Farther on from Zion

To consider Bob Marley today demands we look back across distance to the place and age that brought him to us.

Harajuku, Japan. Image credit Hideki Watanabe via Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0.

Toward the end of his earthly life Bob Marley spoke frequently about death. Such talk was not unusual. He freely shared his views on a fast-approaching judgement, the consequence of a world unraveling because of what he called “man-made maniac downpression.” As with most things his vision on death was biblical. Doom hovered low over humankind. The only rescue was salvation.

From 1979 however there was a new urgency to his talk about death. He claimed he could not die. He was, in his words, a “life angel” blessed by His Imperial Majesty, Emperor Haile Selassie I, his Lord and savior, Jah Rastafari. Death was the wages of sin. If you love Jah you will live eternally. “Love Rastafari and Live,” was how he sometimes autographed records for fans.

This peculiar take on immortality was a product of the religious space of his upbringing in a deeply Christian Jamaican family and especially his acceptance of Rastafari, the teachings he had absorbed and repeated since his early twenties. Marley’s views baffled many an interviewer eager to draw sooth-saying insights from one of the world’s biggest celebrity musicians. His fame grew each year and by the late seventies the appetite for Marley quotes increased. It was in interviews that he expanded on his views of death. “I don’t believe in death, neither in flesh or in spirit,” he told Vivienne Goldman in the summer of 1979. “Death does not exist for me. I truly know God. He gives me this (life) and my estimation is: if he gives me this why should I take it back? Only the Devil says that everybody has to die.”

It was not a strange position to hold in Jamaica where questions of life and death, godliness and redemption have always carried people through seemingly unending difficulties. When the island got the tragic news in January 1981 that the most triumphant story of its troubled independence years may end with Bob Marley’s fatal cancer, some Rastas claimed that if Bob Marley died it meant he was not a true Rasta; a claim that revealed how much criticism pop stardom brought him back home.

Marley’s own attitude to eternal life was tested with his illness. His desperate fight to beat the melanoma cancer that polluted his body, depositing its cells in his brain, lungs, and liver, by taking a controversial—and painful—alternative treatment at a clinic in Bavaria, seemed a contradiction to those who took his words literally. But it was not. Bob Marley held onto life more than anything else. His lyrics—again more so in his later years—oscillated between laden admonitions on the end of days and a joyous celebration of life as the great gift of Jah.

It was these contrasting aspects of Bob Marley that have in fact lived. After he passed forty years ago this month there seemed little likelihood that he would be forgotten—definitely not in Jamaica where he was given the country’s greatest state funeral that was more a carnival than a mournful wake. To those who adored him in Jamaica, Marley would always be seen as supernatural. A country boy from the faraway district of Rhoden Hall in St. Ann parish—so profoundly nestled in the bush that its residents looked giddy whenever they saw the marginally wider roads of nearby Brown’s Town—Marley came of age in the narrow galaxy of West Kingston.

Everything that was incredible and incongruous of the Jamaican experience was bound up in Bob Marley’s life. All of it, from the jutting rocks that bruised his toddler’s feet to the obscuring high-rise buildings in downtown Kingston fed his creative impulse which produced its own Jamaican uniqueness. His lyrics and style were sown into the popular culture of the place from before his head began to sprout its young bud locks. There was no chance whatever that he could possibly be forgotten there. That Jamaicans, on the days after his death was announced, preferred to listen to his crackling 45s from a more innocent 1960s than his slickly produced international hits (songs like “Chances Are,” a 1968 lament on loss, death, and survival were in regular rotation in those introspective months of 1981) revealed how deeply his story blended with their own.

There was always more than one side to Bob Marley. Having had numerous versions of his name by his late teens (Nesta, Lester, Robbie, and others he would sooner forget) he adapted different personas in his years of fame: Natty Dread, Skip, Joseph, Berhane Selassie, and The Gong. For Marley these changing references allowed him to make room for himself in disparate spaces. Most of all the different reflections of his personality helped him to rise up from street-level constraints and break into the international mainstream. When Jamaica existed in that mainstream it was seldom regarded as more than an aching smile on a coastline. Bob Marley became larger outside of the island because he not only had the greatest trust in his talent, but because he knew what it needed to grow. Chance, luck, and opportunity coalesced at the right moment for him and he took what he could from them to build his fame. As he told a reporter in the early seventies, his goal was to take reggae music international and “become known.”

