Bob Marley: How He Changed the World - Rolling Stone
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The Life and Times of Bob Marley

How he changed the world

Reggae, musician, singer, Bob MarleyReggae, musician, singer, Bob Marley

Reggae musician and singer, Bob Marley in concert on July 1st, 1981.

Jürgen & Thomas/ullstein bild via Getty

Bob Marley was already dying when he stood onstage in Pittsburgh that night, in September 1980. He had developed a malignant melanoma — an incurable cancer, by this time — that he had let progress unchecked, for reasons that he probably could not fathom at this hour. He was a man with no time, with a mission that no one in popular music had ever attempted before. In the past few years, he had managed to popularize reggae — a music that had once sounded strange and foreign to many ears — and to convey the truths of his troubled homeland, Jamaica, for a mass audience. Now he wanted to find ways to put across truths about people outside Jamaica and America, England and Europe. He wanted to speak for a world outside familiar borders — a world his audience didn’t yet know enough about.

He wouldn’t see that dream fulfilled. He would be dead in a few months, his body sealed in a mausoleum back in that troubled homeland of his.

But something fascinating has happened since Bob Marley died twenty-four years ago: He has continued. It isn’t simply that his records still sell in substantial numbers (though they do), it’s that his mission might still have a chance. It isn’t a simple mission. Marley wasn’t singing about how peace could come easily to the world but rather about how hell on earth comes too easily to too many. He knew the conditions he was singing about. His songs weren’t about theory or conjecture, or an easy distant compassion. His songs were his memories; he had lived with the wretched, he had seen the downpressors and those whom they pressed down, he had been shot at. It was his ability to describe all this in palpable and authentic ways that sustains his body of music unlike any other we’ve ever known.

Bob Marley made hell tuneful, like nobody before or since. That’s what has kept him alive.

Robert Nesta Marley was born in a small rural Jamaican village called Nine Miles. His father was a white man, Capt. Norval Marley, a superintendent of lands for the British government, which had colonized Jamaica in the 1660s. Marley’s mother, Cedella, was a young black woman, descended from the Cromantee tribe, who as slaves had staged the bloodiest uprisings in the island’s plantation era. Capt. Marley seduced Cedella, age seventeen, promising her marriage, as he re-enacted an age-old scenario of white privilege over black service. When Cedella became pregnant, the captain kept his promise — but left her the next day rather than face disinheritance.

The couple’s only child arrived in the early part of 1945, as World War II neared its end. Nobody is certain of the exact date — it was listed on Bob’s passport as April 6th, but Cedella was sure it was two months earlier. It took her a long time to record the birth with the registrar; she was afraid, she later said, she’d get in trouble for having a child with a white man. While mixed-race couplings weren’t rare, they also weren’t welcome, and generally it was the child of these unions who bore the scorn. But Marley’s mixed inheritance gave him a valuable perspective. Though he became increasingly devoted in his life to the cause of speaking to the black diaspora — that population throughout the world that had been scattered or colonized as the result of the slave trade and imperialism — he never expressed hatred for white people but rather hatred for one people’s undeserved power to subjugate another people. Marley understood that the struggle for power might result in bloodshed, but he also maintained that if humankind failed to stand together, it would fail to stand at all.

In the 1950s, Cedella moved to Kingston — the only place in Jamaica where any future of consequence could be realized. She and her son made their home in a government tenant yard, a crowded area where poor people lived, virtually all of them black. The yard they settled in, Trench Town, was made up of row upon row of cheap corrugated metal and tar-paper one-room shacks, generally with no plumbing. It was a place where your dreams might raise you or kill you, but you would have to live and act hard in either case. To Cedella’s dismay, her son began to come into his own there — to find a sense of community and purpose amid rough conditions and rough company, including the local street gangs. These gangs evolved soon enough into a faction called Rude Boys — teenagers and young adults who dressed sharp, acted insolent and knew how to fight. Kingston hated the Rude Boys, and police and politicians had vowed to eradicate them.

