Bob Marley lives.
The reggae star may have died 30 years ago Wednesday, but his music – and impact – are inescapable. “Legend,” the best-of compilation his label, Island Records, originally released in 1984, is among the best-selling albums of all time, with a “Diamond” certification (more than 10 million sold) from the Recording Industry Association of America, more than 1,000 weeks on Billboard’s catalog chart and a listing as No. 46 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.
Kevin Macdonald, director of “The Last King of Scotland” and the Oscar-winning “One Day in September,” is preparing a documentary on the Jamaican musician.
"He's gone beyond being a famous musician, he's now a philosopher and prophet," he told the BBC last month. A portion of Macdonald’s film, “Marley,” is scheduled to screen at the Cannes Film Festival on Wednesday.
What was it about this son of a white plantation overseer and Afro-Jamaican woman who continues to inspire three decades after his death at age 36 from a rare form of cancer? Why is Marley the popular face of reggae instead of “Israelites” hitmaker Desmond Dekker, “The Harder They Come” star Jimmy Cliff or pioneering producer Lee “Scratch” Perry?
Part of it, says University of Rochester music historian John Covach, has to do with the singer-songwriter’s charisma.
“His music is accessible because of the groove … (and) Marley the performer was charismatic enough to sell it. A lot of artists don’t have that,” he observes, noting that Marley’s colleagues in his band the Wailers – such as Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingston – didn’t have the success Marley did.
Moreover, Marley became known for a message of peace and understanding, Covach observes. Add that message to the romantic notion of dying young – not to mention partying, dancing and smoking dope – and it’s no surprise that college students have a fondness for the man, Covach says.
But that popular perception is far from complete, Marley fans have pointed out. In a 2006 Slate article headlined “Free Bob Marley!”, Field Maloney wrote that the musician’s early records, such as “Soul Rebels” and “Rasta Revolution,” were “more satisfyingly complex” than his later work – tougher and more clever.
Indeed, Marley remains a hero in Third World countries because of his political bent, Macdonald told the BBC. “In the slums of Nairobi (Kenya), there are murals of Marley and people quote the lyrics to you,” he said.
That’s not the kind of Marley who could be used to sell trips to lush tropical beaches (though Marley remains a key Jamaican tourist attraction.) But, of course, a successful artist’s work is open to many interpretations.
“What's in the popular mind is often a caricature of what the artist really achieved,” Covach says.
For Marley, 30 years after his death, that’s a great deal.