Robert Nesta Marley 6 February 1945 – 11 May 1981
Practicing Rastas grew their hair in dreadlocks and smoked ganja (marijuana) believing it to be a sacred herb that brought enlightenment.
Bob Marley was reggae’s foremost practitioner and emissary, embodying its spirit and spreading its gospel to all corners of the globe. His extraordinary body of work embraces the stylistic spectrum of modern Jamaican music – from ska to rock steady to reggae – while carrying the music to another level as a social force with universal appeal. Marley cannot claim to have had even one hit single in America, but few others changed the musical and cultural landscape as profoundly as he. As Robert Palmer wrote in a tribute to Marley upon his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, “No one in rock and roll has left a musical legacy that matters more or one that matters in such fundamental ways.”
There’s no question that reggae is legitimately part of the larger culture of rock and roll, partaking of its full heritage of social forces and stylistic influences. In Marley’s own words, “Reggae music, soul music, rock music – every song is a sign.” Marley’s own particular symbolism derived from his beliefs as a Rastafarian – a sect that revered Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia (a.k.a. Ras Tafari) as a living god who would lead oppressed blacks back to an African homeland – and his firsthand knowledge of the deprivations of the Jamaican ghettos. His lyrics mixed religious mysticism with calls for political uprising, and Marley delivered them in a passionate, declamatory voice.
Reggae’s loping, hypnotic rhythms carried an unmistakable signature that rose to the fore of the music scene in the Seventies, largely through the recorded work of Marley and the Wailers on the Island and Tuff Gong labels. Such albums as Natty Dread and Rastaman Vibration endure as reggae milestones that gave a voice to the poor and disfranchised citizens of Jamaica and, by extension, the world. In so doing, he also instilled them with pride and dignity in their heritage, however sorrowful the realities of their daily existence. Moreover, Marley’s reggae anthems provided rhythmic uplift that induced what Marley called “positive vibrations” in all who heard it. Regardless of how you heard it – political music suitable for dancing, or dance music with a potent political subtext – Marley’s music was a powerful potion for troubled times.
Marley was born in Jamaica to a young black mother and an older white father. A precocious musician, a teenaged Marley formed a vocal trio in 1963 with friends Neville “Bunny” O’Riley Livingston (later Bunny Wailer) and Peter McIntosh (later Peter Tosh). The group members had grown up in Trench Town, a ghetto neighborhood of Kingston. As practicing Rastas, they grew their hair in dreadlocks and smoked ganja (marijuana), believing it to be a sacred herb that brought enlightenment.
Though he died prematurely at age 36, the heartbeat reggae rhythms of the enormous body of music that Bob Marley left behind have endured. Moreover, Jamaica itself has been transformed by his charismatic personality and musical output. Marley was buried on the island with full state honors on May 21, 1981. In a crowning irony, given the reviled status that Rastafarians and their music had once suffered at the hands of the Jamaican government, Marley’s pacifist reggae anthem, “One Love,” was adapted as a theme song by the Jamaican Tourist Board. Meanwhile, Marley’s music continues to find an audience. With sales of more than 15 million in the U.S. alone, Legend – a best-of spanning the Island Records years (1972-1981) – remains the best-selling album by a Jamaican artist and the best-selling reggae album in history.