It was in this setting of grim delimitation that Marley first found what would give his life purpose: Kingston’s burgeoning and eccentric rhythm & blues scene. In the late 1940s, Jamaican youth had started to catch the fever of America’s urban popular music — in particular, the earthy and polyrhythmic dance and blues sounds of New Orleans. By the 1960s, Kingston was producing its own form of R&B: a taut, tricky and intense music in which rhythms shifted their accents to the offbeat — almost an inversion of American rock & roll and funk. This new Jamaican music was, like American R&B, the long-term result of how black music survived and evolved as a means of maintaining community in unsympathetic lands. It was music that gave a displaced population a way to tell truths about their lives and a way of claiming victory over daily misery, or at least of finding a respite.

Jamaica’s popular music — from calypso to mento — had always served as a means to spread stories, about neighbors’ moral failures or the overlord society’s duplicity. The commentary could be clever and merciless, and the music that Marley first began to play had the tempo to carry such sharp purposes. It was called ska (after its scratch-board-like rhythms), and just as R&B and rock & roll had been viewed in America as disruptive and immoral, Jamaica’s politicians, ministers and newspapers looked upon ska as trash: a dangerous music from the ghetto that helped fuel the Rude Boys’ violence. But the Rude Boys would soon receive an unexpected jolt of validation.

Cedella Marley was worried that her son had grown too comfortable with ghetto life and was too close to the Rude Boys. There were frequent fights, even stabbings, in the Trench Town streets and at ska dances.

Marley, though small and slight, was known as a force in Trench Town. He even had a street name: Tuff Gong. But he had no aspiration for a criminal life. “Don’t worry,” he told his mother. “I don’t work for them.” The truth was, Marley found qualities of ruthless honesty, courage and rough beauty in tenement-yard community, and he didn’t necessarily want to transcend or escape it — instead, he wanted to describe its reality and to speak for its populace, which was subject to not only destitution but easy condemnation as well. He had already written a song about cheap moralism, “Judge Not,” recorded it with one of Kingston’s leading producers, Leslie Kong, and released it in 1963 — the same year that the Beatles and Bob Dylan were making their music felt. That year, Marley also formed a vocal group with his childhood friend Neville Livingston (the son of Cedella’s boyfriend, who later became known as Bunny Wailer) and Peter McIntosh, a tall guitar player who would shorten his name to Peter Tosh. The group spent considerable time sharpening its vocal harmonies with singer Joe Higgs. Higgs had done some work for Clement “Coxsone” Dodd, Kingston’s dominant record producer, who also ran the scene’s most successful recording house, Studio One. In addition, Dodd presided over the island’s most popular sound system — a sort of DJ booth on wheels that played the new American and Jamaican sounds at makeshift dance halls, until the police would bust them up, breaking heads and looking for Rude Boys who might be carrying knives or marijuana.

Marley and the others auditioned several original songs for Dodd in 1963, including one that he had written out of deference to his mother’s concerns, called “Simmer Down.” It was a plea to the local gangs to back off from violence before ruling powers stepped into the situation, and it was set to an aggressive beat that might well excite the sort of frenzy that the song’s words disavowed. Dodd recorded the tune the next day with his best studio musicians, the Skatalites, and that same night he played the record at one of his sound-system affairs. It was an immediate sensation, and for good reason: For the first time, a voice from the ghetto was speaking to others who lived in the same straits, acknowledging their existence and giving voice to their troubles, and that breakthrough had a transformative effect, on both the scene and on Marley and his group, who would call themselves the Wailing Wailers and, finally, the Wailers. (The name was meant to describe somebody who called out from the ghetto — a sufferer and witness.) Marley had already found one of the major themes that would characterize his songwriting through his entire career.

