He would have turned 73 this year.
In his earlier years, he was rough and not so pleasant. What he did not want to do, no one could make him do. His vocals were only of average quality and when he did sing, his music defied discipline and lacked respect for the establishment.
To many, the Jamaican phenomenon that became known as Bob Marley had sprung out naturally, out of nowhere. But that “nowhere” had in fact been an existence of desperate squalor and poverty, which to a large extent had shaped his character and his perception of life. Credit to him, he realized by age fourteen that the only way for him to escape that deprivation would be through music.
This hope, passion and determination was shared by his two close friends Neville Livingstone (Bunny Wailer) and Hubert Mcintosh (Peter Tosh). Together the three formed a singing group called the Wailing Wailers around 1962. They later renamed it as simply the Wailers. There was plenty to wail about.
Driven by a strong desire to see a just society, inspired by the teachings of Marcus Garvey and emboldened by their recently acquired Rastafarian convictions, the wailers released single after single and noticeably rose through the charts of Jamaican music. Around 1969, they slowed down the tempo of their music and adopted a slower, deeper style underlined by a throbbing bass melody. This genre became known as reggae.
Although popular on the island of Jamaica, the wailers remained unknown outside of it. They decided to take a leap of faith in 1972 by venturing into Europe on Johnny Nash’s music label. Johnny Nash was an established American singer for whom Marley had previously written some lyrics. This European trip was largely unsuccessful as they received a cold reception. The situation reached critical levels when Johnny Nash abandoned the wailers in London. Cold and penniless, the wailers had to find a way of surviving on their own.
It was then that Bob Marley walked into the London office of Chris Blackwell, the president of Island studios. Blackwell had only two weeks earlier parted company with another Jamaican rising star, Jimmy Cliff. Jimmy Cliff had demanded more from his contract with Blackwell and the relationship had soured and finally demised. Now, with Cliff out, Blackwell saw in these wailers a black youthful band that would drive his label to new heights, and he was right. Under his label, the Wailers released two albums- “Catch A Fire” and “Burnin’”.
Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer were now firmly on their way to international stardom.
However, that fame came with problems. The bonds that had held them together through thick and mostly thin for ten years began to crack. Bunny Wailer was the first to leave the group in 1974 over leadership disagreements, and Peter Tosh followed suit months later over the same reasons, but only after making his point through a physical fist fight with Bob Marley.
Bob Marley reorganized the band and incorporated three women as backing vocalists. He took centre stage as songwriter, singer and rhythm guitarist. Shortly after, his song “I shot The Sheriff” was covered by world star Eric Clampton thereby exposing it to a larger international audience. If the European audience had previously no idea who Marley was, now they knew him.
It was also in 1975 that Marley released his first album without Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh. He called it “Natty Dread”.
Rastaman Vibration, Kaya, Exodus, Survival and Uprising were released in a space of five years, with each album catapulting him further and further into international superstardom.
Between 1975 and 1981, he had taken the world by storm, with his politically charged messages being spread musically. World leaders took note. He was invited to perform on virtually every continent. His music was embraced in Africa, where he inspired the freedom fighters in Rhodesia through his song “Zimbabwe”.
1. The song “Stir it up” was written for his wife, Rita. It is a slow, sensual, erotic portrayal of his desires expressed in beautiful poetic language.
2. His song “Is this love?” featured seven year old Naomi Campbell. This was her first known appearance in the public eye on her way to becoming an international beauty model.
3. While playing soccer in 1977, he hurt his toe. That is how doctors later discovered that he had malignant melanoma. It spread to his lungs, brain and stomach.
4. His album “Confrontation” was an emotionally charged religious collection. Marley was dying of cancer, and he requested Blackwell to release the album only after his death. His wish was respected.
5. He was buried with a ball, guitar and a bud of marijuana.
While playing soccer in 1977, Marley hurt his toe. Further examination months later revealed that he had cancer of the toe. Doctors had recommended amputation, but he had refused, citing religious beliefs. The cancer had spread leading to his death on May 11th 1981.
This Friday marks thirty-seven years since his death.
And yet, his music still sells worldwide. His songs are played on a daily basis. His words are often quoted.
His estate is estimated at over USD 21 million.
If there is something to be learned from his life, it is that regardless of one’s beginnings, there are no boundaries to what one can achieve in life. Even a person from a rough and difficult background from the poorest society can leave a lasting legacy.
By Besa Mwaba