Bob Marley is probably the most famous black person in the world. Why? Because he’s dead.
There’s obviously more to it than that, but the fact that his dreadlocked semblance has now become a symbol standing for something much different than he actually intended places him in the league of appropriated heroes, somewhere amid Che Guevara, Marilyn Monroe and John Lennon. When once his music was the rallying cry of the oppressed Jamaicans who saw in him a revolutionary who would bring peace to a torn country, it’s now the soundtrack to hazy bro-downs in just about every institution of higher learning in the world.
Because Marley is dead, his image and, more important, his art, is contested space, gaining renewed cultural relevance while new fans are simultaneously (and in fairness, unwittingly) losing sight of the context that made him such a luminary in the first place. Sure, it’s good for sales of his 12 million-plus-selling greatest-hits album Legend. But the insistence to transform the icon from a roots radical rocker that the C.I.A. allegedly wanted dead to a nappy-dreaded Dave Matthews is a downright insult to the man and all the good he did for this world, let alone his remarkable music. And if he was alive, he certainly wouldn’t stand for it.
So, before I substantiate that incendiary claim at the top of this column, let’s set the record straight about where Bob Marley came from and what his work meant to the people he loved most. Robert Nesta Marley was born in 1945 in the small Jamaican town of Nine Mile in Saint Ann’s Parish. His father was English and white. After he passed away from a heart attack when Bob was 10, the remaining family relocated to Kingston’s most notorious slum, Trenchtown, where he earned the nickname “Tuff Gong” defending his mixed race and diminutive height.
It was there that he met friends and musicians who would come to be known as Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh, and, collectively, The Wailers. Success in Jamaica came quickly, but that was nothing compared with what was to come in 1973.
Catch a Fire was the spark that ignited reggae’s popularity worldwide, piggybacking on Jimmy Cliff’s successful turn in The Harder They Come to introduce new, rebellious music. Those rough and tough sounds coming out of Kingston represented a gritty version of urban black authenticity the rest of the world was eager to experience vicariously, but in typical record-industry fashion, not before being watered down a bit.
The marriage between third-world roots and first-world pop was Island Records executive Chris Blackwell’s mission, and his plan to cross Marley over to the masses was ingenious.
As Marley’s star rose, first in England with “No Woman, No Cry” and then later in America with album Rastaman Vibration, he ignored the trappings of celebrity, instead focusing on peace in the streets that raised him. As tensions rose and violence between rivaling political parties increased, Marley agreed to record a song, “Smile Jamaica,” that would cool down the ghettoes, then perform a concert of the same name two days later. When Prime Minister Michael Manley heard, he moved up the election and sent armored guards to Marley’s house in a transparent attempt to appear to be endorsed by the country’s most influential person. Marley was incensed, and two days later the guards mysteriously disappeared, followed minutes later by the arrival of six armed gunmen. Marley’s wife Rita was shot in the head, and his manager Don Taylor took five bullets aimed at Marley before the sixth struck the musician in the arm. Resilient, Marley performed for a crowd of 80,000 anyway, before leaving Jamaica in self-imposed exile.
He spent the next few years as he’d spent much of the last: touring. It’s estimated that Bob Marley was directly responsible for the livelihood of more than 6,000 displaced Jamaicans at his Hope Road residence, and the pressure of economically supporting them kept him on the road despite his diagnoses of cancer. Life on the road took its toll on him, but Marley had one more triumphant return to Jamaica left in him.
In 1978 The Wailers returned to headline the One Love Peace Concert, intended to raise money for the most suffering ghettoes. During a transcendent performance of “Jamming,” Marley called the country’s two rival political leaders onstage, clasped their hands together, lifted them over his head and proclaimed “Love, prosperity be with us all. Jah Rastafari. Selassie I.” With the power of his music and devotion, he united a nation.
On May 11, 1981, he died. Since then his visage has donned countless tapestries and hemp necklaces. That mega-selling compilation, Legend? Released three years after his death. The worst part is the hardest to understand: Douchebags and Time magazine continue to herald his worst music, the former by blasting his later, more smoothly produced fare and the latter for naming Exodus the album of the century. Bizarre doesn’t begin to explain that decision; at best, Exodus is Marley’s ninth best album.
The result: Some people, such as hipsters, tend to dismiss Marley entirely on the basis that his fans suck. I’m partially guilty – it took me an abnormally long time to come around. Unfortunately, not everyone does, and a lot of the above-mentioned hipsters turn into tastemakers, and thus false impressions become real.
Furthermore, a lot of his ethnicity has been stripped from him. Reggae is still generally filed under the vague “world music” label, a category that Marley himself is largely responsible for creating. Worse, the urgency has also been stripped from his music. The image of Bob Marley in our world now is one of ganja and peace, love and acoustic guitar jams with your best bros. Where is the blood and suffering? The cries for burnin’ and lootin’ or revolution for all men?
Because Robert Nesta Marley is no longer with us, his name and image are entrusted to us to protect and his message to spread. So put down the bong, put on Catch A Fire and figure out how you’re going to make a difference in the world.
– Cargo is still wondering where all the blood and suffering is. E-mail him with tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.