If Bob Marley was to be alive, he would have composed a hit song on the recent xenophobic attacks in South Africa. He fought for the emancipation of the black race. He committed his phenomenal artistic talent and energy to global Blackman’s unity. He advocated a world where skin colour, tongue or race should constitute no barrier. AGOZINO AGOZINO remembers the singer who transited 34 years ago, leaving an indelible legacy yet to be surpassed.
THIRTY-FOUR years ago, singer, philosopher and reggae musician Robert Nesta Marley (Bob Marley) passed on at the height of his global stardom. But the Jamaican still remains a mythical figure ever after notwithstanding the waning status of the genre of music he played – reggae.
His death via cancer came at a period in his stardom when his vision of ‘One World, One Love,’ inspired by his belief in Rastafarian philosophy was spreading, across the globe, through reggae music. Marley was a uniquely talented phenomenal musician. His fame spread like wild fire from mid 1960s to his death in 1981. The last time he travelled internationally, with his band, Bob Marley and the Wailers was in 1980. The tour of Europe and America attracted the largest audiences at that time for any musical act in Europe.
Bob’s peculiar story was like fairy tale, which is why it continues to resonate like a myth. The message embodies a triumph over a squalid background marked by abandonment, political repression and personal artistic drive, metaphysical insights, gang land brawls and clashes, and various periods of mystical wilderness.
Beyond these, the philosophically deep and highly prophetic lines of his poetry and songs were like global warnings of a God-sent seer that have come to pass almost as he stated them. Hence, despite his death, his audience has continued to widen. It is such that when Nigerian pop star, TuFace Idibia who idolises him visited the Bob Marley home/museum, in Kingston, Jamaica, some years ago he dubbed it a personal pilgrimage. Like TuFace, many of the world’s celebrities and leaders still fete Marley three decades after his death.
To the West and most of the developed world, Bob’s apocalyptic truths prove inspirational and life-changing. In the Third World his impact goes much farther, not just among Africans, who he dubbed as his kit and kin being a black Jamaican, but also to other parts of the world where he is seen as a redeemer figure who used his rebel-cry penetrating songs to lead the course of liberation for black race. He sang for the low and oppressed of mankind.
In the clear Jamaican sunlight you can pick out the component parts of which the myth of Marley is comprised: the sadness, the love, the understanding, the abundant natural talent. He was a man who evolved naturally from the suppressed corners of his society. He imbibed their pains and sang in their tongue in a manner that touched both the minds of the elite and the masses of every part of the world.
Marley never wrote a bad song. He left behind the most remarkable body of recorded works. “The reservoir of music he has left behind is like an encyclopedia,” says Judy Mowatt of the I-Threes. “When you need to refer to a certain situation or crisis, there will always be a Bob Marley song that will relate to it. Bob was a musical prophet.”
Mowatt was Marley’s backup singer until his death.
In Marley, the tiny Third World country of Jamaica produced an artiste who has transcended all categories, class, and creed through a combination of innate modesty and profound wisdom. Marley, the Natural Mystic, has been marked out as the most significant musical artiste of the 20th century. This is because; Marley gave the world a brilliant and evocative music. His studio recording work and international performing tours, which spanned two decades, produced some timeless and universal art pieces. Bob Marley & the Wailers worked their way into the steeped fabric of people’s lives.
Marley, as a performing act was one of the most charismatic and challenging artistes to behold as his Zimbabwe, United States of America concerts buttress. His music was real as it could only have been created from only one source, the street culture of Jamaica. His stage nuances were exclusively, his style. And none who heard him sing once could forget his vocal hallmark.
It is important to consider the roots of this legend. He encapsulated the traits of Jamaica Island, the marginalised black man and the Third World in that era of Cold War. The days of slavery are a recent folk memory on the island made up, largely, of descendants of African slaves who were forcibly taken from their home lands to toil for European land lords in the sugarcane plantations in the Caribbean. That slavery consciousness permeated the mental and social essence of Jamaica’s culture, from the slave-labour plantations of the mid-19th century to the popular music of his own times. Although slavery was abolished in 1834, the Africans in the Caribbean island and their descendants developed their own culture which was actually half-remembered African traditions mingled with the customs of the British slave masters. This hybrid culture, of course, had parallels with the emerging black consciousness society in America. Jamaica, however, remained a rural community which, without the industrialisation of its northern neighbours, was more closely rooted to its African legacy.
By the start of the 20th century that African heritage was given political expression by Marcus Garvey, a shrewd Jamaican preacher and entrepreneur who founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). The organisation advocated the creation of a new black state in Africa, free from white domination. As the first step in this dream, Garvey founded the Black Star Line, a steamship company which, in popular imagination at least, was to take the black population from America and the Caribbean back to their homeland of Africa.
A few years later, in 1930, Ras Tafari Makonnen was crowned Emperor of Ethiopia and he took a new name, Haile Selassie, The Emperor claimed to be the 225th ruler in a line that stretched back to Menelik, the son of Solomon and Sheba (the biblical Queen of Sheba).
