Thirty years after his death, it’s still almost impossible to fully engage with Bob Marley’s legacy. We’re somehow too close to his music, still baffled by his songs playing everywhere - in varsity residences, coffee shops, movie soundtracks, Rasta flops and more. He remains ubiquitous. By RICHARD POPLAK.
Ziggy Marley, one of Bob’s more famous offspring, has been working on a comic book project called Marijuanaman. The titular character comes from a planet where the natural supply of THC in the atmosphere has been depleted and he must come to Earth to replenish. Fortuitously, he lands in a field of sticky green and is taken in by a community of environmentalists. He scores a girlfriend named MJ (not Spiderman’s Mary Jane, you understand), and battles an evil pharmaceutical company bent on exploiting ganja for their own nefarious ends.
Marijuanaman, then, is another shard of Bob Marley’s legacy tossed into the pop cultural maw. Indeed, Marley almost singlehandedly brought the idea of marijuana smoking into the mainstream, defending it as a cornerstone of his religious and cultural beliefs. This was only one element of his persona that, all things being equal, should have shut him out of the broader cultural arena. His politics was another. But rather, Marley was embraced. His 1984 album “Legends” has sold at least 25 million copies, and continues to sell a few hundred thousand a year. When kids are discovering music, they will inevitably make a pit stop at that album. Many stay there for a lifetime.
Why is this so? And what makes Marley’s music so enduring? We’re not the first to ask that question; nor are we the first to posit that his music endures because it is so sublimely good. One needs no background to love his songs, but to properly understand its place and cultural cache does require a quick refresher.
Marley was born Nesta Robert Marley, on 6 February 1945. His father was a white, English Navy captain and plantation boss named Norval Sinclair Marley. His mother was an Afro-Jamaican called Cedella Booker. This biracial past is essential to his character, and infuses his music with the sort of empathy that keeps it from being overly strident. His influence was universal because his experience was universal: “Me don’t dip on the black man’s side and me don’t dip on the white man’s side,” he once said. “Me dip on God’s side.”
Which is not to say that Marley didn’t pick sides. When push came to shove, he saw himself as a black African, and a pan-Africanist who revered Marcus Garvey and Haile Selassie. He believed in the concept of a black Zion—an African home to repatriated black Caribbeans and North Americans—and in songs like “Blackman Redemption” and “Babylon System”, he sings about such struggles.
Watch: ‘Rastaman Vibration’ Live@Amandla Festival, 1979.
Today, those songs blare over summer braais in Springs and over cold Amstels in Mellville. It’s difficult to think of Marley as a radical, because his music, paradoxically, has dulled his message. It wasn’t always so. Indeed, Marley broke internationally because he was seen by canny execs as a “rebel”. At the time Marley became a star, Jimmy Cliff was the biggest reggae deal in the world, if not the man who introduced reggae to mainstream audiences. That honour goes to Chris Blackwell of Island Records. “I was dealing with rock music,” Blackwell once said, “which was really rebel music. I felt that would really be the way to break Jamaican music. But you needed someone who could be that image. When Bob walked in, he really was that image.”
When Blackwell met Marley in 1972 he was already the lanky, dreadlocked Rasta poet who would become an international icon. He sent Bob and his Wailers from London to Kingston to record “Catch a Fire”, which was a modest success. They followed up in 1974 with “Burnin’”, boasting the single “I Shot the Sheriff”. Eric Clapton fell in love with that song, cut a cover later that year and helped turbo-thrust Marley to universal fame. He did not score his international success as a reggae star, but as a rock act. It’s one of those delicious cultural ironies that helps confuse his legacy.
“Catch a Fire” divided reggae heads in Jamaica; “Burnin’s” Trenchtown-style brought him back into the fold, which he never really left. He did go into self-imposed exile, though after a 1976 attack following a concert organised by the Jamaican president to quell a political battle between two warring factions. He spent the next several years of his brief, brilliant life writing, singing and touring, pumping out hit after stupendous hit. He returned to Jamaica and made then-president Michael Manley shake hands with his mortal rival Edward Seaga on stage. He railed against the evils of apartheid.
By 1977, the seeds of his fate were already sown. Following a football injury he was diagnosed with malignant melanoma. In May 1981 he died in a Miami hospital. He was only 36 years old. His final words to Ziggy, who would 30 years later come up with a character named Marijunaman, were, “Money can’t buy life”. Which is a vicious lesson to learn, especially when you have all the money in the world.
Bob Marley wanted to change the world. He didn’t. He left it better, or at least altered, with some of the most beautiful and stirring popular music ever created. The meaning of that music—its political intent—has been denuded over the years, been wiped clean of nuance by dint of its ubiquity. Marley’s message would have meant nothing if no one had heard him; it means nothing because everyone has heard him. He is not dangerous because he is so thoroughly plugged into the mainstream that “Blackman Redemption” is a slow song at a school dance, and “Zimbabwe” is a filler cut to mix summer cocktails to. Perhaps, had Marley not died so young, his empathy and his soulfulness could have morphed him into an international statesman like Bono. Who knows?
Now, though, he is Marijuanaman. A character at a safe remove from reality. Thirty years after his death his music means everything and nothing. A rebel tamed. A genre co-opted. Still, it’s hard not to thank God for his music. DM
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