Dodd was so impressed with Marley’s work ethic that he entrusted him with rehearsing several of Studio One’s other vocal groups, including the Soulettes — a female singing trio that featured a teenage single mother and nursing student named Rita Anderson, who had a dream of becoming Jamaica’s Diana Ross. Marley had eyes for other women during this time — he always would — but he was drawn to Anderson for her devotion as a mother. In turn, she felt a need to protect Marley, who now lived alone in the back of Dodd’s studio, after his mother had finally tired of the Kingston life and moved to Delaware. Rita and Marley married in 1966, just days before he gave in to his mother’s insistence that he come visit her and try to establish a home in America. He didn’t stay long. Marley didn’t like the pace of life in America, nor the circumscribed job opportunities available to black men. He missed his wife and home. While he’d been gone, though, something significant happened in Jamaica that would utterly transfigure Marley’s life and destiny: A Living God had visited Marley’s homeland and walked on its soil.

The living God’s name was Haile Selassie, the emperor of Ethiopia, and the product of a complicated strand of history that marked the lives of Marley and Jamaica. Selassie’s importance for Jamaicans began in the life of another man, Marcus Garvey — an early-twentieth-century activist who encouraged blacks to look to their African heritage and to create their own destinies apart from the ones imposed on them by America and by European colonialism. According to a persistent myth, Garvey instructed his followers in 1927 to look to Africa for the crowning of a black king, as a sign that a messiah was at hand. In point of fact, Garvey never uttered such a prophecy, but the claim remains attributed to him to this day. In 1930, when a young man named Ras Tafari maneuvered his way onto the throne of Ethiopia, the prophecy that Garvey never proclaimed took on the power of the word made flesh for many. Selassie was the Living God, the reinstatement of the rightful Jehovah to the earth and a beacon of hope for the world’s long-suffering black diaspora.

In Jamaica, a cult called Ras Tafari sprang up around this belief in the 1930s. Rastafarianism developed as a mystical Judeo-Christian faith with a vision of Africa, in particular, Ethiopia, as the true Zion. The Rastafarians never had a true doctrine but rather a set of folk wisdoms and a worldview. One of their beliefs was that marijuana — which the Rastas called ganja — was a sacramental herb that brought its users into a deeper knowledge of themselves. More important, Rastas had an apocalyptic vision. They saw Western society as the modern kingdom of Babylon, corrupt and murderous and built on the suffering of the world’s oppressed. Accordingly, Rastas believed that Babylon must fall — though they would not themselves raise up arms to bring its end; violence belonged rightfully to God. Until Babylon fell, according to one legend, the Rastas would not cut their hair. They grew it long in a fearsome appearance called dreadlocks. The Rastas lived as a peaceful people who would not work in Babylon’s economic system and would not vote for its politicians. Jamaican society, though, believed it saw a glimmer of revolt in the Rastas, and for decades they had been treated as the island’s most despised population.

In 1966, while Marley was visiting his mother in Delaware, Selassie made an official state visit to Jamaica. He was met at the Kingston Airport by a crowd of 100,000. Rita Marley saw Selassie as his motorcade made its way through Kingston’s streets, and when he passed by, she believed she saw the mark of a stigmata in his palm, signifying that he was God come to earth. After that, she adhered to the Rastafarians’ belief system and ways of life, and she let her hair grow. When Marley next saw his wife, he said, “What happened to your hair?” He was put off by her sudden change. Indeed, one of the more interesting questions about Marley’s life is just when exactly he too became a Rastafarian. According to some accounts, he adopted the religion soon after his return to Jamaica, as early as 1967 or 1968. But according to Timothy White’s meticulous biography, Catch a Fire, Marley’s conversion wasn’t complete until the early Seventies.

This much, though, is certain: In the years that followed Selassie’s visit to Kingston, Marley would not only grow into Rastafarianism but would also come to exemplify it. In turn, his faith would help Marley find new depths in his music. Rastafarianism — and especially its beliefs in social justice, and its critique of the West’s political, economic and class systems as a modern-day Babylon — would play a key part in Bob Marley rising to meet his moment and to address the world he lived in.

