More than 30 years after his untimely passing, Bob Marley's influence remains as indelible as ever. The first major and still most important ambassador of reggae music to the world, he combined a poet's flair, an activist's vision, and a charismatic imprint with the swaying, hypnotic rhythms of his native Jamaica.
Although he wasn't as widely recognized at the time (I witnessed one retailer showcase in Miami where he played to a bunch of grumpy music biz types who merely glared at him indifferently), Marley's critical standing ranks with Dylan, Lennon, and all the great Motown icons as one of popular music's most critical innovators. More importantly, he remains a precious symbol of Third World advocacy and aspirations. His music, message, and iconic dreadlocked image are as precious today as they were during his brief lifetime.
Nesta Robert Marley was born on February 6, 1945, to a mixed-race couple in the village of Nine Mile in Saint Ann Parish Jamaica. He took to the Rastafarian religion and the teachings of prophets like Marcus Garvey and Haile Selassie early on.
Despite impoverished beginnings in the slums of Kingston, he held a core belief that it was the black man's destiny to return to Zion, a message he'd later purvey in songs such as "Black Survivor," "Babylon System," and "Blackman Redemption." These all focused on the African's escape from man's evil devices, a state specifically defined as "Babylon."
He helped form the band the Wailers in the mid '60s. They effectively became Jamaica's first genuine superstars, attracting a cult-like legion of devotees that eventually spread worldwide. Consisting of Marley, Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer, and later, brothers Carlton and Aston "Family Man" Barrett, the group was roughshod at first. But individually and collectively, they eventually became international sensations, recording a series of successful albums, including Catch a Fire, Rastaman Vibration, Exodus, and Kaya chief among them. This elevated Marley, in particular, into that higher pantheon occupied by popular music's biggest stars. Beginning with the hits like "Stir It Up" later covered by Johnny Nash, and "I Shot the Sheriff," famously covered by Eric Clapton, Marley embarked on a prolific career that effectively melded reggae with rock and brought Jamaican music into the mainstream.
Yet for all his triumphs, Marley's ride to the top wasn't always easy. Intentionally or not, he often found himself drawn into the politics of his homeland. In December 1976, he agreed to participate in a free concert intended to end the strife between the country's prevailing political parties. But two days before the show, which was organized by the Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley, Marley, his wife, and manager Don Taylor were wounded by gunmen who broke into his home. Fortunately, all of them made complete recoveries and Marley went on to perform as planned. "The people who are trying to make this world worse aren't taking a day off," Marley explained. "How can I?"
The continuing political chaos drove Marley into a self-imposed two-year exile, from which he wouldn't return until 1978. He agreed to help in another attempt at political rapprochement, which organizers dubbed the One Love Peace Concert. This time, the event succeeded. At Marley's urging, the two leaders of the warring political factions, Manley and his rival Edward Seaga, appeared onstage and shook hands in a sign of unity.
Tragically as it turned out, Marley had earlier been diagnosed with a malignant lesion under the nail of one of his toes. Doctors advised him to agree to have the toe amputated, but Marley turned them down and continued to record and perform as normal. He and his band embarked on a world tour in 1980, which found them playing to the biggest crowds of his career.
His final performance took place on September 23 at the Stanley Theater in Pittsburgh, a performance that was taped and finally released last year under the banner Live Forever. Shortly after, Marley's health deteriorated as the cancer spread throughout his body. The remainder of the tour was canceled and Marley checked into a clinic in Bavaria hoping that the treatment, which relied mainly on curtailing certain substances in his diet, would help him improve. Unfortunately, the regimen failed, and he opted to fly home to Jamaica.
During the flight, his vital functions broke down, and once the plane landed in Miami for the connection to Jamaica, he was immediately taken to what is now the University of Miami hospital. That's where he died on May 11, 1981, due to the spread of melanoma to his lungs and brain. As befit Jamaica's foremost musical ambassador, the 36-year old musician was given a state funeral ten days later.
It's the music that endures though, and Marley's music remains as timely as ever. The following are the top ten songs that assured his immortality.
"Stir It Up"
Marley's first international hit, written for his wife Rita, this song not only showed Marley's pop potential, but also the possibilities for reggae to be universally embraced.
"I Shot the Sheriff"
Clapton's appropriated version notwithstanding, this song brought the outlaw aspects of Jamaican music to the fore via an unapologetic and unequivocal assault on authority.
"No Woman No Cry"
Marley's most beautiful ballad transcends its simple, solemn plea with inspiration and assurance that indeed assure that "everything's gonna be alright." Quite possibly one of the most moving songs ever written.
"Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery; none but ourselves can free our minds." Marley comes to grips with mortality, and true to form, motivates the masses all at the same time.
Heady sentiments aside, Marley makes love and music in one simultaneous sweep.
Although it would later become the theme song for Jamaica's tourist industry, its message of love and peace was both simple and succinct.
"Them Belly Full"
Here Marley sings not only of political discontent, but also the inner turbulence that infects both the heart and soul of those oppressed.
"Get Up Stand Up"
A rallying cry to action that begins with each individual's commitment to cause.
A superb sing-along, the Buffalo Soldier symbolizes a man who's displaced and forced to toil for someone else's freedom at the expense of his own.
"Is This Love"
When all is said and done, love is the bond that binds us together. Marley goes to the core.
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