by Malachi Davidson BC ’22
Happy Birthday, Bob Marley!
71 years ago today, a legend was born on the Island of Jamaica, and they would go on to become the most iconic reggae artists and leaders that this world has ever seen, and so desperately needed. Robert Nesta Marley, better known as Bob Marley, would be adorned with countless achievements celebrating his contributions to the musical world, such as his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994, his album Exodus, released in 1977 being named album of the century by TIME magazine; his song “One Love” being dubbed song of the millennium by BBC; a grammy lifetime achievement award in 2001; as well as a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame; just to name a few. Marley would die at age 36 to a violent cancer which spread violently throughout his body in 1981, however, his posthumous album, “Legend”, released in 1984 has continuously sold over a quarter-million copies each year, selling more than 10 million copies since its release. His profound musical achievements aside, Bob Marley legacy is in his contributions toward the larger movement for the liberation and unification of the African Diaspora, where he became one of the more powerful voices in the movement.
The success that Marley would attain would come, for the most part, in the final decade of his life. For the majority of his 36 years Marley lived in absolute poverty. Like most of the African Diaspora, Blacks who arrived in Jamaica as a result of the trans-atlantic slave trade were subjected to the brutality that is American/European colonization. Following the end of slavery on the island, Black’s were disenfranchised from the political system, discriminated against in the social and economic spheres of society, and legally enforced segregation separated Blacks from and whites, both in housing and education. Marley’s journey began in the concrete jungle of Jamaica, despite his father, a white man by the name of Norval Marley, being a Captain of the Jamaican Marines. His father’s family rejected Bob, leaving Cedella to raise her son alone on the streets of Trench Town. In the ghettos is where Bob Marley came to be, and it was these experiences which allowed him to later become the voice of the oppressed on the island, and around the world. The hell that Marley so vividly describes in his music, filled with violence and death, came as a result of the government endorsed violence either through the hands of the police or by its starving citizens. Marley’s ability to offer astute social commentary on the destitute aspects of Jamaican society from the vantage point of an insider– one of mixed descent– is what allowed his message to spread so far and wide.
You may have already known, whether from the flowing locks which swung from his head, or his common association with ganja; Marley’s beliefs as a Rastafarian largely impacted his identity as an artist, making way for the revolutionary and spiritually charged lyrics which gild his songs. His message, one that encourages Black people to learn their ancestral history and free themselves from the oppressors mental slavery, is widely accepted and empowers many around the globe.
Reggae was a new music genre, derived from Ska, the upbeat party music of the island in the 50’s; and rocksteady, a slowed version of Ska, whose lyrics were more socially and politically conscious. In combining elements of both of these popular Jamaican genres, the laid-back yet strikingly conscious genre was born. Bob Marley and the Wailers, formed in 1963, were largely responsible for the globalization of reggae, which came to be understood as the “music of the oppressed.” Through this genre, Marley and his bandmates spoke from their system of beliefs, a religion that believes that the wester society is the modern day Babylon, and that the oppressed people of the world will one day gain salvation from this wicked system. This belief system, bridging from the teaching of Marcus Garvey, pays heed to the injustices enacted against the African Diaspora, and encourages its followers, and Marley’s listeners, to take control of their destiny, separating themselves from the political and economic systems of Babylon.
WATCH: BOB MARLEY “EXODUS” (1977)
Throughout the 60’s and 70’s, the call for revolution could be heard in countries around the world, including Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Lebanon, Trinidad, America and many more, and Marley’s music, which preaches of empowerment, unity and freedom resonated with people throughout the world, despite mainstream Jamaican radio’s refusal to broadcast the new music genre. The music itself could not be silenced, as it became embedded within Caribbean culture, as it spread narratives that would never have been allowed in the newspapers. Marley’s growing fame amongst musicians, listeners, political activists and freedom fighters in Africa brought him before a global audience as the voice of the revolution.
Like many leaders in the fight for the liberation of Blacks around the globe, an assassination attempt was made on Marley’s life. This came at the height of the political strife between the two predominately white Jamaican political parties: the People’s National Party (PNP), a socialist party; and the conservative Jamaica Labour Party (JNP) which was backed by the United States. Following the islands independence from British colonial rule, the fight for power led to the death of many, and these parties knew just how impactful a cosign from Jamaica’s biggest celebrity could be. Marley’s refusal to participate in their political warfare caused him to be the subject of much scrutiny. It is believed that this was the motive behind the attempted assassination, which came just days before him performing at the “Smile Jamaica” concert, a free event meant to subdue the civil unrest until the political election. It is unclear who made this attempt, and even more unclear to how his usually guarded residence was left unprotected. What is clear, however, is that despite the eighty three shells that were fired that night, one which hit Rita Marley, Bob’s wife in the head; one grazing Marley’s chest barely missing his heart, and five striking the bands manager Don Taylor, no one died. Despite the attempt, he still performed at the “Smile Jamaica” concert, even showing the crowd his fresh wounds, sending a bold message to his attackers, that they could never kill him.
Though Marley may no longer be here in the physical sense, his words continue to spread, his lessons continue to teach, and his iconic sound remains alive in the hearts and minds of anyone moved by his words. Marley’s preachings of unification during such a tumultuous period in world history had empowered the rebels around the globe who were tired of their oppression. Today, we celebrate the life of a musical genius and martyr in the ongoing struggle for liberation by appreciating the music that he left behind, as reflecting on his message, one that encourages free thought and freedom.