The timing could not have been better. In 1966 and 1967, as Marley and the Wailers began recording again, the Jamaican music scene was undergoing another critical change. Ska had slowed its beat — life in Kingston was growing grimmer, and there was less interest in dancing to exuberant music. The resulting new trend was called, for a time, rock steady; it was music that didn’t jump but throbbed. By 1968, though, ska and rock steady had given way altogether to a sound that was fluid and resilient enough to incorporate both faster and slower rhythms. This new style was called reggae, for its ragged cadence, and its lilting and mesmeric quality seemed especially suited for new dimensions of storytelling and social commentary.

Most important, reggae was allowing room for other previously precluded voices. Rasta viewpoints had been exerting an increasing influence on Jamaican arts, somewhat akin to how hippies’ ideals were entering American popular culture. Though no Kingston radio stations would play reggae, the music immediately made itself felt as a vital cultural form, spreading narratives and views that Jamaica’s newspapers would never have allowed.

Marley took to reggae. It gave him new vision and ambition: He wanted to make music that would satisfy and represent his homeland but that would also reach a larger world outside. After a series of breakthroughs (in particular the recording of some of the band’s best music with the innovative producer Lee Perry in the early 1970s) and a setback or two (including the making of a misbegotten album for Jamaican release and a floundering artist deal at CBS), Marley and the Wailers approached Jamaican-raised Chris Blackwell, the head of Island Records, in England. Island’s roster included Traffic, Fairport Convention, Cat Stevens and Nick Drake, but Blackwell loved Jamaican music. He had helped distribute reggae, including the Wailers’ music, in the U.K. for years through the Trojan label, and he had invested in the film The Harder They Come, about a Rude Boy singer turned outlaw. When the Wailers approached Island, Blackwell said, “The attitude they gave off was like real rebels.” Blackwell, though, had been advised against the Wailers; they had a reputation for bad attitude. Even Lee Perry had described them as “so stink, so rude.” Still, Blackwell gave the band a modest advance and told it to go make a record of its own vision.

The resulting work, Catch a Fire, was a landmark: It was the first wholly formed, cohesive reggae album, and it immediately cast Marley into the artistic big leagues for many critics. The record, however, sold marginally. Though Blackwell had overdubbed some rock touches (lead guitar and soulful keyboards), reggae’s off-kilter pulse and Marley’s heavily accented vocals were still too foreign for either a rock or a black music audience. It wasn’t until Eric Clapton’s 1975 hit cover of “I Shot the Sheriff” that a larger audience would begin to notice and seek out Bob Marley.

The rock world’s gradual acceptance of Marley, however, really did nothing to enable his artistry; by 1973, he was already a fully formed, astonishing songwriter and bandleader in his own right. Even so, this new acceptance nicely coincided with the Wailers’ most satisfying recording period. Catch a Fire, 1973’s Burnin’ (the last album to feature original Wailers Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingston), Natty Dread (1974), Live! (1975) and Rastaman Vibration (1976) are as essential as any body of work that popular music has ever produced. Like the milestone albums of the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones, Marvin Gaye and Sly Stone, these were records that created new sonic ground and changed how we would hear music. They were also albums that announced Marley as a pre-eminent musical figure: Though his music during this time didn’t sell millions, he was quickly seen to possess a creative brilliance and fearless integrity. In short, Bob Marley became a considerable and widely recognized force, and numerous other artists during the 1970s — from Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder to Elvis Costello and the Police — would reflect his influence by following through on some of the possibilities that his music was creating.

But Marley’s early-to-mid-1970s Island recordings were also something a good deal more than pioneering entertainment: They put forth an uncompromising vision of a society kept in hell and ready to storm its gates. Songs like “Burnin’ and Lootin’,” “Small Axe,” “Concrete Jungle,” “Revolution,” “Them Belly Full” and “War” — especially “War,” with its proclamation of eternal worldwide conflict: “Until the philosophy which hold one race superior/And another inferior/Is finally and permanently discredited” — brandish unsettling images and incendiary pronouncements that are among the most authentic in modern music.

