Robert Nesta Marley was born on February 6, 1945, in the Nine Miles settlement in the northern Jamaican parish of St. Ann. Marley, one of the early pioneers of reggae music, which originated in Jamaica, brought the genre to international acclaim during the early 1970s with the groundbreaking album Catch a Fire. His musical genius combined with his revolutionary lyrics and Rastafarian faith stamped his music with a moral and spiritual integrity that spoke to oppressed people worldwide. Simultaneously a militant freedom fighter and a unifier who saw beyond the dividing lines of race and class, Marley remains one of the most enduring figures in the struggle for human equality and justice.
Although born to an older well-off British father, Captain Norval Sinclair Marley, and a young Jamaican mother, Cedella Malcolm, Bob Marley faced the same daily struggles as Jamaica’s impoverished masses. Confronted with the disapproval of his wealthy white family, Norval left Cedella shortly before the birth of their child, never contributing to the upkeep of his son. While Marley saw his father on only a few occasions, he received the full love and attention of his mother’s close-knit family. During his early teens, he moved to Kingston with Cedella and her new husband, Toddy Livingstone, and his son Bunny. Bunny and Marley were not only stepbrothers and boyhood friends; they would also go on to found their first band together.
At the young age of 16, Marley recorded his first self-composed tracks, “Judge Not” and “Do You Still Love Me” for Leslie Kong’s label, Beverly’s. Although not big hits with the public, Marley continued to perfect his singing abilities. In 1963, under the legendary singer Joe Higgs’s direction, Marley combined forces with Bunny, Peter Tosh, and Junior Braithwaite to form “The Wailers.” Their first single, “Simmer Down,” became an instant number one hit in Jamaica.
The year 1964 witnessed a stream of almost monthly releases by the Wailers. Recording constant hits for the Studio One Label, but getting paid very little, Marley, along with his band mates, decided to put an end to their economic exploitation by forming their own label. This same year he married Rita Anderson, who had previously collaborated with him on the duet “Oh, My Darling.” The day after the wedding, he left Jamaica to join his mother, who had by then relocated to Wilmington, Delaware. There he gained employment at a Chrysler automobile factory in the hopes of saving enough money to return to Jamaica and get his embryonic record label off the ground.
During Marley’s sojourn in America, Haile Selassie I, the emperor of Ethiopia, made his historic 1966 visit to Jamaica, where members of the Rastafarian religion regarded him as their God. Rastafarianism had sprouted up in Jamaica after native son Marcus Garvey prophesied that the redeemer would be a black king who was soon to be crowned in Africa. Shortly thereafter, in 1930, Selassie I was crowned king; Rastafarians regarded this as the fulfillment of Garvey’s prophecy and regarded Selassie I as the black messiah. Upon his return to Jamaica in October of 1966, Marley converted to Rastafarianism, following the lead of his band mates and wife, who had already converted. It was at this time that Marley started growing his famed dreadlocks, in keeping with the Rastafarian tradition of not cutting or combing the hair. With the modest savings he had accrued in Delaware, Marley launched the “Wail ’n Soul ’m” label and record store out of his home in Kingston’s rough-and-tumble Tenchtown neighborhood.
Although unable to keep their label afloat, Marley and his crew were discovered by the American soul singer, Johnny Nash, who hired them to perform and gave them several writing contracts. In 1970, the Wailers recorded their first full album, The Best of the Wailers, for Leslie Kong. That same year the Wailers teamed up with reggae legend Lee “Scratch” Perry to produce some of the best-known reggae classics, including “Kaya,” “Soul Rebel,” and “Mr. Brown.” After Perry sold many of their collaborations to Trojan records in England without seeking their permission or compensating them, the Wailers once again attempted to gain control over their own musical destinies by founding the “Tuff Gong” record label.
In 1971, the Wailers enjoyed a stream of local hits in Jamaica, with Marley gone for part of the year in Sweden working on a soundtrack for Nash. In 1972 he backed Nash’s “King of Reggae” tour in Britain, and later that year, Nash’s label partner, Danny Sims, signed the Wailers to Island Records, owned by Chris Blackwell, a wealthy white Jamaican. The following year, Catch a Fire was released to international acclaim and put the Wailers and the Jamaican reggae sound on the world map. Their international performances included stops in the United Kingdom, where they performed live on the British Broadcasting Corporation network, and in the United States, where they opened for Bruce Springsteen in New York City. By the end of 1974, their second album, Burning, was released; this would be their last album together, since Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer decided to pursue solo careers.
Marley reformed the group under the name “Bob Marley and the Wailers” with three female singers: his wife, Rita, Judy Mowatt, and Marcia Griffiths, called the I-Threes. The groundbreaking album Natty Dread was released in 1974 and included the politically charged social commentaries “Them Belly Full,” “Rebel Music,” “Revolution,” and the classic “No Woman No Cry.” In 1975, Marley transformed Haile Selassie’s 1963 speech to the U.N. General Assembly into the famous song “War,” which became a defiant battle anthem for the world’s oppressed and a militant call for equality and justice. Marley’s potently political music not only resonated with millions worldwide, it also made him a politically charged figure in his native Jamaica, which by 1976 was swept by waves of increasing political violence during the country’s general election campaign.
