x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

The Bob Marley legend lives on

On the 30th anniversary of the famed reggae artist, we take a look at what makes his legacy so lasting.

Jamaican reggae star Bob Marley, died May 11, 1981, at the age of 36.
Jamaican reggae star Bob Marley, died May 11, 1981, at the age of 36.

There are many ways to measure the impact Bob Marley had on the world he left, at least in the physical sense, 30 years ago today.

Some are quantifiable. (More about those in a moment).

Others - perhaps every bit as significant - are quirky, which the late King of Reggae would probably appreciate just as much as the big-time accolades that have come his way.

Take, for example, an acclaimed new documentary about the West Indies team which ruled the cricket world for the better part of two decades, starting in the mid-1970s. The film, Fire in Babylon, features the fearsome West Indies fast bowlers and destructive batsmen of that era, and its highlights include the damage, some of it brutally physical, they inflicted on their former colonial masters in a 1984 Test series in England... with the footage accompanied by one of Marley's most popular songs: Could You Be Loved.

Then there was the making of another, very different, movie, I Am Legend, starring Will Smith, the rapper, actor, comedian and Hollywood heavyweight, who also happens to be a dedicated Marley fan. Shooting of the 2007 box-office hit was well under way when Smith decided something was missing. Music. To be more precise, reggae music. Specifically, Bob Marley music. Rewind, decreed Smith. Or, as a reggae DJ might put it, wheel and come again. In the final cut, Smith's battle for survival in the streets of a New York populated with mutant victims of a man-made plague was helped by the Marley songs Three Little Birds, I Shot the Sheriff, Stir It Up and - accompanying the credits - Redemption Song.

From one of the most remote corners of the planet, the former Kingdom of La in northern Nepal, there's a Marley story that illustrates how his music and legacy have been embraced by people in every part of the world. Marley is reported to have visited Nepal in the 1970s, and to have taken a trip to Mustang (the name by which La is now known). Today, just below the temple of the eternal flame in Muktinath, a Hindu and Buddhist sacred place in Mustang, is the Bob Marley Hotel, where he is said to have eaten. What is for certain, according to Anoop Pandey in the Nepali Times, is that Marley's most-loved song is still bubbling on the charts in this fabled place: "Late at night," wrote Pandey, "the sound of No Woman No Cry emanating from the restaurant echoes in the craggy mountains below Thorung La in the remotest corners of Nepal."

Marley, who was born and brought up in a remote area of Jamaica, would probably have loved that.

Somewhat more prosaically, Marley's aquiline features, the legacy of a black mother and white father, have become, since his death, among the most recognisable in history. No matter where you happen to be in the world, it's difficult to go a day without running into Robert Nesta Marley in some shape or form or hearing one of his songs, by Marley himself or one of the countless cover versions. The most pervasive examples of Marley's visual presence are the hundreds - perhaps thousands, it's impossible to count, given the number of bootlegs - of Marley T-shirts. But his image also appears on, among other things: postage stamps, belts, hats, shoes, wallets, lamps, beach towels, dog tags, car decals, cigarette cases, bottle openers, backpacks, wrist bands, face stickers, baby and toddler clothing, purses, lighters and sweaters.

What Marley would have made of all this we'll never know. However, given that his mission in life was to use his music to help spread a message of Rastafari and universal brotherhood - with encouragement of righteous rebellion and fighting for human rights a part of the equation that's often overlooked amid the posthumous adulation - it's not difficult to believe he would have been rather pleased at the impact he continues to have on people everywhere.

What of Marley's more quantifiable achievements?

When cancer ended his life on May 11, 1981, just over 36 years and three months after his birth in the tiny farming community of Nine Mile in the heart of St Ann, Jamaica's garden parish, he had become a figure of global stature whose influence extended far beyond the boundaries of the reggae music that brought him fame.

Among the milestones in the final few years of his life and career were the United Nations Peace Medal, awarded to Marley in New York in 1978 on behalf of all Africans; the setting of attendance records during his final tour that still stand in Europe; and, in 1976, perhaps the ultimate tribute: Bob Marley and the Wailers were named by Rolling Stone, in those days the unchallenged arbiter of what was essential in the world of popular music, as the magazine's Band of the Year.

The accolades continued after his death. Marley's One Love - which incorporates parts of Curtis Mayfield's soul classic People Get Ready - was chosen by the BBC as the anthem for its programmes to mark the end of the last millennium; his 1977 Exodus was named by Time magazine as the greatest album ever recorded; he became the first reggae artist inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum; he was honoured with a posthumous Lifetime Achievement Grammy; and in late 1999, when The New York Times decided to bury a time capsule under its head office in Manhattan, not to be unearthed until the end of this millennium, the video chosen as an example of the popular culture of the 20th century wasn't of The Beatles, Frank Sinatra, Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, Fela Kuti, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Luciano Pavarotti or Elvis Presley: it was a 1977 Bob Marley concert at London's Rainbow Theatre.