This sort of work didn’t come without risk. The Jamaican hell that Marley described so vividly in his songs was an active and deadly place, and some of its most powerful people didn’t want to see the social and economic change that Marley implied was necessary. Much of the violence in Kingston attributed to ghetto malcontents and criminals was in fact sustained by the island’s government and police. Since Jamaica’s independence in 1962, its black population had never been allowed any consequential political power. Instead, the two dominant parties, the People’s National Party and the Jamaican Labor Party, were run by largely white structures. The PNP was headed by a bright socialist, Michael Manley, who some feared was too leftist. The conservative JLP was more ruthless. The party’s head, Boston-born Edward Seaga (once a music producer on the Kingston scene), was seen as favored by the United States, which was believed to play a heavy hand in the region’s political affairs.

By 1976, Bob Marley was recognized by both parties as a force to contend with. He had been friendly with Manley over the years, though as new elections approached in December, Marley professed neutrality about the race. Politicians, he said, were of the devil. Each party, though, believed it could be helped or hurt by Marley. His growing fame — not only among music fans the world over but also among human-rights campaigners, political activists and even freedom fighters in Africa — had now established Marley as the most admired Jamaican the world over, and in his homeland he was seen as one of the island’s true moral leaders, much to the disgust of those who reviled his radical ghetto and Rasta identity. As the election neared, violence was out of control; Kingston had become so tense that people were staying home from work and off the streets. Some members of the PNP visited Marley at his Kingston home on Hope Road, where he lived and rehearsed his band, and they pressed him to play a free outdoor “Smile Jamaica” concert on December 5th to help keep the city subdued until the election.

Marley consented, and even wrote a song for the event called “Smile Jamaica”; he agreed that the city was too tightly wound and could turn explosive. But while he professed no favorite in the race, there was a widespread perception that Marley wanted to see Manley become the next prime minister. According to various accounts, Marley received several threats as the concert approached — including a supposed warning from the CIA. Some people close to Marley left the city — even the country. A group of vigilantes volunteered to guard Marley’s home, but early in the evening of Friday, December 3rd, that guard disappeared. At about 8:30 P.M., Marley and his group of musicians took a break from rehearsals. A short time later, two small white cars pulled in the driveway and several men with rifles scrambled out. Some of them surrounded the property while others headed for the house and opened fire. When the gunfire was over, something like eighty-three bullets had been expended. Rita Marley had been hit in the head as she tried to flee, the bullet lodged between her scalp and skull; Marley’s manager at the time, Don Taylor, took five shots, including a bullet near the base of his spine; Marley ended up with a bullet grazing his chest and burrowing into his arm, as a shooter aimed at his heart.

Nobody died that night, but Jamaica’s tensions understandably grew worse. Marley fled to a secluded property of Chris Blackwell’s, guarded by machete-bearing Rastas. Two nights later, he decided not to bow to any feared dangers and went ahead with the “Smile Jamaica” show, to keep the peace. At the end of his set, Marley lifted his shirt and displayed his wounds. He struck a mock pose, as if he were a pistol-bearing badman, tossed his head back and laughed — and then he was gone. He left the island for a long time, heartsick that fellow countrymen had taken up guns against him, and in some ways Jamaica was never again his home. For a time, nobody knew where he was; he would never say. He later spent time visiting American relatives in Delaware and Miami and then traveled to England, where Lee Perry introduced him to British punk bands, most notably the Clash. In early 1978, he would return to play another show intended to keep Kingston from exploding into war.

On April 22nd, at the One Love Peace Concert, Marley managed to coax both Michael Manley and Edward Seaga onstage with him and held their hands together with his in a gesture of coexistence. Both men looked horribly uncomfortable. Nothing much, though, changed in Jamaica. Manley had won the election, while political violence still roared from time to time, hurting some, killing others, frightening everybody. Meantime, the poor were kept in hell, the gates closed tight.

