One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain. - Bob Marley
30 years after his death, Bob Marley remains one of the most influential musicians of all time. His contribution to Jamaica, black empowerment, the musical genre we all know today as Reggae and the Rastafarian movement is immense, and is only further cemented by the immortality of his music, a style that truly transcends cultural and national boundaries, from Hopi Indians in the Grand Canyon, to the Maori in New Zealand and millions of 'free radicals' in between. He is heralded as a prophet, a man of peace and a citizen of the world, a man who many regard as the first third-world superstar, timeless and irreplaceable.
Bob Marley was born Nesta Robert Marley, on February 6, 1945, in the small village of Nine Mile, Saint Ann's Parish in Jamaica, to parents Norval Sinclair Marley and Cedella Booker. His father was a white Jamaican of mixed English and Syrian-Jewish ancestry and his mother, an Afro-Jamaican woman. His father had been with the Royal Marines and worked as a plantation overseer when he met Marley's mother. However, he was often absent from home and only supported his family financially. Marley and his mother moved to Trenchtown, a small ghetto in Kingstown in 1957. Trenchtown was a poor neighborhood, built as a housing project after the devastation of Hurricane Charlie in 1951, but had fallen on bad times. The economic and social depression was fomenting a spirit of rebellion and Marley and his friend Neville Livingstone (later Bunny Wailer) were deeply influenced by the prevailing conditions. The Rastafari movement, advocating the use of cannabis for spiritual enlightenment and the rejection of Western society, was also a major contributing factor in molding the lyrical themes of Marley's songs.
It was not long before Bob Marley and Bunny Wailer became step-brothers, as Marley's mother and Livingstone's father began to live together. It was at school that Marley and Wailer began to play music, teaming up with Joe Higgs who was a local singer and also a faithful Rastafari. In Trenchtown they met Peter Tosh, who also wanted to be a musician. Leslie Kong was a local Chinese-Jamaican music producer who gave Marley his first break. Marley recorded the songs, Judge Not and One Cup of Coffee, in 1962, and released them under the pseudonym of Bobby Martell. The songs had a remarkable influence of Ska, an early form of reggae that had taken Jamaica by storm, in the early 60s. Although the songs were not runaway hits, Bob Marley had broken through and the road to musical, political and religious freedom, the tenets of life he sang most about, lay before him. He had begun sporting his dreadlocks, and a sense of fashion that would inspire a cultural movement in the Western world.
As their musical aspirations grew, Marley, Wailer and Tosh were joined by Junior Braithwaite, Beverley Kelso, and Cherry Smith. They soon formed a music group, calling themselves The Teenagers, however, this was but the start to a musical evolution of sorts, as the band changed its name several times, going from The Teenagers to The Wailing Rudeboys and then to their most famous one The Wailing Wailers, which soon became just The Wailers. The group was a versatile one with each member performing as a vocalist in his turn, Marley being the creative force behind their songs, writing the lyrics himself and composing the tracks. He also played the Epiphone guitar, an instrument he would use throughout his life. It was Jamaican record producer Coxsone Dodd, who discovered Marley and his group of ska musicians, taking them under his wing. However, the band was not destined to stick together for long and soon only Marly, Tosh and Wailer were left to continue with the The Wailers. Bob Marley had become the lead singer by this time and in 1963, they recorded one of their earliest hits, Simmer Down, a song that was to launch them to the top of the charts in Jamaica and also kick-start Marley's career as a singer and song writer. Marley's mother had left for the United States, in search of a better life, and this period in his life was marked by a sort of confused delinquency. Coxsonne Dodd was almost a guardian to him, allowing him to stay in the recording room and giving him small assignments.
In 1966 Marley married Rita Anderson, a singer who auditioned for, and later joined, a trio of singers called the I Threes , a back-up act for The Wailers after their break-up. He would have three children with her, along with another eight from different women he later had relationships with. He took his wife to the States and stayed with his mother in Delaware. Marley's songs in this era were focused more on the ghetto culture pervading life in the slums of Jamaica, a rebellious counter-culture popularly called the Rude Boys, anti-authoritarian youngsters who had frequent confrontations with the law, a trend he tried to reverse with songs like One love, a message of peace and racial unity. Marley tried different styles, eventually settling on the style he would come to personify; Reggae. In collaboration with a Jamaican music producer, Lee Perry, The Wailers produced some of the more memorable tracks of their career, imbibing musical cues from deep psychedelic reggae and influenced by the sound of such greats as Jimi Hendrix.
It was in 1972 that Bob Marley was finally recognized as having arrived on the international music scene, with The Wailers releasing their breakthrough album, Catch a fire. The album was produced by the record label Island Records, run by producer Chris Blackwell, who provided the band with the necessary equipment and finance to complete the album. Their musical style was further refined, lowering the heavy bass influenced beats of Jamaican music and giving the songs a slower, more hypnotic melody. The album was released internationally in 1973 and received much critical acclaim, however, the album that would make them global stars was to come out the next year. Burnin was a super-hit album which such classics as Get up, Stand up and I Shot the Sheriff, a track which was later covered by Eric Clapton and became a rage all over the world. Although the album was a hit, all was not well with The Wailers and Burnin became their last album before Tosh and Wailer left to pursue their solo careers.
