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Bob Marley at his house in Kingston, Jamaica, March 1976; photographs by David Burnett from his book Soul Rebel: An Intimate Portrait of Bob Marley


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.


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.


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.


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Bob Marley and the ‘I Threes,’ Rita Marley, Judy Mowatt, and Marcia Griffiths, performing in Europe during the Exodus tour, summer 1977

The producer’s support, as Jason Toynbee writes in his sharp, serious study of Marley’s music and his rise to fame, represented more than a simple risk taken on an unproven act. By 1972 reggae had produced a few British chart hits (notably Desmond Dekker’s “Israelites” which went to number one in 1969). Most industry executives, however, still regarded the genre as good only for singles. Blackwell’s hope, according to Toynbee, was that savvy record-buyers (and increasingly powerful rock journalists) were ready to embrace a reggae singer as the creator of a rock album, the relatively new art object that the Beatles had helped establish as the emblem of rock stardom.

Blackwell flew to Kingston a few weeks later to check on his charges. The music Marley played him astounded him: falsetto harmonies over chicken-scratch guitar; gorgeous melodies incongruously carried by electric bass; subtly prominent syncopated drums. The ecstatic Blackwell set about turning these tracks into the album he wanted to market. Choosing nine of the dozen-odd songs from the Kingston tapes, he extended the length of each. To help ingratiate these exotic sounds with young British fans of guitar stars like Eric Clapton, Blackwell asked Wayne Perkins, an Alabama blues-rock guitarist who happened to be working on his family band’s record at Island’s studios, to overdub electric lead guitar parts on the Wailers’ tunes.

Marley, as Toynbee writes, was initially skeptical about Perkins’s contribution, but came around on hearing the subtle color his work added; he signaled his approval by offering Perkins a draw on his personal marijuana cigar (or “spliff”). In the group photograph taken for the dust jacket—the album, Catch a Fire, came packaged in a cardboard replica of a Zippo cigarette lighter—and on the UK tour the Wailers undertook on its release, Perkins, who was white, was not included. Marley’s appeal lay in the same mix of “tribal” mystic with electric rock that had proved so potent in Jimi Hendrix. But his act, unlike Hendrix’s, had to be recognizably Jamaican, and thus black.

If the sound was a mélange, the songs (with titles like “400 Years” and “Concrete Jungle”) left no doubt about the world and the history out of which they came. From “Slave Driver”:

Every time I hear the crack of
a whip
my blood runs cold
I remember on the slave ship
how they brutalize our very
Today they say that we are free
only to be chained here
in poverty….


By the autumn of 1976, after a series of critically acclaimed albums and concert tours, Marley was on his way to being a global star. The success of his first album had been followed by Burnin’ (1973), featuring “Get Up, Stand Up,” the Tosh-Marley composition that would become the official song of Amnesty International. Shortly after Burnin’, Peter and Bunny departed to pursue solo careers. With backing vocals now sung by a female trio known as the “I Threes,” including Bob’s wife Rita, Marley’s first album without the original Wailers, the gorgeous Natty Dread (1974), contained the nostalgic ballad “No Woman, No Cry.” A love-lullaby reminiscing about life in the “government yards” (housing projects) of Kingston, it is perhaps his best-known song:

I remember when we used to sit
In the government yard in Trenchtown
And then Georgie would make the fire light (I say)
Logwood burning through the night
Then we would cook cornmeal porridge (I say)
Of which I’ll share with you
My feet is my only carriage (and so)
I’ve got to push on through
But while I’m gone
Everything’s gonna be alright
Everything’s gonna be alright…
No woman, no cry
No woman, no cry

Two years later, Rastaman Vibration (1976) included the first reggae single to be played with any frequency on US radio, “Roots, Rock, Reggae” (whose lyrics ironically presaged its success—“Play I on the R-and-B/ Want all my people to see/We bubbling on the top 100/just like a mighty dread”—and expressed Marley’s desire to penetrate the black popular music market). The record came in a textured dust jacket, perfect for rolling joints on, which made it a coveted dorm room novelty. That he first attained fame in America not among US blacks but white college students—to whom Marley was (and remains) as much marijuana mascot as musician—was troubling for him. Desiring fame, however, he seems to have embraced all those he charmed irrespective of race (while making a special effort to attract a black audience, which he did by the time he performed an emotional series of sold-out shows at Harlem’s Apollo Theater in October 1979).