There were never any arrests made for the attempt on Marley’s life. There were rumors that the JLP may have had a hand in it, and several journalists and documentary filmmakers have put forth intriguing arguments about possible CIA involvement, supported in part by a former agent at the time. The police never named any suspects; the case went nowhere. There was never any justice reached in the matter — at least never any official justice.

Bob Marley later said he believed that Haile Selassie had protected him that night. Selassie was now dead — he had been driven from his throne during a 1974 rebellion and died in August 1975, while confined to his palace. For Marley and most Rastafarians, though, Selassie remained the Living God, somehow transfigured. Selassie had shielded him, Marley believed, because Marley still had work to do, and it would be God alone, and never man, who would take him from the world. Even so, Marley would have to work steadily. He told his friends that he didn’t expect to live past thirty-six.

There was, to be sure, something urgent and possessed about Marley in his last few years. He wrote songs whenever he had the time; he recorded continuously; he toured exhaustively; he made love to the women he desired and could trust; and he often didn’t sleep before morning’s light. “Sleep is an escape for fools,” he said. There was also, in all this, a reckless mix of bravado and fear. In 1975, during a soccer match with friends, Marley’s foot was badly smashed and his right toe injured. Doctors told him he would have to stay off the foot, but he ignored them. He wouldn’t stop prancing onstage or playing soccer; he didn’t believe a broken foot should halt his momentum. In May 1977, while on tour in Paris, he injured his right toe again — this time it was far worse. The toenail tore off and the laceration wouldn’t heal. A few months later, when he was limping painfully, he saw a doctor in London who said the damage had turned so bad that the toe could turn cancerous and should be amputated. Marley thought the doctors were lying. “Rasta no abide amputation,” he told them.

Instead, he saw an orthopedic surgeon in Miami who performed a skin graft and told him the treatment had been successful. According to Rita Marley in her recent autobiography, No Woman No Cry: My Life With Bob Marley, her husband’s demurral had less to do with religious misgivings than with his sense of how he might appear to others. “How could I go onstage?” he said to her. “They won’t stay looking at a crippled man.” Rita tried to persuade him to deal with his health, but she also feared debilitating him during this time of relentless creativity. Cindy Breakspeare, a former Jamaican Miss World and one of Marley’s lovers in his final years, also urged him to take the problem seriously, but he bristled whenever the suggestion came up: “Do you want me to have cancer?” he would reply. Some saw Marley’s refusal as courage or blind faith; just as likely, there was real fear at work. Marley didn’t want to learn that death might be growing inside him. Instead, he concentrated on doing what made life most meaningful to him: making music that might improve the world that he would leave behind.

Marley’s later albums form a related body of work, though of a different sort. His earlier groundbreaking records featured lovely music bearing tales of unbearable realities. By contrast, his later studio records — Exodus (1977), Kaya (1978), Survival (1979), Uprising (1980) and the posthumous Confrontation (1983) — wore much of their resistance in the albums’ titles, whereas their contents were only occasionally about conflict and upheaval. Rather, these were albums about sustaining hopes, small pleasures and the solace of love. These recordings were more commercially successful but struck many critics as too full of popwise moves, and there were some devastating reviews — especially in Rolling Stone. In that period, when punk bands informed by reggae, such as the Clash, were making music that intended to turn everything upside down, those reviews seemed to make sense. Today, though, the latter records sound lovely; their melodies are endless gifts, and there’s a deep sorrow about them that offsets their prettiness. Reviewing Kaya in the Village Voice, critic Robert Christgau wrote, “[Marley] hasn’t abandoned his apocalyptic vision — just found a day-to-day context for it, that’s all.”

