The legacy of the ambassador of reggae is impossible to over-emphasize, with his lyrics today continuing to strike a chord across every social stratum. Born February 6, 1945, Robert Nesta Marley was the progeny of an affair between 17-year-old Cedella Malcolm and 51-year-old Anglo-Jamaican soldier Captain Norval Marley, stationed in the Dry Harbour mountains as overseer of crown lands. Marley’s early years, surrounded by a doting family and the rituals of rural life, had a profound effect on his development. He clung to his African heritage and revelled in the cultural life of Kingston, where he spent most of his later life. Marley was known as a spiritual individual, emanating energy and charisma, but he was also a lover, fathering eleven children by various women including those by his wife, Rita Anderson, his 1966 marriage which lasted until he died. Appropriately enough, his 1970s membership of the Rastafarian sect the Twelve Tribes of Israel gained him the name Joseph, “a fruitful bough” according to the Bible.
Fusing African drumming traditions with Jamaican rhythms and American rock guitar, Marley’s music became a symbol of unity and social change worldwide. Between 1961 and 1981, his output was prolific. Following their first recording, Judge Not, on Leslie Kong’s Beverley’s label, his band, the Wailers (Marley, Bunny Livingstone and Peter Tosh), went on to record for some of the best producers in the business; most agree that their finest material was recorded in collaboration with volatile genius Lee “Scratch” Perry. In 1963, the huge hit Simmer Down meshed perfectly with the post-independence frustration felt by young Jamaicans, and the group’s momentum of success began in earnest. International recognition came when the Wailers signed to the Island label – owned by Anglo-Jamaican entrepreneur Chris Blackwell, whom Marley saw as his “interpreter” rather than producer. The first Island release was Catch a Fire in early 1973, and the eleven albums that followed all became instant classics. With the help of Blackwell’s marketing skills, reggae became an international genre. Differences with Blackwell led to the departure of Livingstone and Tosh in 1974, but Marley continued to tour the world with a new band called Bob Marley and the Wailers.
Politics and Peace concerts
In the run-up to a performance at the 1976 Smile Jamaica concert – staged by the government to quell rising tensions in a factionalized election campaign – gunmen burst into Marley’s home and tried to assassinate him. The attempt was bungled, and most of the shots hit manager Don Taylor (who made a full recovery), though Bob and Rita incurred minor injuries. Undeterred, a bandaged Marley went on stage, choosing to leave after the concert to recover and record in Britain and the US, a period which produced the album Exodus. Two years later, he returned to perform at the historic One Love Peace Concert, the result of a short-lived truce between the political garrisons of the PNP and JLP. He was the headline act of a line-up that also included Peter Tosh spitting vitriol at the politicians, and Marley ended his performance by enticing arch-enemies Michael Manley and Edward Seaga on stage to join hands in a show of unity. But Marley’s call for unity and freedom was not restricted to Jamaica; one of his greatest triumphs was performing the protest anthem Zimbabwe at the independence celebrations of the former Rhodesia.
In the midst of a rigorous 1980 tour, Marley was diagnosed as suffering from cancer; he died a year later in Miami, honoured by his country with the Order of Merit. Marley died without making a will, and years of legal wrangles resulted in his widow being granted the lion’s share. The Rita Marley Foundation (ritamarleyfoundation.org) continues to sponsor the development of new artists and to manage Bob’s legacy, and many of the Marley children have also forged their own musical careers. Ziggy, Cedella and Sharon found success as the Melody Makers, while Damian “Junior Gong”, his son by 1976 Miss World Cindy Breakespeare, is an established star with four albums and three Grammys to his name. Steven Marley has found success as both producer and recording artist, and US-based Kymani has had a number of reggae-hip-hop hits. In the hearts of both Jamaican and global fans, though, the master’s voice can never be equalled.