For Jamaica’s proliferating Rastafaris, who already regarded Haile Selassie as divine, Marley had attained the status of prophet. Called simply “Mr. Music” on island radio, he was now living in a large house in the same uptown neighborhood as Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley. In moving uptown, however, Marley hadn’t so much left Trenchtown behind as brought it with him. In The Book of Exodus, a rambling memoir-cum-meditation on the making of Marley’s next record, veteran music journalist Vivien Goldman quotes his explanation:

[It’s] not the people me a talk about, but the ghetto is a prison. When the law comes out, they send them into the ghetto first, not uptown. So how long does it take you to realize—bwaoy, well they don’t send them uptown, y’know! So we’ll make a ghetto uptown.

An experiment in what the Rastas called “social living,” the property resembled a commune. It housed Tuff Gong International, the record company that fulfilled Marley’s longtime Garveyite aim of owning his means of production; it served also as home, rehearsal space, and crash pad for assorted “bredren” (brethren) and hangers-on. Each day friends and admirers from the old neighborhood arrived at the gates to pay respects—and usually to ask for a handout; few left without one.

The communal ethos extended to sexual matters, too, and though Marley fathered three children with Rita in the early years of their marriage, he had by the mid-1970s moved through a series of other relationships that also produced children. Rita had begun, not without pain, to evolve into her role as queen mother for the whole brood.6 (All told, Marley acknowledged fathering at least eleven children, by seven different women.) Soon enough, Marley found a primary companion. The reputed subject of his tenderest songs on Exodus, Cindy Breakspeare was a middle-class beauty queen—the 1976 Miss World—from the new neighborhood with whom he shared, as Goldman puts it, “a passionate interest in exercise [and] health.”

As Marley went about building his uptown court, Kingston’s downtown districts were being run by twenty-something warlords. (One of the more notorious, Ashton “Bucky” Marshall, once told Goldman that his power was owed to the fact that “I shoot harder.”) Gangs fought over turf in proxy battles for the nation’s two political parties: the left-wing People’s National Party (PNP), led by the charismatic Prime Minister Michael Manley; and the center-right Jamaican Labor Party (JLP) of Edward Seaga, a onetime anthropologist and record producer who had, in the 1950s, recorded the Wailers’ old Trenchtown mentor, the Rastafari Joe Higgs.

In the run-up to the 1976 election that would determine whether Manley’s PNP would govern for another four years, the parties’ affiliate gangs went to war. Marley, though a friend of Manley and sympathetic to his socialist ideas, eschewed what he termed “politricks.” In a city where one’s party affiliation had more to do with whose toughs protected your block than anything else, he sought to project a neutral public persona. Nonetheless, when the American photographer David Burnett, visiting Kingston on assignment for Time in March 1976, shot a beautiful series of portraits of Marley at his home—smiling in the yard with an acoustic guitar (see illustration on page 34)—Burnett’s images captured an idyll that couldn’t last.

Days before Marley was scheduled to perform at a “Smile Jamaica” concert aimed at tempering the violence, a crew of gunmen rolled through the gates to his house.7 Shots echoed around the yard. Marley, standing in the kitchen peeling a grapefruit, took a bullet in his left arm. He insisted on performing at the National Stadium two nights later, pointing defiantly before a rapt crowd of thousands to the wounded limb at his side.8 He left the island the following morning, however, and didn’t return for more than a year.

Away in London, Marley concentrated on composing and recording. One day, his bass player, Aston “Family Man” Barrett (appropriately so-called, for by his own recent count, he has fifty-two children), returned from an afternoon of LP-shopping with the soundtrack to Otto Preminger’s film Exodus. Listening to the strings and cymbals of the movie’s theme, Barrett riffed on its chord changes to shape the bass line of their record-to-be’s title track; Marley wrote lyrics around the refrain “movement of Jah people”:

We know where we’re going
We know where we’re from
We’re leaving Babylon
We’re going to our father’s land

Marley decided, during a year spent among West Indian émigrés in stagflationary late-1970s Britain, that the new album would be based around the biblical tale of Exodus. The story evoked deliverance from bondage, but also movement toward home or away from it, movement without the certitude of earthly sanctuary at its start or end. Its themes spoke not only to Marley’s flight from Jamaica and the errant life of planes and hotel rooms that he already sensed would be his lot for the rest of his days; they resonated also with the experience of those masses of West Indians, and emigrants everywhere, crossing oceans and deserts hoping that “better must come.”

