Bob Marley is known foremost as the captivating reggae musician who took a niche musical style from Jamaica and brought it to a global audience.
Marley’s fiery political songs and his sweet romantic ballads remain his most iconic musical achievements. “I Shot the Sheriff” and “Turn Your Lights Down Low” exemplify these avenues of Marley’s expression.
There was another significant side to Marley’s song-writing and thinking which was always pointedly displayed in his iconic hair-style, a religious fervor expressed also in songs like “Redemption Song” and “So Much Things to Say”.
In Marley’s dreadlocks, we find a physical expression of Bob Marley’s spiritual beliefs characteristic of the religious group which he supported, extolled, and championed.
Marley connected with the beliefs of Rastafarianism and in doing so found a connection with something larger than any one person. He was a man of the people, his people, Jamaicans, Africans, and peoples of the third world.
As the editors of Bob Marley’s website put it, “The tiny Third World country of Jamaica has produced an artist who has transcended all categories, classes, and creeds through a combination of innate modesty and profound wisdom.”
John Lennon is the nearest parallel figure to Bob Marley in terms of being a spiritual leader and political representative of a generation, whose voice came from the world of music and popular culture.
What is Rasta?
The full term describing Bob Marley’s long-held religious views is “Rastafari”.
Beginning in Jamaica, the Rastafari movement was centered on reverence for the person of Emperor Haile Selassie, the black ruler of Ethiopia who came to power in the 1930’s, as well as the Jamaican social and political leader Marcus Garvey.
The Rasta belief system is intricate and extensive, drawing mainly from the Old Testament and New Testament of the Judeo-Christian Bible.
Eating meat is taboo. Fish is ok. The hair of one’s head is grown long in a tradition similar to that of Samson in the Bible who was dedicated, hair and all, to his god.
Though Bob Marley held no official position in the religion of Rastafari and, at the end of his life converted into the church of Haile Salassie, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the reggae musician was and remains the most prominent and vocal proponent for Rastafarianism in the world.1
What did Marley do that makes him a spiritual leader?
There are numerous stories within the legend of Bob Marley telling of the musician’s largesse, his generosity, and his dedication to his community.
Marley is said to have employed or otherwise supported as many as 4,000 people in Jamaica through his business income in record, merchandise and ticket sales.2
In a violent era of Jamaican politics, Marley drew together the leaders of the opposing parties at a peace concert which he headlined, marking or even creating the beginning of a new political era. After this event, Bob Marley was awarded with the United Nation’s Medal of Peace.
It was Bob Marley & the Wailers who were invited to perform at the ceremonies celebrating the liberation of Zimbabwe in Africa.
More generally, Bob Marley wrote songs that expressed a set of beliefs which helped to shape the thoughts of a generation. Like John Lennon, himself a spiritual and cultural leader, Bob Marley possessed a special ability to express thoughts and feelings of a spiritual nature through music.
In doing so he galvanized and inspired the thinking of many Africans, Jamaicans, and eventually Americans. “He was a man who tapped the deepest emotional roots in human beings,” as one of Marley’s biographers, Roger Steffens, put it.3
Bob Marley remains, even today, the world’s most renowned Rasta. However, Marley’s spiritual leadership was not limited to the views of Rastas or of the African Diaspora. His message of self-determination, spiritual integrity, holding strong to personal convictions and his deeply felt humility resonate far beyond the reaches of any particular belief system.
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