Soul Rebel, Natural Mystic

Bob Marley passed away 22 years ago, yet the popularity and power of his music endures. Berklee's reggae specialist recalls the life and music of the legendary Jamaican icon.

By Matt Jenson (Berklee Today, Fall 2003)

Bob Marley, son of a white quartermaster in the Regiments and Corps of the British West Indies who was in his fifties and a 19-year-old black Jamaican woman, would have turned 58 years old last February. However, melanoma, discovered after he injured a toe four years prior to his death, had metastasized and spread to his lungs, stomach, and brain. He passed away in Miami, Florida, on May 11, 1981, at the age of 36.

During his brief life, Marley helped to create an entirely new form of music and make it an international sensation, composed hundreds of songs, fathered some 11 children from an estimated seven different women, and brought a faith system (Rastafari) into international focus. Marley also survived an assassination attempt, played an important part in freeing Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) from colonial rule, and received the United Nations Medal of Peace on behalf of 500 million Africans. He toured the world three times, kept a virtually undefeated record with his five-a-side soccer team, and received the Order of Merit, Jamaica's third highest honor. At the end of his life, he had built up a $30 million estate and was known to have been providing direct assistance to more than 6,000 impoverished Kingston, Jamaica, residents.

Since Marley's death, his reputation has continued to grow. His albums have sold tens of millions of copies. The New York Times called him one of the most influential artists of the second half of the twentieth century, and Time magazine named his album Exodus the best album of the twentieth century. Marley is widely acknowledged as a potent symbol of freedom in the world. I was browsing a major Boston newspaper arts and culture section recently and found an ad from a Virgin Megastore pushing the latest hit CDs. The inclusion of Marley's album Legend on that list is a testament to staying power of his music.

"So Much Things to Say"

Why has Marley's music remained so popular? He once said that reggae music "carry earth force, people rhythm." Marley's music carries the force of nature and opens a direct channel to the truth. That's why I feel his music is so popular. Another factor is Marley's authenticity. He was born in a tiny village in the central hills of Jamaica and spent his earliest years learning about living off the land. After moving to Kingston, he witnessed some of the most intense levels of suffering that a human can experience. His education was not an academic pursuit. Bob Marley's hands were deep in the soil planting the seeds, and later, homeless in the city, he trod barefooted in Trenchtown, one of the most inhumane third-world slums on the face of the earth. Despite gaining wealth and fame, he never left these roots, never distanced himself from the people. He never locked his car when he went to visit friends in the slums of Kingston, Jamaica.

Assistant Professor Matt Jenson teaches a performance studies class entitled the Music and Life of Bob Marley for which he has arranged Marley's repertoire for a 14-piece ensemble. Visit to learn more about Jenson's musical pursuits.

With his authenticity came his refusal to take part in the severely flawed earthly systems, especially those of governments. He spoke of being in this world but not of it. Marley and his entourage lived in constant rebellion against the socioeconomic systems of their time, but were well aware of local and international social and political happenings, almost to the point of being obsessed with listening to the BBC and reading newspapers. If an artist alters what he or she writes in fear of losing a record contract, it is just another way of taking part in the system and shows a lack of true authenticity. Marley used to describe Chris Blackwell, the owner of Island Records to which Marley was signed, as someone who held views that were secondary to Marley's own vision and mission. Marley never bent his artistic intent to commercial pressure.

Marley was blessed at a very young age with the ability to see through the layers of deceit, fear, and imperfection that are part of the human condition. With this came a perceived responsibility, and to live up to that responsibility required nothing less than the attitude of a rebel and warrior. The war he fought was not obvious, but was between good and evil, between awareness and ignorance, between the oppressed and the oppressors, a battle that continues within each of us and, by extension, continues among peoples, countries, religions, and ideologies. Marley lived these battles, both on the physical and spiritual planes, and, like a true shaman, returned to us bearing wisdom expressed in the deepest possible manner through music.

Music and Politics

The decade of the 1970s found Jamaica struggling for a way out of poverty, and as a result the island became a pawn in the Cold War. Michael Manley's socialist People's National Party (PNP), representing the have-nots, was locked in a deadly battle to hold on to power against Edward Seaga's conservative Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), representing the haves. One could say that there was a third party involved, led by Bob Marley, that was compassionate in nature. Marley's vision for the island and for the world was based on the need to break down divisions and act from a place of selflessness, whereas the two Jamaican political parties seemed to be locked in a cat-and-dog fight over power. Philip Agee, a former CIA officer who was interviewed in the Marley documentary Rebel Music, confirms that the CIA supplied guns and anti-PNP propaganda to the conservative JLP. (Some Jamaicans began calling Seaga "CIAga.") In the interview, Agee states, "The CIA would look upon the radical political content of reggae as dangerous because it would help to create a consciousness among the poor people, the great majority of Jamaicans." Radical political content of reggae? Read these Marley lyrics from the song, "Ambush in the Night":

See them fighting for power
But they know not the hour
So they bribing with
Their guns, spare-parts and money
Trying to belittle our integrity
They say what we know
Is just what they teach us
Through political strategy
They keep us hungry
When you gonna get some food
Your brother got to be your enemy