At the end of 1976, gunmen broke into Marley’s Hope Road residence in Kingston and shot him, Rita, and several others. The assassination attempt was widely regarded as a retributive action taken by members of the opposition Jamaican Labour Party (JLP), led by Edward Seaga, who believed that Marley’s decision to headline a concert sponsored by incumbent Prime Minister Michael Manley equated to his endorsement of Manley’s People’s National Party (PNP). This perception, while false, was perpetuated by Manley in his bid for reelection, despite the fact that Marley made it clear that his willingness to play at the concert was strictly apolitical. Marley, furious that he had been used as a pawn by Manley, played the concert in an act of defiance, with his wounds still bandaged, before going into exile with Rita for 14 months. During his exile, Marley recorded “Ambush in the Night,” which exposed the assassination attempt as the product of dirty politics.
Marley spent 1977 primarily in England, recording material for his next two albums, Exodus and Kaya. That same year, however, his planned tour was cut short after it was discovered that Marley had a cancerous growth in his right big toe. Doctors attempted to persuade him to have the toe amputated, but he refused on the grounds that his Rastafarian faith required the body to remain whole. After a skin graft was performed on his toe, Marley appeared to go into remission, and he resumed his busy recording and performing schedule.
In 1978, Marley made history when he ended his exile and returned to Jamaica to headline the “One Love Peace Concert” in Kingston. The concert was held to officially mark a truce between warring PNP and JLP factions that had been responsible for the political violence on the island. At the end of Marley’s spellbinding set, he called Prime Minister Manley and opposition leader Edward Seaga onstage and joined their hands together, forcing the men to acknowledge that Jamaicans were tired of the political tensions that divided the island and were demanding unity. Two months later, the United Nations honored Marley in New York with its Peace Medal for his commitment to peace and justice, both at home in Jamaica and worldwide. Later that year, Marley made his first journey to Africa and visited Ethiopia, Rastafarianism’s spiritual homeland.
Marley’s second trip to Africa was to Gabon in early 1980, where he gave his first live performance on the continent. This was followed shortly thereafter by his much-heralded performance at Zimbabwe’s Independence Day celebrations on April 17, 1980. He wrote the song “Zimbabwe” especially for the occasion and was deeply moved when he realized that the masses of people who thronged his performance knew the lyrics to his song better than they knew their new nation’s anthem. Marley’s song urged Zimbabweans to overcome their internal power struggles and unite for the cause of total liberation.
With the release of what would be his last record, Uprising, Marley launched another tour to promote the critically acclaimed album. The European leg of the tour sold out, with crowds reaching over 100,000 people in Italy alone. Members of Marley’s inner circle, however, had grown concerned over the musician’s increasing fatigue. Their worst fears were confirmed when he collapsed during a jog in New York’s Central Park. His collapse came at the beginning of his American tour, which saw him perform to sold-out audiences as the opening act for the Commodores in Madison Square Garden. At long last, Marley finally had had the opportunity, albeit brief, to have his message reach African American audiences.
Marley’s cancer had returned, this time spreading to his lungs and brain. Although experimental cancer treatment in Bavaria extended his life for some 6 months beyond what American doctors had given him, Marley passed away in Miami on May 11, 1981, surrounded by family.
With Jamaica in a state of national mourning, Marley’s body was flown home and given the honor of a state funeral; a month prior, he had been awarded the Jamaican Order of Merit. His funeral ceremony blended Rastafarian traditions with those of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, into which he was baptized before his death. Significantly, Michael Manley and Edward Seaga put their political differences aside to pay tribute to Marley during the service, which was appropriately held at the National Heroes Arena in Kingston. Tens of thousands of Jamaicans lined the streets to watch his body make the journey from Kingston to its final resting place in a mausoleum in his hometown of Nine Miles.
Marley’s contributions to the musical world and to the uplifting of the human race continue to be recognized and honored: In the year after his death, a series of Jamaican postage stamps were issued in his honor; in 1986 the Marley Museum in Kingston was opened; in 1990 his birthday was declared a national holiday in Jamaica; in 1994 he was posthumously admitted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; and in 1999 Marley was awarded the best album of the century by Time magazine for Exodus. In 2001, Marley not only received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, he was also awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Marley’s iconic status continues to grow in large part because the messages in his music remain potently relevant today. Whether singing about peace and love, taking up arms for African liberation, Jamaica’s dirty politics, or the struggle for justice and equality, Marley’s music was infused with an uncompromised moral and spiritual integrity.
Garvey, Marcus; Rastafarians
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Full text Article Marley, Bob [Robert Nesta] (6 Feb. 1945, Rhoden Hall, St. Ann, Jamaica - 11 May 1981, Miami)
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