By the time Marley finished recording the tracks for Uprising and Confrontation in 1979, day to day was all he had left, though nobody seemed to know it. In 1980, he began a lengthy tour, with the goal of reaching the American black audience that had proved so elusive to him. At New York’s Madison Square Garden on Saturday, September 20th, Marley almost passed out onstage. He woke up the next day feeling confused, unable to remember clearly what had happened the night before. That morning, while jogging in Central Park with a friend, his body froze up and he fell forward, unable to help himself. Later, he saw a doctor who told him the news he had long been afraid to hear: His blackout had been due to a brain tumor. Later tests revealed that the cancer had spread through his lungs, liver and brain, and was untreatable. He probably had another ten weeks to live.

Nobody had informed Rita Marley about her husband’s fall in Central Park or about the diagnosis of his tumor. She was touring with Marley in her customary role as the leader of his harmony group, the I-Threes, but she was traveling separately. She didn’t see him until two days later, before the next scheduled show in Pittsburgh; he looked astonishingly older and thinner than a few nights earlier. When Marley gave her the news, Rita insisted that the tour be canceled immediately, but, according to Timothy White’s account, she was told by one handler that since Marley was going to die anyway, they should simply continue with the tour. Marley went onstage that night in Pittsburgh and played his full show, but that was as far as he could go. The tour ended there. He visited cancer clinics in New York, Miami and Mexico, then traveled to Bavaria, in Germany, to submit to the care of Dr. Josef Issels, who practiced controversial approaches to cancer therapy. Marley would live another eight months — much longer than anybody had predicted.

Rita Marley stayed close to her husband throughout this time. Their marriage had been neither simple nor painless for her. Marley had grown distant from his wife as his career began to ascend in the early 1970s. He saw other women, and he fathered at least seven children outside his marriage. (Marley and Rita had four children of their own.) Even so, he could be intensely possessive of his wife, and on one occasion, wrote Rita, her husband almost raped her when she tried to refuse him sex. She thought about divorcing him, but she believed the bond of their partnership ran too deep and that Marley still needed her protection. As Marley’s life was closing, the disease had drained him so much that he cried out, “God, take me, please.” Rita writes that she held him and sang to him until she began to cry. Marley looked up at her, and with what voice he had left, he said, “Don’t cry. Keep singing.”

Bob Marley died in Miami on May 11th, 1981. He was thirty-six. His body was flown to Jamaica, where the new prime minister, Edward Seaga — who had bestowed Jamaica’s Order of Merit, one of the country’s highest honors, on Marley a month before his death — ordered a state funeral. It was a belated gesture from a government that had never really respected the man, his concerns or his music. But anything less would have been unthinkable.

On May 20th, a national day of mourning, 12,000 people viewed Marley’s body as it lay in state at the Kingston National Arena, and another 10,000 waited outside. The next day, the arena was filled to capacity for his funeral. As a pickup truck bore his coffin back to his birthplace, Nine Miles, hundreds of cars followed. Thousands of Jamaicans — not just Rastas — lined the roads all the way to glimpse the cortege. According to a 1982 account in the Village Voice, Marley’s coffin was placed inside a mausoleum atop a hill at Nine Miles, and a sacred seal was affixed. A wire grill and boards and wet cement were applied to the front of the burial place to protect the body’s sanctity. Ten thousand voices cried, “Hail him! Praise him!” over and over. Darkness fell and a sound blared through a speaker, ringing off the surrounding hills to the valley below. It was the sound of Marley singing “Redemption Song,” and it played as a tribute to the land and people that Marley had tried to speak for.

In the years since Marley’s death, his legacy has only grown, though it’s also been the object of numerous troubles. In the past twenty-four years, it has seemed that everybody who was ever close to him has sued one another, or said unkind things. In her book, Rita Marley tells her side of an incident in which former Wailers Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer — who didn’t attend Marley’s funeral — refused her offer to participate in their late partner’s legacy, telling her that the wages of Marley’s sins had brought on his own death. In 1987, Tosh was murdered during a robbery at his home. He was forty-two.