Raising consciousness can be a dangerous thing, but Marley certainly did not let that stand in his way. This, combined with his vision of peace and freedom that was of a lasting and transcendent nature, placed him in what would become a mortal catch-22 situation. To back down from his consciousness-raising composing and recording was simply out of the question for a man so committed to truthfulness; yet, on a daily basis, people were dying in the streets for taking a stand for their beliefs. This led to the attempt on Marley's life on Friday, December 3, 1976, at his home in Kingston, just two days before he was to perform a free concert (the famous Smile Jamaica concert) to help cool the violent political climate. A bullet grazed Marley's chest and lodged in his forearm. Don Taylor, his manager, barely survived with multiple gunshot wounds. Rita Marley (Bob Marley's wife) sustained a non-life threatening wound to her head. Marley performed at the concert amidst an indescribable atmosphere of defiance, fear, and commitment. To this day, it has not been decisively determined who made the attempt on Marley's life and why. It remains a hot topic of controversy.

Giving Hope

What set Marley apart was his ability to see the tremendous injustices taking place (especially in clashes between white and black cultures), yet he refused to become stuck in anger and vengefulness, even after an attempt on his life. Marley was both a warrior for the rights of black and oppressed third-world cultures but also hinted at a battle against what could be called spiritual poverty. That battle is seen today among the middle and upper classes in first-world countries and is marked by increasing levels of depression.

Marley spoke of this in"Dem Belly Full:"

Cost of living get so high,
Rich and poor, they start a cry.
Now the weak must get strong.
They say, "Oh, what a tribulation."

Moreover, Marley was a musician who could romanticize even the worst situations with songs like "No Woman No Cry" and "Trenchtown Rock." Marley reminds us that we're all in this world together with lyrics from "Coming In From the Cold," and "I Know" respectively.

Well, the biggest man you ever did see,
Was just a baby in this life
Are you the victim of the system
Any day now they gonna let you down,
Remember Natty will be there
To see you through

These songs give us infinite hope when the chips are down. He delivered love songs that touch the depths of the soul and tell us straight-up about the key to changing things for the better as in "Redemption Song":

Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery,
none but ourselves can free our minds

Perhaps most impressive was that Marley was able to say all this and deliver his beliefs to the world in his role as a pop star. Those who have accepted the suffering in their lives view a sunset differently from those who have spent their lives trying to avoid suffering. In the case of the latter, the beauty of the sunset might even be entirely missed. Bob Marley not only accepted his own suffering, but perhaps took on much of the suffering of the world and could express it all, whether it was anger, frustration, contempt, sorrow, passion, or ecstatic beauty. This is why some accord Marley the status of a prophet, a modern-day Buddha.

His musicians rallied around him with their own genius. Aston "Family Man" Barrett (bass) and his brother Carlton Barrett (drums) helped to create arrangements that reflected Marley's depth of feeling and ability to cut to the simple truth. The reggae beat was slow and sensual but carried with it the thunder of the kick-drum attack, filling the bubble and releasing from high atop a pregnant gap of silence, moments before that bombo note hits the floor; the one-drop, a rebel riddim, was a direct line to Marley's African heritage and the blank newsprint paper that he filled with articles of poetic revelation.

Marley was as much a saint as he was a man, vexed as we all are by the ways of life on earth. Nowhere in recent history was the juxtaposition of the divine and the lowly Babylonian ways of mankind so acute. His life was replete with layers of controversy, contradiction, and broken promises. Digging deeper into his life reveals the air of "homoerotic violence" that at least one observer recounts: Marley's infamous polygamy, the outright theft committed by many of those closest to him, the loneliness and depression that he felt despite having so many and so much around him, the difficult-to-understand role of Rastafari and religiosity in his life, and his copious pot smoking. But his music transcends all of that; in fact, it even transcends the reggae idiom itself. Bob Marley's music "carry earth force, people rhythm!" Don't think about it too much, just blast it on your stereo.

The Marley Gap

When Bob Marley died, a giant gap was created in reggae (and the pop music world in general) that has left musicians and producers chasing their tails. Marley set a nearly impossibly high standard. To approach it would require one to, among other things, depart from a market-driven mentality and break out of the tightly compartmentalized stereotype of reggae today.

There are many artists and musicians out there pursuing their vision who worry about more than just the selling of their product, but their voices seem to be drowned out by the screaming bratty child of the money-making machine. This, paired with the spiritual poverty of our times and the shallowness of the mainstream media that some argue is contributing much to lowering levels of consciousness in favor of pure sales, creates quite a difficult working environment for the artist.

No doubt, there are bright spots here and there with occasional tracks released by Marley's children, as well as Morgan Heritage, Burning Spear, Beres Hammond, and Luciano, to name a few; but by and large, much of what is called "roots" reggae today lacks the combination of beauty, depth, subtlety, refinement, musicianship, and risk that Marley and his contemporaries blended so masterfully. Much of what's new in reggae seems like a hollow shell, a spiritless, stripped-down imitation formula created for consumption, rather than an expression of deep soul-searching and high-level artistry. The sleeping lion of reggae's rebel music needs some stirring up!