On May 11, 1981, Bob Marley left this world. His cause of death was cancer. The reggae icon was 36. His death brought wider recognition to his work. Beneath the simplicity of his best lyrics was a prophetic gravity. Marley believed the world could be brought into harmony. His most well-known songs shared it was only through love that this could be achieved.
Bob Marley Recorded His First Single at 17
Bob Marley was born Robert Nesta Marley. His father was a white British army captain, his mother a Black Jamaican woman. Marley recorded first single ‘Judge Not’ in 1961 at age 17. Two years later he formed The Wailers. The band enjoyed a string of local hits. Working closely with Jamaican session musicians and producers, Marley quickly grabbed hold of not only what it took not just to write a good song but also to record a hit.
Despite its glamorous image as a tourist destination, Jamaica was a turbulent and dangerous place. Rejecting capitalism for socialism, the island nation declared independence from Great Britain in 1970. At odds with Jamaica’s racial policies, tourism moguls and major business interests fled.
The economy crashed. Political violence, corruption, and street gangs became commonplace. Jamaica’s troubles echoed those occurring across the globe. This world which Bob Marley now found himself living in was not perfect. He was not perfect. But his music could be.
How Bob Marley Found Fame
As The Wailers career continued to progress Bib Marley began to establish himself as a leader. By the close of the 1960s he was writing wrote most of the band’s material. In 1970 be began to preach Rastafarianism. The red, green, and gold colors as well as a dreadlocked hairstyle became an integral part of his identity.
During this time Marley began touring the UK, which was home to a large population of Jamaican immigrants. Psychedelic pop star Eric Clapton‘s 1974 cover of Marley’s ‘I Shot The Sheriff’ brought The Wailers to wider attention. After extensive touring, 1975 album Natty Dread was a breakthrough UK hit.
Like the punk rock with which it was closely associated, Reggae was rebel music. At the forefront of the reggae movement, Marley became a countercultural icon. His life and Rastafarian philosophy came to embody a rebellious alternative to the conservative values of the mainstream.
Momentum built. In 1976 Rastaman Vibration established The Wailers in the US. 1977’s Exodus followed, capturing Marley’s emotional state after being exiled from Jamaica following a politically motivated assassination attempt.
Shortly after his exile, music journalist Charles Shaar Murray interviewed Bob Marley in 1978. Likening him to an Egyptian Pharaoh, Murray captured a snapshot of Marley in his prime. “He’s sprawled out with the utter relaxation possible only,” Murray noted, “to a man who’s very fit and very stoned.”
While Murray realized there was a magnetism to Marley, he could not quite place his finger on it. He, like many people, struggled to say what it was Bob Marley embodied. It was this. Having searched deep within to find true knowledge of himself and the world around him, Marley pushed through to a greater understanding of what it meant to be alive.
The Light of His Legacy Shines On
While Marley came to embrace high ideals, he could not pull the rest of the world along with him. As the poet Rumi once suggested, too much wisdom is like pouring a barrel of wine down someone’s throat and choking them. It was better, the Persian poet suggested, to drip-feed it one small bit at a time. Looking at Marley’s later work can feel like he was only beginning to hint at a greater vision of human experience.
And for this reason, Bob Marley’s legacy is not one of celebrity but influence. Like many great artists, his work was not widely recognized until his passing. Death can add a sublime quality to a song. For Marley, it amplified not only a myth but a spiritual message too.
Today you can see it in the music, image, and lifestyles of rap’s megastars. For Black American artists, Bob Marley is an inspiration. He is celebrated as someone who overcame difficult circumstances while holding on to their idealism.
Jay-Z has confessed he wishes he will be remembered like Bob Marley. In 2012 Snoop Dogg informed the world he was Bob Marley reincarnated. In 2018 Kanye West proclaimed he too felt like Bob Marley’s spirit was moving within him. Bob Marley continues to be idolized, as much for his prodigious consumption of marijuana and dreadlocks as his spirituality, by younger acts like Wiz Khalifa, and Travis Scott.
To say this alone would be casting Bob Marley’s influence too narrowly. “Bob, we miss and love you!” Barbados-born pop superstar Rihanna Tweeted in 2011. “You made this little journey of mine possible by blessing the world with your legend, which lives on through generations to come rest in peace.”
One Love, One Heart
People still listen to his music. Bob Marley has more than 14.5 million monthly listeners, almost double the population of New York City, on Spotify. Posthumous 1984 compilation Legend has charted for 976 weeks in the UK and 676 weeks in the US. Bob Marley is more than a series of figures. A listener does not have to be a Rasta to hear the concentrated power of his spiritual message on songs such as ‘One Love’.
Bob Marley’s high ideals lay out the path to a better way of living. While many of the things he represented have come to receive greater acceptance, the world is still trying to get ahold of his most important message. Marley believed that we all must come together and love one another. These words come across pointed when written down. The relaxed ease of Marley’s voice carries them with different meaning. The music of Bob Marley endures as a reminder that love and kindness are not nearly as hard to give as any single one of us may think.
5 Essential Bob Marley Tracks
Bob Marley and The Wailers ‘One Love/People Get Ready’
There is no more powerful statement of Bob Marley’s message than ‘One Love’. Nor is there one more definitive. 40 years after his death, his voice still carries a warm and incandescent glow.
Bob Marley and The Wailers ‘Three Little Birds’
Birds are a powerful image of freedom. Marley uses birds not only to symbolize his own. He is enjoying it with others.
Bob Marley and The Wailers ‘No Woman, No Cry’
‘No Woman, No Cry’ is a favorite amongst Marley’s younger fans. More than 497,000 people have searched for the song’s meaning on the lyric website Genius since 2009, the most of any of Marley’s songs. Moving on from loss is another powerful and universal theme. It is also a pop music staple. Somehow Marley found a way to make it his own.
Bob Marley and The Wailers ‘Redemption Song’
‘Redemption Song’ is the closing song on the final record released during Bob Marley’s lifetime. It acts as his parting message. “Redemption songs,” Marley sings at Uprisning‘s conclusion, “all I ever had. Redemption songs, these songs of freedom.”
Bob Marley and The Wailers ‘Could You Be Loved’
Here Bob Marley struggles with the burdens placed on the individual by authority figures and institutions. Marley had to search for life’s truths, his faith and his African heritage outside of the British colonial narratives laid upon him by Jamaican schools. These tensions come to a head in ‘You Could Be Loved’. In a pure expression of joy. Marley asks the listener to take spiritual flight by allowing themselves to be loved.
How This Impacts The Glitter and Gold
If Marley had a message it was universality. One question I have had to consider as Editor of The Glitter and Gold is, “Who will be our ideal reader?” I keep coming back to the same idea. Everyone. Bob Marley wrote for every person in every country in the world – anyone who loves music. One reason Bob Marley arrived where he did was that he aimed high and dreamed large.
So with The Glitter and Gold why not write for every person in every single country who loves music? Great music carries with it something common to us all. It speaks to our deeper human nature. Why not talk about this collective experience? News, current, affairs, material things capture our attention day-to-day but there are greater needs to be met and bigger questions to be answered. The world may change us. And even rearrange us. What is any of this, Bob Marley asks, next to our desire to be loved?