The various legal suits now seem largely settled. The Marley family controls the rights to Marley’s songwriting, and Island Def Jam has been doing a splendid job of reissuing Marley and the Wailers’ 1970s and 1980s Island albums as expanded double CDs. But controversy continues around the reggae legend: Rita Marley recently announced her intention to have her husband’s remains exhumed and taken to Ethiopia. This decision has set off a firestorm of hostility in Jamaica, and it raises an interesting question: Who does Bob Marley’s legacy belong to?

Some remains, of course, have their own way of seeking out inheritors. Marley’s message of resistance, of spirit as a means to defeat oppression and claim one’s inherent rights, has clearly emerged as his most powerful and important legacy. It’s true that many others in popular music have spoken to these same concerns, including Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Marvin Gaye, Bruce Springsteen and Tupac Shakur. But with the exception of Tupac, these voices addressed injustice, intolerance, deprivation and oppression from outside the living heart of that experience. Marley risked his life to say the things he believed, and as a result both his art and his example managed to uplift or embolden others — particularly members of the African diaspora — in cultures and conditions that no other Western pop star has entered with such authenticity. In the years since, only hip-hop has had the same international impact.

Of course, another part of what has made his message so effective and enduring is how he framed it. He was a superb melody writer, and his songs’ insinuating pop hooks pull the listener into the realities Marley was describing. It’s a wonderful yet subversive device: Marley sang about tyranny and anger, about brutality and apocalypse, in enticing tones, not dissonant ones. “One Love,” the Marley song that the BBC named “The Song of the Century,” is a good example of his methods. On the surface it sounds like a feel-good chant-along about the power of love to bring unity, but enter that song and you’ll find something else: It is about war, it is about damnation and a vengeful God’s Armageddon, and it is about those who have been so wicked in their efforts to oppress the souls of mankind that they can’t possibly escape the fire that is going to rain down on them. The “one love” refrain is really just the part of the song that pulls you in. Once you’re there, you realize it’s really about: one hell. And still you hum it, you sing it when you’re by yourself. You can’t help it. Your children will do the same. Trust me. I doubt if anybody has ever pulled off feats like this better than Marley. He was the master of mellifluent insurgency.

“I Shot the Sheriff,” the song that Eric Clapton made into a Number One hit in 1975, works this way as well. The song is a tale of injustice and its results: A lawman is hounding another man who represents something — perhaps it’s race, perhaps it’s class — that he just can’t abide. The sheriff sets out to kill him, until the downtrodden person telling the story strikes back. He kills the sheriff — it’s all he can do — but he doesn’t kill the deputy; he knows the guilt didn’t spread that far. That’s how I’ve always heard “I Shot the Sheriff,” as a parable of justice and compassion, until recently, when I realized the singer might mean something entirely different. He didn’t shoot the deputy because there wasn’t time. But that time will come. Make no mistake.

Much has changed these last few years — there are fresh raging and deadly arguments about who is the oppressed and who is the oppressor in the world today, and there are not going to be any easy ways out of that disagreement. How does Marley’s music count in the knowledge of all this? “One Love” offers an answer; its scariness and its sorrow are perfect for now. The song really may be a prophecy, and it’s hard to say which would be worse: fulfilling the prophecy or averting it. Either way, the song can still find us — it can still disrupt easy notions of what’s right and wrong; it can still be a threat.

One of the last things Marley wrote was “Redemption Song.” It was the very last song he performed in public, as he perched on a stool onstage that night in Pittsburgh, September 22nd, 1981, accompanied by only his acoustic guitar. Weary, knowing his death was inside him, the house lights bearing down on him, sweat pouring from his face, Marley sang a personal prayer that invited us all in:

How long shall they kill our prophets
While we stand aside and look
Some say it’s just a part of it
We’ve got to fulfill the book

Won’t you help to sing,
These songs of freedom
‘Cause all I ever had, redemption songs
All I ever had, redemption songs
These songs of freedom

He must have known he was singing his epitaph. You see the pain drawing his face, you hear the yearning, the resignation, the strained love in his voice, and you want to say to him: Don’t cry. Keep singing.

But nobody had to tell him that. He did it his whole life, up to the last note.


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