Marley continued to perform as Bob Marley and The Wailers, backed by the I Threes. 1975 was a seminal year for Marley as he released Natty Dread, which included the single No woman, No cry, a song that catapulted him to international stardom, and is one of the best known reggae tracks in the world. It was followed by another groundbreaking album Rastaman Vibration in 1976 which gathered Marley a huge following in the United States. The band included reggae luminaries like Carlton and Aston Barrett, Junior Marvin and Al Anderson, Tyrone Downie, Earl Lindo, and Alvin Patterson. Due to the political undercurrent in his songs, Marley was gaining a reputation as a free-thinker and cultural revolutionary. It culminated in an attack on his home in 1976, when armed gunmen shot and wounded Marley, his wife, and their manager Don Taylor, to stop a performance scheduled for the Smile Jamaica concert. Marley still performed in front of a crowd of 80,000 with an injured arm, for nearly 90 minutes. The attack had left him shaken and he traveled to England, staying there for almost two years and producing a remarkable body of work, a time that is considered his best period of creativity. The super-hit album Exodus, released in 1977 and included such gems like the title track, Waiting in Vain, Jamming, and One Love. Kaya came out in 1978, a much subdued album in comparison to the inflaming lyrical prose of Marley's earlier work, and still made it to the top five on the UK hit list. Other notable albums from Marley's time in England were Babylon by Bus, in 1978 and Uprising, which released in 1980. The political hues returned again in a charged album called Survival in 1979. Marley undertook several American and European tours, enthralling thousands of fans and also toured Japan and Australia.
Bob Marley was raised a Catholic, but during his years in Trenchtown, came steadily under the influence of the Rastafari movement and formally converted to it in the 60s. The Rastafarian movement started in the early 1930s in Jamaica, a country where nearly 98% of the population is Christian and steadily gained popularity due to its non-traditional views, and the merging of classical Christian theology with a radical world-view. The followers, or Rastafari, believe that the erstwhile emperor of Jamaica Haile Selassie I, is the re-incarnation of Jesus Christ and worship him as the second coming of Christ, or God's representative on earth. They also reject Western culture and beliefs, referring to them as Babylon, along the lines of the ancient Babylon mentioned in the Bible, and treat marijuana as a holy sacrament. Marley's music too featured Rastafarian imagery and symbolism to a great extent, songs such as Redemption Song and Forever Loving Jah, are deeply spiritual and considered some of his most moving compositions.
Bob Marley transformed Rasta, from a localized spiritual movement into an international one, with over 1 million Rastafari worldwide in 1997. A lot of his music also revolves around the smoking of cannabis and the spiritual experience it provides, it has been criticized on occasion for this very reason, a deliberate glorification of a drug and its linking with divine revelation, nonetheless, the music of Bob Marley is interwoven with messages of peace, political freedom, social change and a non-violent protest against racial disenfranchisement, the drugs are incidental to his belief system and not the solution he offers the world, though many still disagree.
It was in 1977, after Marley had moved to Miami, that he was diagnosed with Acral lentiginous melanoma, a type of skin cancer that had begun to spread under one of his toes. He refused treatment and continued touring and working on his studio albums and also planned a world tour. However, this would never come to fruition as his health began to deteriorate by the middle months of 1980 and he held his last concert on 23 September 1980 at the Stanley Theater in Pittsburgh. His health worsening, Marley was treated by Josef Issels in Germany but the cancer had spread throughout his body and he had to be admitted to the Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Miami, while en route to Jamaica. Bob Marley, the King of Reggae, died on 11 May, 1981 and was buried with State honors in a chapel near his hometown. Marley went to his grave with a Gibson Les Paul electric guitar, a soccer ball, a bud of marijuana, a ring presented to him by Prince Asfa Wossen of Ethiopia and last but not the least, a Bible. He was 36 years old.
Marley's impact on modern popular music has been monumental. As the first superstar of the third-world, his music touched millions of people living in poverty and oppression and has today become a symbol for the revolution that lives within each of us, a cry for change, for better opportunities and a lasting peace amongst men. His album Exodus was named the greatest album of the 20th century by Time magazine in 1999, and was awarded a Grammy for lifetime achievement in 2001. Statues to Marley have been unveiled in Jamaica and Serbia, and various tributes are held in his honor the world over. Commerce hasn't been far behind in exploiting Marley's legendary status and his likeness can be found on innumerable objects, from t-shirts to coffee mugs. It is, in some way, a betrayal of all that he stood for, the fight for equality and freedom, not merely limited to the enjoyment of the senses and coffee-table discussions.