Almost peripherally, Marley was in many ways responsible for transforming the image of the Rastafarian religion, which he embraced in his early 20s, from being regarded as some sort of oddball Jamaican cult into a positive and respected global movement.

While Marley's success wasn't strictly by chance - he was determined from early childhood that he would become a musician and was renowned for working hard and insisting that those around him did the same - it was far from pre-ordained.

He died wealthy, to be sure, with a reputation for giving away much of what he made to struggling people in Jamaica, but for most of his life he was desperately poor, and for some parts of it he was sleeping rough in Kingston's Trench Town ghetto. The words from his song Talking Blues, "cold ground was my bed last night, rockstone my pillow too", didn't just come to him by chance.

Marley and his fellow Wailers, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, were constantly short of money and frequently flat broke, and that was happening even after they had become big stars in Jamaica, often with four or five songs in the island's music charts at the same time. Making hit records came easily enough to them; their problem was collecting royalties from the producers of those records, and that's the way it was until 1972, when the Wailers, who had travelled to England to do some recording and then been left stranded by their manager, made contact with Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records.

Their meeting with Blackwell, a member of one of Jamaica's wealthiest families, resulted in the financing of the Catch a Fire album, the first introduction to reggae music for thousands of people around the world. Another acclaimed album, Burnin', followed before Tosh and Wailer, disenchanted with Blackwell making Marley the focal point of the Wailers, embarked on successful solo careers. By then, Marley was well on the way from regional Caribbean fame to international stardom, and by the mid-1970s he had acquired everything he needed to carry him to the next step: becoming the developing world's first superstar.

He had a superlative band, a frequently changing lineup of outstanding musicians anchored on bass and drums by the Barrett brothers, Aston and Carlton. He had a high-powered and well-connected manager in Don Taylor; he was also recording for a large and influential record label whose owner had enormous respect for music as well as a gift for selling it in substantial quantities. And he had a sophisticated PR operation, anchored out of New York by a whirlwind Liverpudlian, Charles Comer, whose showbiz CV included The Rolling Stones and The Beatles. Most significantly, however, he had a new and different sound to offer the world.

For a few years, in the mid-to-late 1970s, it was well-nigh impossible to pick up a newspaper or a magazine without reading about the King of Reggae. The publicity explosion, largely orchestrated by Comer, was unmatched since The Beatles grabbed popular music by the throat in the early 1960s, and with each passing year Marley became bigger.

But not all was well. In 1977, melanoma, a malignant form of skin cancer, was discovered on the big toe of the singer's right foot when a football wound obstinately refused to heal. A skin-graft operation, carried out in Miami's Cedars of Lebanon hospital, seemed to have been successful, and by the following year he was performing as well as ever and, many said, moving on stage better than he ever had.

By late 1979, however, Marley, a talented footballer and a fitness fanatic, had started to look a little gaunt, and was complaining of severe headaches. Pictures taken in a London lift in April of 1980, a few days after his performance at Zimbabwe's independence celebrations, show him looking haggard. And in autumn of that year, soon after the Uprising tour had taken him to the US after setting attendance records in Europe, he collapsed while jogging in New York's Central Park. A New York neurologist delivered a brutal diagnosis: Marley's cancer had spread through his body to his brain, and he had only a few weeks to live. His final concert, on September 23, was in Pittsburgh, after which he broke the news to the Wailers that he was dying.

Perhaps driven by his ghetto toughness, Marley survived for many months longer than the New York brain specialist had predicted. He was taken to the Bavarian Alps, where he was treated for months by a controversial cancer specialist, Josef Issels, but became gradually frailer until it was decided, in early May of 1981, that he would be flown home to Jamaica to die. He made it as far as Miami, where doctors at the Cedars of Lebanon said he was too weak to survive another flight, and he died in his sleep on the morning of May 11, a few minutes after drinking some carrot juice given to him by his mother, Cedella, and telling her: "I'm going to take a rest now."

Abel Bekele had not been born when Bob Marley died. But Marley's music has played a huge role in the life of the young Ethiopian singer, who handles most of the reggae vocals at the New Soorya, an African nightspot in Abu Dhabi's Marina and Yacht Club. Bekele's repertoire is heavy on Marley numbers, and he speaks of the late King of Reggae with a mix of reverence and awe. "In Ethiopia," he says, "every person knows him. Every person, from young people to old." And, says Bekele, he was surprised and delighted when he came to work in Abu Dhabi about a year ago and discovered that things were not much different. "Arab people love him; Asian people love him; and when I do my Marley songs they sing them with me," says Bekele.

"Bob Marley is everywhere."

  • Garry Steckles is the author of Bob Marley: A Life, published by Macmillan Caribbean as the first in a series of biographies of prominent Caribbean lives.

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