Bob Marley is one of the most well-known names in music history and has been covered by artists of all genres: Eric Clapton, Johnny Cash, Sublime, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Nina Simone and many others. If you don’t know much about Marley, you’re sure to have seen his face printed on shirts at almost any crappy head shop or heard his most popular songs setting the vibe at some tiki-inspired bar you sipped a piña colada at. Sadly, capitalism has exploited Marley and turned him and his music into a vacation theme song and a “yeah, I smoke herb” symbol for the creepy dudes who wear long jorts on any tourist-trap boardwalk.
My parents are really into Marley; my sister is named after him. My dad claimed to be Rastafari, which I’m not sure is possible if you’re white and gave up smoking weed at 30, but he did have dreads at one point and believed in the message of fighting against the oppressor. In the very early 2000s, we were on a road trip home from Virgina when a cop pulled us over and requested to search the car because we had a Bob Marley sticker on the back (I don’t think the fact that this sticker was poorly placed on a beat-up white Astro van helped much either). My mother threw a fit; she fought the “baldhead.” Narrowly escaping arrest, we left the scene with a ticket. I was young and confused why a sticker of a great musician would create such a scene, and shit, we were white.
Throughout Marley’s career he was the centerpiece for Jamaican politics, though he tried to keep his music his only political message. He united and polarized people, vocalizing about poverty, oppression, violence, peace, love and unity. Marley was a key player in the spread of Rastafarianism, a religion and social movement based on a specific interpretation of The Bible in which Haile Selassie, the emperor of Ethiopia, was considered the second coming of Jesus and Jah incarnate. (When Marley met the son of His Imperial Majesty in the mid-1970s, the prince offered him a ring worn by His Majesty that Marley had seen in his own dreams. It fit perfectly). The religion was based on political consciousness for Africans and focuses on the African diaspora repressed in Western society. Rastas cultivate their consciousness with Jah (I-and-I) by reading The Bible; keeping long, locked hair in its natural state; wearing colors that symbolize blood, herbs, royalty and Africanness (red, green, gold and black); eating a vegetarian diet; and smoking ganja to meditate with Jah.
Marley was born Feb. 6, 1945 in Nine Mile, Jamaica to 19-year-old Cedella Marley and Captain Norval Marley, who left shortly after his birth. Mysticism and spirituality were an integral part of Jamaican society. Marley’s grandfather, Omeriah, was an influential mystic in their community, and when Marley was born he recognized something special about him. Omeriah saw a duppy spirit (ghost) attached to the child that would try to kill him his whole life. Marley took this on and cultivated his own mystic place as a young child, reading palms in their neighborhood before being sent to Kingston and further immersing himself in Rastafarianism and reggae.
In Kingston, he met Bunny Livingston (aka Bunny Wailer). The two would stay up all night listening to music on the newly popular R&B radio stations. They eventually formed The Wailers with Peter Tosh and became popular and highly successful working with Coxson Dodd to bring Jamaica’s music to the world. Marley became a musical prophet for the people in Jamaica, singing of political situations and Rasta mysticism. By 1976, Marley was the most popular superstar in the Third World.
Two years before, Marley had awoken with severe chest pain. The same day, he heard the news Omeriah had passed, which he claimed he already knew. Marley’s duppy spirit remained close throughout his life. There was an assassination attempt at the same place Tosh’s girlfriend died in a car accident after smoking a spliff with the Wailers (and causing Tosh to cut all ties with the Wailers forever). Marley was blackmailed, which resulted in several mysterious deaths. And in 1977, he was diagnosed with melanoma after a suspicious toe injury. Marley knew he would die, thanks to his grandfather’s childhood predictions, and because it is a sin in the Rastafarian faith to remove any piece of the temple (body). Since Marley refused to have his toe amputated, the cancer spread. He died in 1981 at 36, leaving behind a wife, 11 children and a legacy. His final words, spoken to his son Ziggy were “money can’t buy life.”
Though his likeness has been ripped off and exploited through-out the world, Marley was the voice for the impoverished and socially disenfranchised Afro-Jamaican community and remains a voice for all oppressed people. If you listen carefully, you will hear.