In his 36 years of living, Bob Marley achieved colossal fame and considerable wealth while making some of the 20th century’s most memorable and socially relevant music. But you already know that.
Marley’s biography is interesting in the way it explains his music and even more interesting in the surprises it offers when viewed in relation to his legend and reputation.
Bob Marley is renowned as the reggae musician who put this Caribbean musical genre on the map, introducing the paradoxically high-energy yet relaxing music to a global audience.
Hailing from the Parish of St. Anne, a country-side hamlet in Jamaica, Marley rose to international fame through his music. He wrote songs about social conscience and social justice, unity and integrity, black dignity and Pan-African culture.
By virtue of his music, Marley is seen as a peace-loving representative of certain values shared by “hippies” in America and liberal activists world-wide.
He was a rebel and a lover, a leader and a free spirit.
These things are all true to an extent. But the qualities above describe John Lennon and James Brown almost as well as they do Bob Marley. When we go beyond the loosely woven legend we quickly discover that there is much more to Bob Marley’s story.
The truth to the notion that much of Marley’s real story is not contained in the popular legend can be seen in Marley’s childhood.
His given name was Nesta Robert Marley.
Bob Marley was the son of Cedella Booker, a black woman, and Captain Norval Marley, a white British Naval officer stationed in Jamaica.
Yes, Bob Marley was bi-racial.
In a bucolic country-life, Marley was a shepherd as a boy and also practiced palm-reading while living with his mother and grandmother.
At the age of thirteen, Marley moved into the city, to Kingston, and began an early pursuit of music. Lack of resources and space led Marley to spend some months sleeping in a friend’s kitchen closet.
None of this is conveyed in the posters, on the t-shirts, or in the usual conversations about Marley’s music.
During this time in the city, Marley lived in Trenchtown, a shanty-town immortalized later in several Bob Marley songs.
Due to his light skin-color, among other factors, Marley was drawn into many fights while living in the Kingston ghetto. Far from the peace-loving pacifist of the Bob Marley legend, the actual Bob Marley never backed down from a fight and was known as a scrapper. Later he would found a record label in Jamaica using the nickname given to him in his fighting days: Tuff Gong.
Tuff Gong 2
Marley dedicated his life to music and began recording at an early age. His voice can be heard as a sixteen year old on some old recordings.
In a band with Peter Tosh, Bunny Livingston and several others, Marley found some marginal popular success in Jamaica.
Life was hard at the time and Bob Marley continued to live in the ghettos of Kingston making friends, some of them nice and some of them not so nice.
A story is recounted in Bob Marley: The Biography about what happened when the Marley’s band was gaining notoriety and acclaim but having a hard time getting their singles played on the radio.
Bob “Tuff Gong” Marley called upon a friend who was known to be involved with organized crime (very literally a mob guy) and showed up at a radio station to tell the DJ that he wouldplay the new single.
The DJ agreed.
The Marcus Garvey Connection
You can see this side of Marley’s attitude in the song he co-wrote with Peter Tosh, “Get Up, Stand Up.” This is a song all about demanding what is rightfully yours. No pacifism involved; no justice through peace. In this era, and for his entire career, Marley would lean more toward the militancy and self-determination of Malcolm X than he would the non-violent resistance of Martin Luther King, Jr.
This can be attributed to many things, including the fame of Marcus Garvey in Jamaica. Today there are only two significant Jamaican figures with names recognizable outside of Jamaica: Bob Marley and Marcus Garvey.
When Marley was growing up that list consisted only of Marcus Garvey, the militant, pan-African (back-to-Africa) leader, owner of the Black Starliner Company who helped to inspire the founding of Liberia, a nation in Africa for “repatriated” blacks from the new world.
Garvey’s inspiration for Jamaican Rastafarians is well-documented in reggae lyrics from the 60s to the present day and the influence of Garvey on Bob Marley in particular is clearest on the Exodus album.
In the mid-70s, Jamaica experienced some extreme political upheaval. There were gunfights in the streets. As an important election approached, Marley was signed on to perform at a concert hosted by one of the politicians.
Though the performance did not constitute a public endorsement, Marley was seen as taking sides.
A group of gunmen came to his home late one afternoon and shot Bob Marley and several others in his house at the time, sending Bob’s wife Rita to the hospital. No one died.
The gunmen did hit Marley, but the bullet grazed his sternum and arm causing only minor damage.
Counseled to call off his appearance at the concert, Marley stood true to his nickname and played the show, pointing out his wounds to the audience.
Immediately after the show, Marley got on a plane for London and did not return to Jamaica for an extended period.
There is much more to tell in the story of this world-music icon. Stories about Marley’s demanding nature, his perfectionism, and his promiscuity also serve to dent the image of the legend. Yet the truth of Marley’s integrity and his achievements overwhelm the more sundry details of the life of a rock star performing in the culturally mercurial decade of the 70’s.
For many of us these details serve to draw us in to learn more about the reality of this fascinating cultural figure. Recognizing the legend for what it is, a loosely woven story, we are invited to see the person behind the legend, a person made all the more impressive for the fact that he achieved so much in 36 years of life, despite being an actual, regular person, just like the rest of us.
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