks and message of conscious love and revolutionary unity wailing over a thunderous reggae groove. Over two decades after his passing, Marley continues to be the standard by which not just Jamaican, but all popular music artists must be measured.
Bob Marley wanted superstardom, and the positive visualization he wove on Rastaman Vibration, the album that broke him outside Jamaica in 1976, helped him achieve it: “We’re bubbling on the Top 100, just like a mighty Dread” (Roots Rock Reggae). But for Marley, celebrity itself was merely a byproduct of a lifelong mission: to raise the consciousness of people everywhere, make heard the voice of the downtrodden and the ghetto “sufferah”, spread the pan-African spiritual empowerment message of Jamaican hero, Marcus Garvey and Rasta godhead, His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie of Ethiopia — and to powerfully project his insights to the world in a peerless canon of dancing music.
His songs have titles like incantations, Biblical invocations. Tracks like Soul Rebel, Natural Mystic, Burnin’ and Lootin’, Exodus, Jamming, One Love, Johnny Was, Kaya, Three Little Birds and I Shot The Sheriff, the song from the 1973 album, Burnin’ that brought Marley a new level of attention when Eric Clapton covered it in 1974 – are now essential elements of our human cultural vocabulary.
A people’s poet, Marley’s vision was first molded by the lush countryside around St. Ann’s Bay, where he was born on February 6, 1945, to a local village girl, Cedella Booker, and a white colonial Captain, Norville Marley. But it was Trenchtown, Kingston’s vibrant, sometimes violent ghetto where he spent his teenage years with fellow Wailers Bunny Livingstone and Peter Tosh, that Marley would turn into a symbol of the humanity, dignity and richness that can flourish amidst material deprivation, in songs like No Woman No Cry : “I remember when we used to sit, In a government yard in Trenchtown, Observing the hypocrites, Mingle with the good people we meet. And you would cook cornmeal porridge, Of which I share with you, My feet is my only carriage, So I’ve got to push on through…”
The Wailers worked with important producers like Leslie Kong of the Beverleys label, crucial hitmaker Coxsone Dodd of Studio One, and created riveting collaborations with the dubmaster, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry. Inspired in part by American soul, gospel and r’n’b like Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, their harmony trio played a significant role in the ska and rocksteady music which was mirroring Jamaica’s new, post-colonial identity. The group was launched into a wider world when Island Records’ founder Chris Blackwell bankrolled Catch A Fire, (1972) effectively making it the first reggae album to conform to the progressive rock group’s singer/songwriter aesthetic of the day. But after releasing Burnin’ (1973) and Natty Dread (1974), Marley parted ways with Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailers.
Marley went on to become the international ambassador of reggae, even while his brilliance transcended genre. For his next studio release, Rastaman Vibration, (1976) Marley kept the Barrett Brothers rhythm section of bass player Family Man and drummer Carlton, the foundation of the classic Wailers sound, and framed his passionate vocals with the I Three harmony trio: Judy Mowatt, Marcia Griffiths and his wife, Rita.
“Every song we sing come true, you know. It all happens in real life. Some songs are too early, some happen immediately; but all of them happen. Burning and looting happen, the curfew happen, so much time it’s a shame,” Marley commented wryly in 1977. Indeed, even as he was becoming an international star, the ghetto runnings and global trickery he sang about still haunted him. Shortly after trying to unite Kingston’s warring political gangs by performing at a Peace Concert in 1976, Marley was shot and wounded in his own uptown Kingston home, along with Rita and manager, Don Taylor. He bravely returned to play again for the people, and then went to London, acting on his own words in Heathen: “He who fights and runs away, Lives to fight another day.” There, he recorded Exodus, (1977) the stirring, militant and mystic musical landmark that was voted the most significant album of the twentieth century by Time in their millennium issue. In the same astonishing sessions, Marley the revolutionary boldly laid bare his tender, flirtatious, whimsical feelings in tracks that became the album ‘Kaya.’ (1978) Consistent and rigorous, Marley continued to challenge himself and the complacency of society in his next albums, Survival (1979) and Uprising (1980). Truly fulfilling a dream, in that same year, Marley and the Wailers played at the Independence celebrations of Zimbabwe. But though his fame and authority were reaching new heights, Marley’s health was failing. Since the Rastaman Vibration days, he had been secretly tussling with a supposed football injury that proved to be a fatal melanoma cancer, and finally collapsed in the middle of an American tour, Rastas don’t believe in death and in a real sense, as Marley’s song says, Jah Live; physical absence aside, Bob Marley is still very much with us. Three years after he flew away home (as the original Wailers sang on Rastaman Chant,) on May 11, 1981, the phenomenal Legend anthology was released, sealing his near-mythic status. And as he’d hoped, many of his eleven children are continuing his work.
Marley’s mystique and influence keep on growing, as his words become ever more necessary and relevant: “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our mind, have no fear for atomic energy, for none of them can stop the time…” (Redemption Song).
- by Vivien Goldman
- author, Soul Rebel, Natural Mystic: the life of Bob Marley (St. Martins Press, 1981); The Black Chord (Universe/Rizzoli)