With its thumping bass-drum signatures and slick production, Exodus was aimed at cracking the American market at the peak of the disco era. The recordings may have lost some of their earlier verve, but the band had only gained in cohesion and power. Marley was a notorious disciplinarian; he’d presided over daily Kingston rehearsals and then over marathon sessions in the London studio. The video of his performance at London’s Rainbow Theatre, recorded at the end of the Exodus tour in June 1977, captures one of the great acts in the history of pop: Marley looms at the fore, a booted dervish in denim and dreadlocks, bounding about the stage, then standing stock still with his arms in the sign of the cross, his faultless tenor at once tuneful and plain, each lyric invested with the pathos less of song than incantation:

Most people think
Great god will come from the sky
Take away everything
And make everybody feel high
But if you know what life is worth
You will look for yours on earth
So now you see the light
You stand up for your rights


During the nearly four years between the release of Exodus and the bright May day when Marley’s body was interred on the St. Ann hillside where he was born, he crisscrossed the globe, filling stadiums from Tokyo to Milan to Auckland to Libreville. By the end he became a symbol and spokesman of anticolonial aspiration for the oppressed (or “downpressed” as he called them) everywhere.

Marley gave perhaps his most famous performance at the 1980 celebration marking the end of the last outpost of empire in Africa, Rhodesia, as it became the sovereign nation of Zimbabwe.9 The crowds could not see his worsening health. His bandmates, however, watched him after many shows remove a right boot filled with blood. One afternoon in Paris, as the European leg of the Exodus tour drew to a close, Marley, a lifelong soccer enthusiast, organized a pickup game beneath the Eiffel Tower. Mid-game, a member of the press corps stomped on his already injured right big toe. Infection set in, and though doctors repeatedly told him that the toe had to be amputated, he refused. In July 1977 he was diagnosed with a malignant melanoma on the toe, and the cancer spread to his stomach, liver, and brain, finally killing him.

In his final years, Marley returned to Jamaica only for brief stays, most notably in 1978 for the “One Love Peace Concert,” during which he enjoined political rivals Manley and Seaga to clasp hands on stage in the midst of another bloody election campaign. His final concert tour came to a premature end on September 23, 1980. The highlight of Marley’s performance in Pittsburgh that night was the newly composed “Redemption Song,” in which Marley raised for a final time the need for emancipation, and publicly claimed, for the first time, the mantle of Joseph, son of Jacob, whose spirit the Rastas had long claimed he embodied:

Old pirates yes they rob I
Sold I to the merchant ships
Minutes after they took I
from the bottomless pit
But my hand was made strong
by the hand of the almighty…

Visibly ailing, Marley pronounced his thanks, as had Joseph before the archers, for a “hand made strong by the hand of the almighty.” On his left middle finger he wore a black-and-gold ring given him by Selassie’s grandson in London that had belonged to the Emperor himself and, it was claimed, millennia before that to King David in Jerusalem.

Marley’s own belief in an earthly divine was less messianic than radically humanist. “If you know what life is worth,” went the lyrics to “Get Up, Stand Up,” “you will look for yours on earth.” His insistence that mortals could create the kingdom of righteousness on earth was joined to a subtler wariness about grounding Zion in the vulgarities of blood or land. The rights he proclaimed worth standing up for were not civil rights that derived from sovereign states but the more abstract human rights that he thought couldn’t be entrusted to politicians to uphold—not even, as he came to sense during his landmark 1980 Zimbabwe concert, to a leader who helped make Africa more free.

“Every man got a right to decide his own destiny,” went the lyrics to “Zimbabwe,” the song Marley recorded for the freedom fighters of Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF in 1979. “And in this judgment there is no partiality.” Invited by a group of Mugabe’s lieutenants to participate at the country’s independence ceremony on April 18, 1980—his “Zimbabwe” was then a continent-wide hit—Marley flew his band and entourage to Salisbury at his own expense. His performance, on the night the Union Jack was lowered and the country’s colorful new flag raised, was cut short by police tear-gassing a large crowd kept out of the stadium. Marley then declined his hosts’ invitation to play a series of shows around the country.

Today Mugabe, who appropriated Marley’s image during his fight for independence—Mugabe appeared with a raised fist on the album cover of a local release of “Zimbabwe”—is denounced at protest rallies by his countrymen using Marley’s words. In Harare last spring, for example, they sang “Zimbabwe” to oppose his rule.10 To his admirers, Marley is symbolic of the need not merely for freedom but for skepticism as well. And he is the maker, above all, of songs that decry the pains of life in the Babylon he abhorred—but which prove that those oppressions could, as his lyric went, be “brutalized with music.”11

This Issue

April 9, 2009