Bob Marley's Reggae Legacy: Sects, Drugs and Rock & Roll

Bob Marley changed the course of Jamaican music and brought reggae to the world stage. But his songs of freedom still beat with a rock & roll heart

February 24, 1994
Bob Marley
Bob Marley on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Adrian Boot

Memory pictures coming in: two snapshots of Bob Marley. In the first, the Wailers are playing one of their mid-70s New York City concerts to a theater thick with ganja and dreads. The music unwinds from the first note like an impossibly sinuous Slinky, the groove steady, one song shading into the next without pause or change of key. Marley is a blur of motion, bobbing, weaving, dreadlocks flying, never seeming to quite touch the stage. It's as if the thick clouds of smoke and the rapt concentration of the mostly Jamaican audience are somehow buoying him up; he's hovering. No matter how much I squint and stare, his feet seem to be floating a few inches above the boards. Maybe it's the ganja. Maybe not.

In the second picture, Marley is sitting on the couch in a posh midtown hotel suite, surrounded by protectively huddling bredren and sistren, looking pale, drawn, severe. It's 1980, and the Wailers – now playing Madison Square Garden – have taken over an entire floor of the hotel, muting the lights in the hall to perpetual twilight, filling their stuffy, carpeted precinct with the unaccustomed smells of ital cooking and, of course, ganja.

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There's been a disquieting change in Marley's demeanor. In the past, he would deliver even his most biting critiques of Babylon with an unmistakable generosity of spirit, his face friendly and open, his body language expansive. Each toss of his head set his mane of dreadlocks flying.

"It take many a year, mon, and maybe some bloodshed must be, but righteousness someday prevail," Marley would say. And it would come across more like a prayer than a warning.

This time, Marley sits very still, his head almost swallowed by the knitted cap he's wearing. His critique of the "politricks" of exploitation is as trenchant as ever, but now it's straight on, lacking the warmth and humor that were once such outstanding signifiers of his Rasta state of grace. Warmth? Humor? In less than a year, Marley will succumb to the cancer that only his inner circle knows is eating him alive.

The world Bob Marley came from, the Third World of the political philosophers, is a dog-eat-dog world: Trenchtown, a chaotic maze of shacks and dirt and footpaths and concrete jungle slung precariously along the edge of the 20th-century abyss. His life story has many of this century's most characteristic and horrific leitmotifs – the New World Order's rape of the planet's organic and spiritual resources; the obscenity of plenty and poverty living cheek to jowl under the gun; naked force opposed by visionary religion and deep cultural magic.

There really is only one way out, as Marley sang in "Trenchtown Rock": "One good thing about music/When it hits, you feel no pain." With his induction this year into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, he is being honored for his music, which celebrates life even as it embodies struggle. But the music will not let us forget that this is a dog-eat-dog story and that even the big dog gets eaten in the end.

Marley's extraordinary body of work spans the entire history of modern Jamaican music, from ska to rock steady to reggae. But he never lost sight of the emotional center of his art – his people, the sufferers of Trenchtown, of greater Kingston, of all the world's ghettos. They placed their faith and hope in him, and he did not let them down. Later works such as "Survival," "Zimbabwe" and "Coming In From the Cold" are as passionately committed as anything from earlier years.

"It something really serious, is not entertainment," Marley once said of his music. "You entertain people who are satisfied. Hungry people can't be entertained – or people who are afraid. You can't entertain a man who has no food."

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No one in rock & roll has left a musical legacy that matters more or one that matters in such fundamental ways. Yet there has been a reluctance in some quarters to accept Marley's music and reggae in general as a part of rock & roll. For their part, reggae musicians have been understandably reluctant to identify themselves with rock & roll's passing parade.

"Me have to laugh sometimes when dem scribes seh me like Mick Jagger or some superstar thing like that," Marley told Rolling Stone in 1976. "Dem have to listen close to the music, 'cause the message not the same. Nooo, mon, the reggae not the twist, mon!"

That was Marley's sense of humor at work. He clarified his position in an interview with author Stephen Davis: "Reggae music, soul music, rock music – every song is a sign. But ya have fe be careful of this type of song and vibration that ya give fe the people, for 'Woe be unto them they who lead my people astray.'"

Marley's election to the Hall of Fame provides the opportunity for a reassessment of this issue – or perhaps a reintegration. He was right to make a distinction between his music's singleness of purpose and various pop ephemeras; that doesn't mean one should separate it from the rest of music in its own proud but insulated ghetto. Because it isn't enough to identify the man as the crown prince of reggae or the Third World's first pop-music superstar. As an artist, he was always playing in the big leagues. No matter what category you put him in, his stature stands undiminished.

For that matter, it's probably high time we stopped looking at Jamaican music as a reflection or derivation of developments on the American mainland. The realities are more complex than that. Memphis, Tenn., and New Orleans created and sustained their own distinctive rock & roll traditions, and so did Jamaica. The processes that shaped all these musics are, in fact, very nearly identical. Arguably, the way these processes work defines rock & roll itself.

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