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The Bob Marley Story

1.

Bob Marley died of cancer on May 11, 1981, at the premature age of thirty-six. By then he was well known to college kids worldwide, but few could have foreseen the celebrity he has attained since. Born in Jamaica, he is the only third-world performer to be elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 1999, the BBC named his “One Love” the “Song of the Millennium”; the same year Time declared his 1977 Exodus the “Best Album of the Twentieth Century.” Voted the third-greatest songwriter of all time in a 2001 BBC poll (behind Bob Dylan and John Lennon), Marley has sold an estimated 50 million records worldwide. On the 2007 Forbes list of “Top-Earning Dead Celebrities,” he ranked twelfth, with his estate earning an estimated $4 million. His posthumous greatest-hits collection, Legend (1984), is among the top-selling compilations of all time. Twenty-seven years after his death, there is perhaps no country where his songs—wry ballads and martial anthems, with soothing or stirring melodies—aren’t familiar.

The songs tell a familiar story of black slaves, mainly West Africans brought to work Jamaica’s fields of indigo and sugar cane, combining their own diverse cultures with those they found and making something new. Like many of his contemporaries—young country people who migrated to the city seeking work, only to end up in its swelling slums—Marley absorbed the political and musical currents that flowed through Jamaica and its capital, Kingston, in the years before and after its independence in 1962. Among the sounds were spirituals sung in clapboard churches and folk songs toiled and danced to in fields and shacks; newer rhythms from neighboring islands—mambo from Cuba, calypso from Trinidad; and increasingly, with the advent of the transistor radio and the spread of “sound systems” (turntables and enormous loudspeakers that made musical block parties possible), American doo-wop and rhythm-and-blues.

In a city full of artists and entrepreneurs seeking to forge a new national culture, Marley and his peers—like many others in the third world at the time—adapted these sounds to their lives on the margins. From the early 1960s, Marley became part of the rapid evolution of Jamaican popular music: mento, the calypso-inflected dance style dominant in the 1950s, gave way by the decade’s end to the kinetic hop called ska, and then, in the mid-1960s, to the languid shuffle called rocksteady; finally, a few years later, came the driving, spacious sound of reggae—the style Marley brought to a worldwide audience.

Emerging from the alleyways and harborside recording studios of Kingston in the late 1960s, reggae combined sweet vocal harmonies with an odd new rhythm. Adapting a cadence common to boogie blues, the style’s young artists transformed its characteristic musical feature—offbeat accents between main beats—into the dominant trait of their new sound, thereby forging a music at once familiar and eerily strange to foreign ears.1

Marley was a brilliant synthesist of musical styles, and his influence on the world’s popular music can still be heard from rock to rap to samba to jazz. An ingenious songwriter who was also an electrifying performer, he made music whose “thud-sobbing,” as Derek Walcott once wrote, evokes “a sadness as real as the smell/of rain on dry earth.”2 He used the language of the King James Bible to sing of romance and revolution, emancipation and freedom. When they were written, his songs evoked for many, especially in Africa, the hopes that came with national sovereignty in a decolonizing age. But they now transcend their time and place and are heard from Liverpool to Lagos, Tennessee to Tibet, Sydney to São Paulo.

2.

Born in 1945 in the hills of Jamaica’s “garden parish” of St. Ann, Robert Nesta Marley descended from the Maroons, fugitive slaves who had waged a guerrilla war against the British for the better part of two centuries. His mother, Cedella Malcolm, was an eighteen-year-old dark-skinned peasant girl; his father, an itinerant white Kingstonian in his sixties who claimed (falsely, it seems) to be British-born. Young Nesta spent his early years in the dusty hamlet of Nine Miles, but moved, by his twelfth birthday, to Kingston. Settling in Trenchtown, the onetime squatter camp just west of the city center that had absorbed the postwar influx from the countryside, Marley witnessed firsthand the poverty of the “sufferahs” whose aspirations he would later give voice to in his songs.

In a passionate but flawed biography, Before the Legend, Christopher John Farley, a former music critic at Time and now an editor at The Wall Street Journal, describes the young Marley, a slight, poorly dressed “yellow-bwoy,” as an easy target for the city’s bullies. He shared the light complexion of the upper middle class but not their social status. As an adult, he would speak of “not hav[ing] prejudice against myself”: “Me don’t dip on the black man’s side nor the white man’s side,” he put it; “me dip on God’s side, the one who create me and cause me to come from black and white.” It seems likely, however, as the Jamaican-born Farley argues, that Marley’s adolescent striving was in part motivated by a desire to prove himself to his black peers.3

Farley’s book, though marred by trite philosophizing, is correct in its essential argument: that the story of Jamaican music during Marley’s formative years—the 1960s—is crucial to the larger history of popular music in the twentieth century. For example, Jamaican music in the 1960s sowed the seeds for the efflorescence, a decade later, of hip-hop, the most popular genre of music in the United States, and the world, today. The figure commonly credited as the progenitor of hip-hop in 1970s New York, DJ Kool Herc (né Clive Campbell), was a Jamaican-born immigrant who’d grown up watching Kingston disc jockeys “toasting”—declaiming lyrics over their records’ instrumental sections—at city dances.4

In and out of school in his early Kingston days, by his mid-teens Marley was mostly out. He worked briefly as a welder, but spent much of his time hoping for a career—or at least a moment of ghetto notoriety—in the nascent music business that had sprung up in the capital. Since youth, Marley had nurtured dreams of being a musician: “You nuh hear me say,” he’d told his mother, “is nothing else me want to do besides sing?” At sixteen he cut his first single, an aphoristic ditty called “Judge Not” released by Beverley’s Records in Kingston on the eve of independence in 1962. The following year, he formed his first group.

