He’s been dubbed the Master Blaster Jammer, the Black Moses, the Reggae King, modern day prophet and other fitting tributes.
These accolades only serve to confirm Robert Nesta Marley as undoubtably the most important figure in Jamaican and 20th century music. Unlike mere pop stars, he was also a religious figure and a major international record seller, a Rastaman whose Vibrations have shaken the world with tremors that will long outlive his short life.
May 11 this year marked the 30th annniversary of his death at just age 36 and WE Magazine today pays tribute to Marley with the excerpts from an article by Barbara Campbell featured in the 2010-2011 edition of the UK magazine Black Heritage Today.
There are some events in life that people will always know where they were when the shocking or heartbreaking news broke. From Martin Luther King’s assassination and Princess Diana’s car crash, to the Twin Towers in New York and the king of Rock and Roll, Elvis, passing. Such was the momentous moment when it was announced that Bob Marley had died.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the reggae icon’s demise, yet his music lives on to the point where even the youngest generations know his records. This is probably helped by the fact that no party is complete without Could You Be Loved, Redemption Song, One Love or Three Little Birds, plus many of Marley’s recordings are often used in many popular television adverts.
The rhythm guitarist and lead singer of ska, rocksteady and reggae band The Wailers, Robert Nesta “Bob” Marley (6 February 1945 to II May 1981) remains the most widely known and revered performer of reggae music, and is credited with helping to take reggae music out of the socially deprived areas of Jamaica, onto the international music scene and, ultimately, a worldwide audience.
Born in the village of Nine Mile in Saint Ann Parish, Bob’s father, Norval Sinclair Marley, was a white Jamaican of English descent whose family came from Essex, England. A captain in the Royal Marines as well as a plantation overseer, he married Cedetta Booker when she was just 18 years old. Whilst Norval provided financial support for his wife and child, he seldom saw them as he was often away on trips. In 1955, when Bob was ten years old, Norval died of a heart attack aged 60.
Marley left school at the age of 14 to make music with Joe Higgs, a local singer and devout Rastafarian. At a jam session with Higgs, he became friends with Peter McIntosh (later known as Peter Tosh) who had similar musical ambitions to him and another friend, Neville “Bunny” Livingston (later known as Bunny Wailer).
After forming a group called The Teenagers in 1963, they changed their names to The Wailers and when they were discovered by record producer Coxsone Dodd a year later, they became The Wailers.
After they broke up in 1974, reportedly after a disagreement with Dodd and because each of the musicians wished to pursue a solo career, Marley became known as Bob Marley and the Wailers, but singing with a trio of female backing singers called The “I” Threes – Judy Mowatt, Marcia Griffiths and Rita Anderson. Rita became his wife in 1966.
Although Marley, a member of the Rastafarian movement, recognised his mixed ancestry, because of his beliefs he self-identified as a black African, following the ideas of pan-African leaders such as Marcus Garvey and Haile Selassie.
When faced with questions about his own racial identity, he once reflected, “I don’t have prejudice against meself. 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.”
A central theme in Marley’s message was the repatriation of black people to Zion (Africa). In songs such as Babylon System and Blackman Redemption, he sings about the struggles of blacks and Africans against oppression from Babylon (the West).
Marley had his international breakthrough in 1975 with his first hit outside Jamaica, No Woman, No Cry, which was a great hit with UK audiences. This was followed by his breakthrough album in the United States,Rastaman Vibration (1976), which spent four weeks on the Billboard Hot 100.
No-one who had ever experienced a Bob Marley concert could say they had sat still throughout. His energetic performance had people jumping up, singing along and dancing in the aisle. He brought a different element to the term “singer”. Whilst on stage, he spoke about things that mattered to him and engaged with the audience, dropping philosophical lyrics such as one song delivered message, “While you talk about me, someone else is judging you. God never made no difference between black, white, blue, pink or green.”
Marley’s philosophy was that everyone has the right of freedom and that “you should fight against the system” to achieve freedom.
He was a freedom fighter who fought against oppression in hopes of gaining freedom for himself and his followers, and was regarded as a symbol of freedom throughout the world, especially Third World and underdeveloped countries.
However, closer to home, a storm of dissention was brewing in his Jamaican community as politics of the country reared its head. In December 1976, two days before “Smile Jamaica”, a free concert organised by the Jamaican Prime Minister, Michael Manley, in an attempt to ease tension between the two warring political groups – Marley, Rita and manager, Don Taylor, were wounded in an assault by unknown gunmen who invaded Marley’s home.
The shooting was thought to have been politically motivated, as many felt the concert was really a support rally for Manley. Nonetheless, the concert proceeded and an injured Marley performed as scheduled to a crowd of 80,000, just two days after the shooting with members of a group called Zap Pow, which had no radical religious or political beliefs.
When asked why he performed, Marley responded: “The people who are trying to make this world worse aren’t taking a day off. How can I?”
Marley took a month-long sojourn to the Bahamas to recover from the assault and to write more lyrics. He then moved on to England where he spent two years in self-imposed exile. It was in the UK that he recorded what was one of his most famous and vibrant hits, Exodus, which stayed on the British album charts for fifty-six consecutive weeks. The singer’s album included four UK hit singles – Exodus, Waiting In Vain, Jammingand One Love.
Bob Marley died at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Miami (now University of Miami Hospital) on the morning of 11 May 1981 at the age of 36.
His final words to his son, Ziggy, were, “Money can’t buy life.” (BC/SS)