The Marcus Garvey followers in Jamaica, consulting their New Testaments for a sign, believed Haile Selassie was the black king whom Garvey had prophesied would deliver the Negro race. It was the start of a new religion called Rastafari.
Fifteen years later, in Rhoden Hall, north of Jamaica, Marley was born. His mother was an eighteen-year-old black girl called Cedella Booker while his father was Captain Norval Marley, a 50-year-old white quartermaster attached to the British West Indian Regiment.
The couple married in 1944 and Robert Nesta Marley was born on February 6, 1945. Norval Marley’s family, however, applied constant pressure. Hence, although he provided financial support, the soldier seldom saw his son who grew up in the rural surroundings of St. Ann, north of the island.
For country people in Jamaica, the country’s capital Kingston was the city of their dreams, the land of opportunity. The reality was that Kingston had little work to offer, yet through the 1950s and 1960s, people flooded to the city. The newcomers, despite their rapid disillusion with the capital, seldom returned to their native rural parishes. Instead, they squatted in the shanty towns that grew up in western Kingston, the most notorious of which was Trenchtown (so named because it was built over a ditch that drained the sewage of old Kingston.)
Marley, barely into his teens, moved to Kingston in the late 1950s with his mother. Like many before them, Marley and his mother eventually settled in Trenchtown. His friends were other street youths, also impatient with their place in Jamaican society. One friend in particular was Neville O’Riley Livingston, known as Bunny, with whom Bob took his first hesitant musical steps.
The two youngsters were fascinated by the extraordinary music they could pick up from American radio stations. In particular there was one New Orleans station broadcasting the latest tunes by such artists as Ray Charles, Fats Domino, Curtis Mayfield and Brook Benton. Bob and Bunny also paid close attention to the black vocal groups, such as the Drifters, who were extremely popular in Jamaica.
When Marley quit school he seemed to have but one ambition: music. Although he took a job in a welding shop, he spent all his free time with Bunny, perfecting their vocal abilities. They were helped by one of Trenchtown’s famous residents, the singer Joe Higgs who held informal lessons for aspiring vocalists in the tenement yards. It was at one of those sessions that Marley and Bunny met Peter McIntosh, another youth with big musical ambitions.
In 1962 Marley auditioned for a local music entrepreneur called Leslie Kong. Impressed by the quality of his vocals, Kong took the young singer into the studio to cut some tracks, the first of which was entitled Judge Not. It was released on Beverley’s label. It was Marley’s first record.
The other tunes including Terror and One Cup of Coffee received no airplay and attracted little attention.
He linked up with Bunny and Peter to form The Wailing Wailers.
The new group had a mentor, a Rastafarian hand drummer called Alvin Patterson, who introduced the youths to Clement Dodd, a record producer in Kingston.
The group, Marley, Bunny and Peter together with Junior Braithwaite and two back-up singers, Beverly Kelso and Cherry Smith were big news. Simmer Down caused a sensation in Jamaica and The Wailing Wailers began recording regularly for Coxsone Dodd’s Studio One Company. The groups’ music also found new themes, identifying with the Rude Boy street rebels in the Kingston slums.
Over the next few years The Wailing Wailers put out some thirty side acts that properly established the group. After the separation, the three original acts of the group maintained their stardom as solo artistes.
However, Marley’s last journey started in the 1980’s. The Wailers embarked on a major European tour, breaking festival records throughout the continent. The schedule included a 100,000-capacity crowd in Milan, Italy the biggest show in the band’s history. Bob Marley & The Wailers, quite simply, were the most important band on the road that year and his new Uprising album hit every chart in Europe like his earlier Exodus, Rastaman Vibration and others. It was a period of maximum optimism and plans were being made for an American tour, in company with Stevie Wonder, that winter.
At the end of the European tour Marley and the band went to America. Bob played two shows at Madison Square Garden but, immediately afterwards, fell seriously ill.
Three years earlier, in London, Bob a keen lover and good player of football hurt a toe while playing football. The wound had become cancerous and was belatedly treated in Miami, yet it continued to fester. By 1980 the cancer, in its most virulent form, had begun to spread through Marley’s body.
He fought the disease for eight months, taking treatment at the clinic of Dr. Joseph Issels in Bavaria. Issels’ treatment was controversial and non-toxic and, for a time anyway, Bob’s condition seemed to stabilise. Eventually, however, the battle proved too much. At the start of May Bob Marley left Germany for his Jamaican home, a journey he did not complete. He died in a Miami hospital on Monday, May 11, 1981.
The previous month, Marley had been awarded Jamaica’s Order Of Merit, the nation’s third highest honour, in recognition of his outstanding contribution to the country’s culture.
On Thursday May 21, 1981, the Hon. Robert Nesta Marley O.M. was given an official funeral by the people of Jamaica. Following the service – attended by both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition – Marley’s body was taken to his birthplace at Nine Mile, on the north of the island, where it now rests in a mausoleum. Bob Marley was 36-years-old. His legend, however, has conquered the years.