As a teenager, Marley spent his time listening to American vocal groups like the Drifters and working out harmonies with two neighborhood friends, Winston McIntosh and Neville “Bunny” Livingston. Marley was a tenor who ranged to a ringing falsetto; McIntosh was a tall, brash basso profundo who went by the name of Peter Tosh; Livingston (later Bunny Wailer) was, like Bob, a tenor and a childhood acquaintance from St. Ann. Calling themselves the Wailers, the trio was soon recording with the island’s top session musicians for Clement “Sir Coxsone” Dodd, owner of the city’s largest sound system and of Studio One, then the most important recording studio in Jamaica.

Their repertoire included covers of hits by the Beatles and Dion and the Belmonts and a few scripture-inspired tracks that Marley would update in later years—including “One Love,” the future Song of the Millennium, which began as a ska riff on Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready.” Despite all the records the Wailers sold for Coxsone—their first of many number-one Jamaican hits, in February 1964, was “Simmer Down,” Marley’s peace paean to the city’s “rude boys” (stylish street-fighting members of youth gangs)—they never received royalties. The three survived on a small weekly stipend from the producer; Marley often slept on the studio floor.

3.

In 1972, Jamaican filmmaker Perry Henzell’s The Harder They Come became a surprise hit at the Venice Film Festival. In the film, the reggae singer Jimmy Cliff plays a country-born slum dweller who becomes a gun-toting outlaw, a folk hero who ducks into the studio to cut hit records as he flees from the cops. With a superb soundtrack featuring some of Kingston’s best acts, the film introduced reggae and its culture to the world.

By then, the twenty-seven-year-old Marley had had several local hit songs with the Wailers, married a local girl (and sometime vocal collaborator) named Rita Anderson, and spent time working in the United States, where his mother had emigrated in the early 1960s. Marley had also become drawn to Rastafari, the faith that he would make synonymous with reggae. His lyrics were increasingly influenced by the distinctive biblical and political language used by Rastafarians in Jamaica. The sect had been born in Kingston a few decades before, when a group of Marcus Garvey’s followers celebrated the 1930 coronation of Haile Selassie I as emperor of Ethiopia as a fulfillment of Garvey’s supposed prophecy to “look to the East for the crowning of the African king.”5

To the Rastafarians, who revered Selassie as the living Christ, the Emperor’s later reputation as a vainglorious dictator (and his eventual death) mattered less than his stature as ruler of Africa’s last uncolonized land. The sect’s impoverished members—among them the Kingston musicians who introduced the Wailers to the faith—chanted Selassie’s name at drumming ceremonies and sang hymns of “going home” to an Ethiopian Zion. Developing an elaborate eschatology drawn from the King James Bible, their outlook and speech were shaped by the scriptures: they frowned on modern medicine and refused to eat meat, encouraged the ritual smoking of marijuana (for “good meditation,” according to their reading of the Old Testament), praised “Jah” (as they called Selassie, after the King James’s Jehovah), and scorned “Babylon” (the corrupted capitalist West). Moreover, citing the Samsonite edict of Leviticus 21:15 (“they shalt not make baldness upon their head”), they prohibited the cutting of hair. By the time Bunny and Peter joined Bob in London, where he was on tour, in the summer of 1972, all three had begun to let their hair grow into matted, ropy dreadlocks.

In the fall of 1972, the Wailers met with Christopher Blackwell, the Kingston-raised scion of a wealthy colonial family whose London company, Island Records, had just released the Harder They Come soundtrack. They made a stark impression: all nappy hair and practiced scowls with the charisma of beautiful young men at once poor and proud. Blackwell later recalled, “It was like the real character [Ivan] from The Harder They Come walking in the office.” The Wailers needed a break. Since leaving Coxsone Dodd’s label, they had worked with Lee “Scratch” Perry, an eccentric studio genius and Dodd protégé who had helped them develop a potent new sound. After being poorly paid by Dodd, then battling for a time to keep their own hole-in-the-wall record label afloat, their work with Perry had proven just as unprofitable. Blackwell gave them £4000 to make an album—their first real payday. They refused to sign a contract: they felt their word was good enough.

  1. 1

    Though the term “reggae” was coined in the late 1960s to describe a music with particular formal qualities—among them guitar or organ “chops” on the accents in between main beats; a rhythmic emphasis on the third tick in each 4/4 measure; and an instrumental emphasis on bass and drums—those strictures were elastic from the start and today “reggae” is often employed as a generic term for all Jamaican popular music (including ska, rocksteady, and more contemporary styles like dancehall and bashment).

  2. 2

    Derek Walcott, “The Light of the World,” The Paris Review, No. 101 (1986), pp. 192–195.

  3. 3

    On Marley’s early years, see also Timothy White, Catch a Fire: The Life of Bob Marley (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1983; revised 2006). Though marred by a tendency toward hagiography and fictionalized recreations of key events, White’s book is commonly regarded as the definitive Marley biography. It is now in a fourth edition.

  4. 4

    See Jeff Chang, “Making a Name: How DJ Kool Herc Lost His Accent and Started Hip-Hop,” in Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation (Picador, 2005), the definitive history of the genre.

  5. 5

    On Selassie’s life, and the conception of Ethiopia as the place of origin of all African civilization, see Neal Ascherson, “The Lion of Judah,” The New York Review, May 20, 1965. For a skeptic’s commentary on the place of Rastafariani in postcolonial Caribbean politics, see V.S. Naipaul, “Power to the Caribbean People,” The New York Review, September 3, 1970. Naipaul writes of the Rastafarians thronging to meet Selassie’s plane during his epochal 1966 visit to Jamaica: “These islanders are disturbed. They already have black government and black power, but they want more. They want something more than politics. Like the dispossessed peasantry of medieval Europe, they await crusades and messiahs.”

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