Four decades after his passing Bob Marley is the most recognizable musician in the world. His songs, it is fair to say, are played every day at some time in some place. The rhythms are remixed, cut, diced, and seamed into other musics and the lyrics come back to us in ever-expanding forms. Taken whole they are integrated into whatever mood is needed: moral balance, religious temperance, love, anger. More often they are revered as rebellious anthems, disaggregated for graffiti, t-shirts, posters, memes, and consumables. For a man who was once chastised for his refusal to smile, it is his wide, warm grin under a canopy of dreadlocks that is the most recognizable feature of this rebirthed Marley. We see his face on walls and bodies. It is a universal face frozen in glorious youth. His bronze skin, high cheekbones, emphasized by hairless cheeks, a sharp nose, thick lips, rounded forehead and lined teeth all bear reflections of one group of people or another. Bob Marley became appealing in the post seventies era because he seemed safe and fit for purpose. Whatever he is recruited for—hedonistic endorsement or to inspire marches—people can find what they want in him.

This is only part of his larger relevance. Bob Marley’s afterlife is the product of an incredibly capacious marketing machine. The release of his posthumous Confrontation album in 1983 created excitement among reggae fans. It was nothing near the astonishing impact of the following year’s blockbuster greatest hits album, Legend. From its cover photograph taken in London in February 1978 of a wizened Marley in philosophical pose, to its expertly chiseled song selection, Legend was the first trumpet of a new Bob Marley career.  Though the album unfailingly enrages the hardcore fan for its militant economy and quiet on Marley’s strident black consciousness to which he remained fervently attached—not one song from Marley’s 1979 pan-African opus Survival appears—Legend has kept new fans coming to Marley since the eighties. Later Island Records reissues aimed to redress the balance. Songs of Freedom, released roughly a decade after his death, was a career-spanning box set that was smartly packaged and curated and went some distance in telling newcomers of the seriousness of Marley and his music. Still it could not achieve the enduring mainstream presence of Legend. Even new generations of Jamaicans born into a world of spitfire dancehall reduce The Gong to his output on Legend.

Above all its grooviness, Legend made Bob Marley an undying musical force—an eternal man. Global youth latched onto the image and his songs which have become the soundtrack for self-conscious discovery. Even those who resent him for eclipsing the tremendous output of Jamaican music’s other kin, have to concede Marley’s endurance. His lyrics remain ballast for the unapologetic political movements of the young and alive, often leading them to other streams.

There has been another consequence of this posthumous fame. Bob Marley has become a commodity used most extensively to advertise a postcolonial Caribbean myth. Backpackers descend annually on Jamaica in search of a pulsating Bob Marley adventure. Tourists take guided tours outside of all-inclusive hotels looking for another version of the same song. Thanks in large part to Marley’s fame, the tropical image since the late seventies includes dreadlocks, ganja plumes, and three-chord bass lines filling the vista between sun and sea. Marley’s more popular songs like One Love are renditioned by every hustler from Maracas in Trinidad to Negril’s seven mile beach stretch. Bob Marley is today part of a generic Caribbean visitor package.

Outside the resort walls, Caribbean youth of various languages and hues wear Bob Marley t-shirts out of adoration for his image for what he represents more than who he was. Marley is for many of them born into a world remade several times since he left it, a modern Caribbean hero with defiant dreadlocks long dispossessed of their fright.

This easy embrace of Marley, whether by foreigners or Caribbean nationals, has always frustrated fans who believe the marketing of the man is a shocking injustice to his purpose. Nonetheless, it is encouraged by those most responsible for keeping his memory alive. A cottage industry exists within and outside of Jamaica that depends on more people being seduced by Marley magic. Marley’s children, all comfortably settled in middle-age now, and with their own musical progeny and personal achievements to draw on, accept the ubiquity of their father’s voice and face as part of the mission of spreading his music. Marley himself may likely have endorsed this type of attention. In his lifetime, Bob Marley enjoyed wearing Bob Marley t-shirts.

