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Thirty years ago, on May 11, Bob Marley died of cancer in a Miami hospital at 36. The Jamaican reggae star was a musical genius and prophet of pan-Africanism who also spread the gospel of Rastafarianism across the world. Marley’s astonishing legacy is confirmed by the fact that his music, involving about 20 albums, still accounts for half of all reggae music sold. He is probably the most famous and recognisable individual ever to have emerged from the Caribbean.
Robert Nesta Marley was born in the rural St Ann parish of Jamaica. His father was a white 49-year-old soldier in the British army who briefly but unhappily married Bob’s black teenage mother. Marley would later speak harshly about this relationship: “One o’ dem slave stories: white guy get the black woman and breed her.”
Bob grew up helping his maternal grandfather raise cattle and goats. He was exposed at an early age to the gross inequalities of wealth and racial hierarchies in the British colony and former sugar-growing slave plantation which Marley’s mostly West African ancestors had settled from the 17th century.
He was raised Catholic, later became Rastafarian, and many of his songs drew inspiration directly from the Bible.
Another famous indigene of St Ann was Marcus Garvey, an iconic figure in the pan-African pantheon whose career greatly influenced Marley’s. From 1914 until his death in 1940, Garvey preached a gospel of black self-improvement and pride in a common African heritage. He took his message across the US, attracting millions of devotees. Garvey was a Black Moses seeking to repatriate blacks from the bondage of white pharaohs to an African promised land which he referred to as “Ethiopia”.
He, however, appeared to regard this more as a metaphorical place and was critical of aspects of Emperor Haile Selassie’s rule. Rastafarianism spread in Jamaica from the 1920s, with its dreadlocked marijuana-smoking adherents being committed to religious doctrines of the Amharic Bible and avoiding alcohol and meat. Marley regarded Garvey and Selassie as his two greatest influences, and saw it as his duty to lead his people out of a sinful Babylon to the promised land of Zion (Ethiopia).
An assassination attempt on his life in Jamaica in 1976 shook Marley up badly and forced him to spend less time in his homeland. Bob Marley and his Wailers performed at a peace concert in Jamaica two years later, during which he held aloft the hands of the two main political antagonists, Michael Manley and Edward Seaga, in an act of national reconciliation. For his efforts, the singer was awarded the UN Medal of Peace.
Marley identified strongly with Africa throughout his life. As he memorably noted: “A people without knowledge of their past is no better than a tree without roots.”
Ethiopia’s Haile Selassie, whom Rastafarians regarded as a messiah, had been deposed by the brutal socialist regime of Haile Mengistu in 1974, and died a year later. By the time Marley made his pilgrimage to Addis Ababa three years later, much of the emperor’s legacy had been replaced by Marxist-Leninist symbols, and he was shocked to discover that Selassie had been a widely despised tyrant.
The visit, however, reinforced Marley’s pan-Africanism and, shortly after, he recorded the liberation songs Zimbabwe and Africa Unite. Both appeared on the 1979 Survival album, as Marley increasingly connected the struggles in Africa and its diaspora. The 1976 song War had been an anti-apartheid lament, while albums such as Exodus, Uprising and the posthumous Confrontation championed similar themes of black emancipation.
One of the highlights of Marley’s life was being the guest of honour at the commemoration of Zimbabwe’s independence in April 1980. Marley became a household name across Africa and its diaspora. South Africa’s late Lucky Dube, the Ivory Coast’s Alpha Blondy and Nigeria’s Majek Fashek were all dreadlocked superstars who drew inspiration from him.
The Wailers’ 1979 appearances at the Apollo Theatre in New York’s Harlem district were a particularly proud moment in reaching out to black America. Marley had long admired the singing of James Brown, Curtis Mayfield, and Tina Turner; the writing of WEB Du Bois; and the sporting and political activism of Muhammed Ali. Stevie Wonder responded to Marley’s Jamming with his famous Master Blaster tribute.
By 1976, Marley had become a global superstar, and Rolling Stone magazine named the Wailers the band of the year. They toured Europe, North America, Australasia and Asia, attracting huge crowds. Indigenous aborigines in Australia and Indians in Canada venerated Marley. Artists like Paul Simon, Paul McCartney and Eric Clapton (who recorded the Wailers’ I Shot the Sheriff in 1974) drew inspiration from his reggae.
The parallels between Marley and late Nigerian Afro-beat superstar Fela Anikulapo-Kuti – another musical griot of pan-Africanism – were remarkable. Both troubadours courageously championed the rights of the poor and oppressed and sought to sing in their vernacular. Both braved government harassment to continue spreading their message.
While Marley boasted that he carried war in his shoes, Fela warned that he carried death in his pouch.
Marley’s “groundings” with his followers were mirrored by Fela’s “yabbis” sessions. Both had communes – “Pimpers’ Paradises” – that were regarded by their respective governments as dens of sinful debauchery.
Both were regarded by conservative middle-class society as pernicious pied pipers leading the youth astray. Both were demanding band leaders and workaholic perfectionists. Both smoked dagga and had many female partners. Marley’s “reggae priestesses” were matched by Fela’s “dancing queens”. Both men adored their mothers. Neither musician paid too much attention to management and money, and both were consequently taken advantage of. Both had huge funerals, and after Marley’s death in 1981 a storm rocked Kingston, while rain and sunshine were simultaneously witnessed on the day of Fela’s funeral in Lagos in 1987. The legacies of both men are continued by their famous musical children.
Jamaica conferred its Order of Merit on its favourite son in April 1981, a month before Marley’s death. His state funeral in Kingston was overseen by Coptic priests of the Ethiopian church, with obsequies delivered by the governor-general, prime minister, and the main opposition leader.
In life, Marley had been extremely generous. In death, many litigious cases caused family rifts and divisions among the Wailers, as Marley had not left a will. His wife, Rita Marley, and her advisers were accused of forging his signature to divert funds from his estate.
More positively, Time magazine voted Marley’s 1977 Exodus as the album of the century in 1999.
In the same year, Marley’s legacy was memorably revived during a concert in Jamaica starring Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu and Tracy Chapman, who joined Marley’s family and artists like Jimmy Cliff to perform 24 of his songs.
In 2001, Marley posthumously won a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. A statue and museum have been built in his honour in Jamaica.
In 2005, 200 000 fans gathered in Addis Ababa for a concert that celebrated his life.
Having sold $240 million worth of records to date, these tributes were fitting celebrations of the life and times of a musical legend who had uncompromisingly and eloquently told the anguished story of Africa and its diaspora.
n Dr Adebajo is executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution, Cape Town, and author of The Curse of Berlin: Africa After the Cold War.