Marley (February 6, 1945 – May 11, 1981) is best known for popularizing reggae outside of his native
My introduction to reggae and Marley came during the summer of 1973 when the soundtrack from “The Harder They Come” by reggae pioneer Jimmy Cliff was played through the house system at the Keystone Berkeley, a music club in
I had cut my musical teeth on Motown and adored soul and R&B, but this was something else: I was knocked over by the swinging backbeat, Cliff’s mellifluous vocal stylings and the hypnotic minor chords that ran through most every song. The next day I bought my first two reggae LPs – “The Harder They Come” and, on the recommendation of the record store clerk, “Catch a Fire,” which happened to be Marley’s American debut album.
He once told an interviewer:
"I don't have prejudice against myself. 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."Marley also experienced poverty, another frequent theme in his songs, after he and his mother moved to
Now successful and increasingly influential and wealthy, Marley was pressured to take sides in the violent battles between political gangs in
In December 1976, just before a free concert organized by Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley in an attempt to ease tensions between the warring groups, gunmen burst into Marley’s home and shot he, his wife Rita and manager Don Taylor. Rita and Taylor sustained serious injuries. Bob received only minor wounds to the chest and arm and performed at the concert.
In 1978, Marley performed at another concert, the One Love Peace Concert, again in an effort to calm the warring parties. Near the end of the performance he brought Michael Manley and his political rival, Edward Seaga, together at center stage and made them shake hands.
No one else in
had the power to do such a thing. Jamaica
This Afrocentric movement emerged among working class black Jamaicans in the early 1930s. The name Rastafari comes from Ras (Duke or Chief) Tafari Makonnen, the pre-coronation name of Haile Selassie I, the longtime emperor of
Marley’s waist-length dreadlocks and use of marijuana as a sacred sacrament – both Rastafarian traits -- were central to his public persona, but he was a deeply religious man and, like Selassie, is seen as a prophet.
It was in “Redemption Song," perhaps Marley’s most spiritual offering, that he sang the famous lyric:
"Emancipate yourselves from mental slaveryMarley was diagnosed with cancer – a malignant melanoma that started in a soccer wound on his right big toe – in 1977. Citing the Rastafarian belief that the body must be whole, he refused amputation and the cancer spread.
None but ourselves can free our minds . . . "
He played his final concert at the Stanley Theater in
Twenty five years after Bob Marley’s death, his music continues to grow in popularity and is enormously popular in
I never saw Marley perform live. I blew my last opportunity to do so by being out of town when friends saw him in
That certainly is my loss. The body of work that Marley left us is enormous, and there is not a throwaway song in his discography. He was possessed of a powerful musical intellect, and his songwriting and arranging got better and better over the years. I can only imagine where his muse would have taken him had he lived.For me, Bob Marley's music and lyrics remain as fresh today as the first time I put “Catch a Fire” on a turntable in San Francisco in 1973.
Some people try to pigeonhole Marley as an angry black minstrel who sang about the "downpressor," as he called authority, but he was so much more than that as his rich catalog of songs, including many about faith and love, abundantly shows.
But how is it that he speaks to me?
Because no matter one’s race or station in life, no matter one’s experiences, his message is universal.
Depressed that his career wasn’t going anywhere, Marley moved to
We sort of crossed paths again in the late 1970s. I was living on a farm where we had dairy goats and a large vegetable garden. Folks from
Rita Marley, who was living part time in Wilmington, would come by with her children (and Bob fathered a slew of them with several women). Her brood included a very young Ziggy Marley, who would go on to became a big reggae star in his own right.
Our goats milk operation was modest and self service. Customers would take a gallon jug from a refrigerator in the milk house and leave the dollar or two that we charged in a cigar box.
It was rare that none of us were at home. This was, after all, a working farm, but one day that was the case. When we checked the cigar box that evening, there was a twenty dollar bill among the ones and loose change a note written in a barely legible scrawl:
"Thanx for the good milk. Love ya! Bob Marley"
Best CD compilation: “Songs of Freedom” (4 CD boxed set, Tuff Gong, 1992)
Best documentary on DVD: “Bob Marley: Spiritual Journey” (Waterfall Home Entertainment, 2003)
Best biography: “Catch a Fire: The Life of Bob Marley” by Timothy White (New York: Henry Holt, 1992)