The great risk though is not simply that all this commercialism has made Bob Marley a product. Stardom is a force of its own that cannot be easily controlled once released. What is more troubling is that the place and age that made Marley become reducible to a shadowy backdrop on stage left, billowing to the riddim while the spotlight graces the beatific angles of the great man. Documentary films, news specials, hundreds of biographies, anniversary articles, oral histories, and online interviews with those “who knew him best” seek to remind us of the larger world around Bob Marley. Sometimes they do. Yet, too often they strain to reconcile the life with the afterlife shows. Marley returns to us a saint composed of free-flowing homilies, pithy anecdotes, raw originality, and wise asides, less a person than a man for all times. What is lost is a fair reminder that Bob Marley for much of his life was, as one musician who played with him in the early seventies told me, “just an asshole like the rest of wi.” By that he meant, Bob Marley was a survivor living day to day roaming as quickly as he could through the shimmers and soft mauve heat of Kingston city.

Marley’s uniqueness was not the mixed color and class origins of his parentage. That is a story as Caribbean as the sea. It is not that he was one of thousands of country children who came to Kingston in the great migration of the 1950s, dazzled by the size and sounds of the capital. It is not even that he was like many of his company—including the greats who helped him along the way, such as his fortitudinous wife Rita, group members Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer, and the dozens of singers, musicians, producers, sound system men, engineers, Rasta bredrin and sistren, ballers, rude bwoys, bad men, good men, caretakers, cooks, sufferers, youth, girlfriends, gorgons, and everyday people of Trench Town who gave him food, lyrics, an example, a bed, plenty of herbs and inspiration—an inveterate dreamer who hoped singing would take him out of the burning oppressiveness of the ghetto and make him famous beyond Half Way Tree. It was that he was able to draw strength from all these common experiences to overcome his circumstances.

Norman Manley, a towering political intellectual in the Jamaica of Marley’s youth, once said that talent was only five percent of success. The rest is preparation. In many ways preparation was the mantra of the generation that came of age after Jamaica’s independence in 1962 and which Bob Marley was very much a part of. Everyone was preparing for something. What it was changed several times, but it was always going to be something better than what they were living. By the early seventies, when Marley began to spread his wings, Norman Manley’s preparation became his son Michael Manley’s struggle. Struggle was part of a process. If it did not happen you could not trust the outcome. Marley’s truest gift was that he understood intrinsically the lesson of his era: that preparation, struggle, rehearsal, craft, discipline, were lifelong commitments. The greater the forces aligned against him and people like him in Jamaica the greater the demands of the preparation.

The politics of the 1970s in Jamaica have become as legendary as Marley, even before he left this earth. In its most accessible version, Jamaica was split into two ideological camps. One party, the governing People’s National Party under Michael Manley (in power for the full length of Marley’s international fame, 1972-1980) trying to define and apply an evolving democratic socialism, and the opposition, the Jamaica Labour Party, doggedly led by future Prime Minister Edward Seaga (elected in 1981 and serving until 1989), defending a capitalist model sold to Jamaicans as “nationalism.” They presented two very different visions for the independent nation that the party faithful defended for dear life. The struggle on the ground was not just ideological. The politics exacerbated preexisting distrust and a competition among Jamaicans—from parliament to the recording studios—to be the leaders of their era.

This struggle was the source from which Bob Marley drew his greatest motivation. Much of his catalogue in these pivotal years were songs about the Jamaican situation. Bob Marley, quite simply, cannot be understood outside of the situation of 1970s Jamaica. Not just the politics and the accents but the full ecology of the thing.

