'Legend': Remembering Bob Marley
Bob Marley, here performing in Sweden in 1978, has kept his hold on the popular imagination three decades after his death.
May 11th, 2011
01:39 PM ET

'Legend': Remembering Bob Marley

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.

And, of course, there’s the endless Marley paraphernalia visible on any college campus: posters, shirts, hats and, well, materiel related to the cannabis plant of which Marley was known to partake.

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.

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Filed under: Jamaica • Music • Showbiz
soundoff (83 Responses)
  1. Christy

    Bob Marley wanted the "unification of all Africans", that was a dream that will never come true. Thanks for Dreaming Bob Marley. Your message should be taught in universities all around the world, who knows ? maybe one day all Africans will be united. .RIP

    May 12, 2011 at 1:45 am | Report abuse |
  2. johnny orlando

    I love going to the Bob Marley club here in Orlando at Universal City Walk. Good drinks, good live reggae band and its the best place to go when you are high. Its mostly black people from the islands but occasionally you see some drunk fat tourists from the northern states bobbing off beat to the music and then getting scared because of all the black people. Its fun to watch that.

    May 12, 2011 at 2:19 am | Report abuse |
  3. Nami

    As he was of diverse heritage, I believe his message was for us all to be unified as a world wide family and to live together in peace and one love... R.I.P. Brother

    May 12, 2011 at 2:30 am | Report abuse |
  4. davetharave

    Early Marley recordings with less electric and more acoustic instruments are classics, what is referred to as 'Roots Reggae' and great vocal harmonies as well as Bob's solo voice as he found his way to eventual frontman status with the Wailers. Later albums are produced in what the average Jamaican Reggae aficianado would term the 'Western' style, slick electronics and 'high' fidelity. These are really good albums as well; all of Bob's works are classic but some of those early recordings like 'Small Axe' and 'Soul Rebel' are the product of a time and place the like of which we'll never see again.

    May 12, 2011 at 2:49 am | Report abuse |
  5. Big Paulie

    In my entire life I've met those for or against abortion, atheist or believer, liberal or conservative, but I've NEVER met anyone who disliked Marley. When the end of days come, I'm sure Marley's records will be some of the first to be preserved by mankind. With no man left to tell our tale, let them hear "Redemption Song."

    May 12, 2011 at 3:08 am | Report abuse |
  6. Sebastian45

    The article doesn't seem to acknowledge that Marley's music was vastly superior to that of most other reggae artists(with a few notable exceptions), and that his music also possessed a universal quality to it that perhaps surpassed even that of the Beatles.
    I have traveled all over the world and although Marley may not have been the highest selling artist of all time, i think it is at least arguable that his music is the most widespread throughout the planet. From cafe's to bar's worldwide you are more likely to hear Marley then any other artist.
    Certainly the other factors spoken of in the article helped, but it was the way he could communicate through his music, the combination of the universal appeal of his songs, along with that of reggae as a musical and rhythmic form easily assimilated by other cultures, that has made Marley the most frequently played artist worldwide of all time: Not his politics, good looks or association with marijuana (although once again none of those things did any harm to his popularity).

    May 12, 2011 at 3:11 am | Report abuse |
  7. Navilus

    In 1978, while visiting Los Angeles, I had the opportunity to see and hear Bob Marley live at a very small venue called the Starlight Bowl in Burbank. The show was incredible, and we were able to move to within 20 feet of the stage. To this day I can still feel the music and the great vibes that Bob released into the air that night. For an encore, Peter Tosh joined on stage and that was a quite special reunion of sorts. Of all the live shows I've seen, I think that must be one of the best and certainly a very memorable experience, not to mention the ticket was only $10.

    May 12, 2011 at 5:23 am | Report abuse |
    • Daisy Clover

      I saw that show also, I was working @ Contempo Casuals in the Laurel Plaza mall and waiting on a woman who said she was his tour manager ( bit foggy here or something to that naure) she gave me tickets to the show and a t shirt which i still have.
      We were in the 3rd row with Donna Summer sitting in front of me.- peeking around her hair...What an amazing gorgeous night under the stars – he really had the magic – him on that stage, the tone and image of him and that night sticks in my mind so vividly.

      May 16, 2011 at 12:48 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Shaka Flexx

    Growing up in Nairobi, Kenya, Bob Marley's music was constantly on the radio. I liked his music as a kid, but lacked complete understanding of the message in his music untlil later on in life as a teenager.

    Bob Marley championed the liberation of Zimbabwe from opression, as well as other African countries. He sang about social issues, the liberation of Africans from mental slavery (Redemption song), peace and many other issues that most mainstream musicians were afraid to touch.

    As a kid growing up in Africa, watching negative portrayal of Africans and African Americans in the media, it was refreshing to see a big international star like Marley sticking up for the little man. He proudly identified himself as 'African' at a time when some African Americans chose to disassociate themselves with the 'dark continent'.

    I was also impressed by the variety of topics he tackeled in his music. Politics, social strife, race, religion, love, having a good time, e.t.c. This is such a refreshing approach to the musical artform, showcasing the entire spectrum and complexity of human experience. Most music these days is so one-dimensional.

    I wish I had preserved the old Bob Marley vinyl records. R.I.P. Bob Marley.

    May 12, 2011 at 5:37 am | Report abuse |
  9. joo

    Hey!!!!!i got you're damn jigga boo!!!...rasta forever!!!!!

    May 12, 2011 at 6:34 am | Report abuse |
  10. Espinoza

    Marley was not only a vegetarian but a strong believer in meditation and prayer. http://bit.ly/jXL8II

    May 12, 2011 at 7:05 am | Report abuse |
  11. obinnaya eluwa

    Yep!,i think marley,it's my reggae,Bob is,always has been,inspiration,to me,it's rhythm in my heart,it's clarity in my head! There's a joy,it's ecstatic in the delivery with which i get,and feel it.Yes,in my soul! Enough said!

    May 12, 2011 at 8:28 am | Report abuse |
  12. evos

    He was black!

    May 12, 2011 at 9:56 am | Report abuse |
  13. Uke Inemesit

    Bob is alive in our hearts though he is gone somewhere. Till tommorow there will be no piece of music like his'. the more I listen the more I get the facts about the lyrics. Liberation of Africa from the colonial masters, I believe, came from one of such struggles like Bob's. Some of the messages were prophetic in nature and are gradually taking shape; War- Until the color of a man's skin is of no more significance than the color of his, until the basic human rights are equally guaranteed to all without regard to race or tribe there will be war. and many more. Reggae is it. It covers all facets of human life.
    Marley Live on!!!!!!!!!!

    May 12, 2011 at 10:00 am | Report abuse |
  14. shawnta

    Bob is the best smoke on

    May 12, 2011 at 12:04 pm | Report abuse |
  15. RDubb

    why is there no mention of love.... after all it is what he stood for cannabis was not his only vice he was hooked on love for fellow man
    Strange we don't focus on his message... His is not the only message with this agenda we.choose to ignore!

    May 12, 2011 at 1:29 pm | Report abuse |
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