That Marley’s songs had wider appeal is part of their brilliance and a reflection of how much care he took in their preparation. It is what is distilled and unsaid as much as what he wailed that captures the debt he owed to his environment. Marley’s lyrical choices were often drawn from the currency of the street Rastafari worldview stitched to borrowings from elsewhere—the familiar with the unexpected—over a carefully sanded rhythm to achieve the intended effect. The Jamaicans who moved in time with his music understood it instantly. They made the Wailers shining stars long before anyone else took notice. They packed the lower Kingston theaters each Easter and Christmas to cheer on their heroes. And Marley, in song, returned the love by singing about them, taking their joint story to the remote corners where they still echo. Long before international fame found him, the Jamaicans he unfailingly called “my people” held him up.

The bolder conquest was how he took all that promise and expectation much farther than anyone ever imagined. Or farther than even seemed possible. We would do well to remember that in the early seventies, when Bob Marley and the Wailers and their tireless, talented peers, started their campaigns to take reggae—”the sound of the seventies” according to clever Island Records marketing—to large markets, music news was still spread by short run papers and word of mouth. To shop a record an artist had to show up, everywhere. For Jamaicans that meant hustling for visas, per diems, and bedsits so they could get on the road and stay on the road. Marley’s intense work ethic and a natural discipline sharpened in Kingston’s studios, unwatered football pitches, and Rasta camps pushed him to show up. Of the many stories said about the man over the past forty years, his enormous capacity for long stretches of work and his devotion to the hard labor of creation is the story most consistently told by those who worked with him.

The more he practiced, the greater his talents grew, and the greater his profile. He was seldom in Jamaica; the concept of home became necessarily mobile as he was in constant movement through airports and across continents. He shared with the other giants of the 1970s—from Bowie to Fela, from Stevie Wonder to Jorge Ben—an ability to make art that seeped through boundaries.

Events in Jamaica shaped Bob Marley’s renown repeatedly in his phenomenal seven years of international fame from 1973-1980. The shooting attack on him at his Kingston home in December 1976—a crescendo moment in his biography—and his courage to perform the Smile Jamaica concert days after, enshrined his legend. His valiant return from exile two years later for his set at the One Love Peace Concert, where he brought the two opposing leaders together, gilded him and has become the quintessential moment of hope in Jamaica’s tough 1970s.

His fame by then seemed to deepen a sincere belief  that Jamaica could be an example to the world. His closing words at the One Love show were, “this people must set an example for the Earth to follow. This is where Rastaman is first known. And then Rasta would have to unite from Jamaica first before the Earth could be united. So with this unity we shall keep it together and with the help of Almighty God, Jah Rastafari, Emperor Haile Selassie I, we shall overcome.” It was the confidence of the claim that Jamaica was the center of the world that reveals just how much the country lived within him.

His thoughts about life and death drew on what he had learned and lived. On his final tour, the abbreviated Tuff Gong Uprising 1980, Marley opened every show with “Natural Mystic.” It was a song written in the mid-seventies when Jamaica’s political violence was still ascending. The violence crested in 1980 with the grim general elections that claimed hundreds. “Natural Mystic” in this context was a meditation on that hard reality. The heaviness of the message onstage was counterbalanced with the uplifting encore which invariably began with “Coming in From the Cold,” a celebration of life—oh, sweet life—and possibility in the middle of gloom.

There was a purpose to this arrangement. Everyone, he seemed to say, had to face the reality of death. But life does not end with it. Those who are living must carry forward the departed to ensure they live forever. As he made peace with his transition from this realm to the higher region of Zion, Bob Marley put his faith in what he was leaving behind: his children, his business empire, his musical legacy, Jamaica, and most of all the monumental canon he had completed by just 36.

People are kept alive by remembrance. Remembering Bob Marley means recalling the journey from his past to his present. To consider Bob Marley today demands we look back across that distance to the place and age that brought him to us, and do as his people did when they laid him to rest at the spot where he first breathed life—listen to his music, grow strong, forget your troubles, and dance.

  • Also watch a replay of Matthew, along with Erin MacLeod, discussing Marley’s life and afterlives on our weekly AIAC Talk show, on May 11, 2021. Here.

Further Reading