The Bob Marley Story Joshua Jelly-Schapiro Contact Press Images
Before the Legend: The Rise of Bob Marley by Christopher John Farley. Amistad, 216 pp., $9.95 (paper) Bob Marley: Herald of the Postcolonial World? by Jason Toynbee. Polity, 252 pp., $69.95; $22.95 (paper) The Book of Exodus: The Making and Meaning of Bob Marley and the Wailers’ Album of the Century by Vivien Goldman. Three Rivers, 325 pp., $14.95 (paper) Soul Rebel: An Intimate Portrait of Bob Marley by David Burnett. Insight Editions, 141 pp., $39.95
1. Bob Marley died of cancer on May 11, 1981, at the premature age of thirty-six. By then he was well known to college kids worldwide, but few could have foreseen the celebrity he has attained since. Born in Jamaica, he is the only third-world performer to be elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 1999, the BBC named his “One Love” the “Song of the Millennium”; the same year Time declared his 1977 Exodus the “Best Album of the Twentieth Century.” Voted the third-greatest songwriter of all time in a 2001 BBC poll (behind Bob Dylan and John Lennon), Marley has sold an estimated 50 million records worldwide. On the 2007 Forbes list of “Top-Earning Dead Celebrities,” he ranked twelfth, with his estate earning an estimated $4 million. His posthumous greatest-hits collection, Legend (1984), is among the top-selling compilations of all time. Twenty-seven years after his death, there is perhaps no country where his songs—wry ballads and martial anthems, with soothing or stirring melodies—aren’t familiar. The songs tell a familiar story of black slaves, mainly West Africans brought to work Jamaica’s ﬁelds of indigo and sugar cane, combining their own diverse cultures with those they found and making something new. Like many of his contemporaries—young country people who migrated to the city seeking work, only to end up in its swelling slums—Marley absorbed the political and musical currents that ﬂowed through Jamaica and its capital, Kingston, in the years before and after its independence in 1962. Among the sounds were spirituals sung in clapboard churches and folk songs toiled and danced to in ﬁelds and shacks; newer rhythms from neighboring islands— mambo from Cuba, calypso from Trinidad; and increasingly, with the advent of the transistor radio and the spread of “sound systems” (turntables and enormous loudspeakers that made musical block parties possible), American doowop and rhythm-and-blues. In a city full of artists and entrepreneurs seeking to forge a new national culture, Marley and his peers—like many others in the third world at the time—adapted these sounds to their lives on the margins. From the early 1960s, Marley became part of the rapid 34
Bob Marley at his house in Kingston, Jamaica, March 1976; photographs by David Burnett from his book Soul Rebel: An Intimate Portrait of Bob Marley
evolution of Jamaican popular music: mento, the calypso-inﬂected dance style dominant in the 1950s, gave way by the decade’s end to the kinetic hop called ska, and then, in the mid-1960s, to the languid shufﬂe called rocksteady; ﬁnally, a few years later, came the driving, spacious sound of reggae—the style Marley brought to a worldwide audience. Emerging from the alleyways and harborside recording studios of Kingston in the late 1960s, reggae combined sweet vocal harmonies with an odd new rhythm. Adapting a cadence common to boogie blues, the style’s young artists transformed its characteristic musical feature—offbeat accents between main beats—into the dominant trait of their new sound, thereby forging a music at once familiar and eerily strange to foreign ears.1 1
Though the term “reggae” was coined in the late 1960s to describe a music with particular formal qualities— among them guitar or organ “chops” on the accents in between main beats; a rhythmic emphasis on the third tick in each 4/4 measure; and an instrumental emphasis on bass and drums—those strictures were elastic from the start and today “reggae” is often employed as a generic term for all Jamaican pop-
Marley was a brilliant synthesist of musical styles, and his inﬂuence on the world’s popular music can still be heard from rock to rap to samba to jazz. An ingenious songwriter who was also an electrifying performer, he made music whose “thud-sobbing,” as Derek Walcott once wrote, evokes “a sadness as real as the smell/of rain on dry earth.”2 He used the language of the King James Bible to sing of romance and revolution, emancipation and freedom. When they were written, his songs evoked for many, especially in Africa, the hopes that came with national sovereignty in a decolonizing age. But they now transcend their time and place and are heard from Liverpool to Lagos, Tennessee to Tibet, Sydney to São Paulo.
2. Born in 1945 in the hills of Jamaica’s “garden parish” of St. Ann, Robert ular music (including ska, rocksteady, and more contemporary styles like dancehall and bashment). 2 Derek Walcott, “The Light of the World,” The Paris Review, No. 101 (1986), pp. 192–195.
Nesta Marley descended from the Maroons, fugitive slaves who had waged a guerrilla war against the British for the better part of two centuries. His mother, Cedella Malcolm, was an eighteen-yearold dark-skinned peasant girl; his father, an itinerant white Kingstonian in his sixties who claimed (falsely, it seems) to be British-born. Young Nesta spent his early years in the dusty hamlet of Nine Miles, but moved, by his twelfth birthday, to Kingston. Settling in Trenchtown, the onetime squatter camp just west of the city center that had absorbed the postwar inﬂux from the countryside, Marley witnessed ﬁrsthand the poverty of the “sufferahs” whose aspirations he would later give voice to in his songs. In a passionate but ﬂawed biography, Before the Legend, Christopher John Farley, a former music critic at Time and now an editor at The Wall Street Journal, describes the young Marley, a slight, poorly dressed “yellow-bwoy,” as an easy target for the city’s bullies. He shared the light complexion of the upper middle class but not their social status. As an adult, he would speak of “not hav[ing] prejudice against myself”: “Me don’t dip on the black man’s side nor the white man’s side,” he put it; “me dip on God’s side, the one who create me and cause me to come from black and white.” It seems likely, however, as the Jamaican-born Farley argues, that Marley’s adolescent striving was in part motivated by a desire to prove himself to his black peers. 3 Farley’s book, though marred by trite philosophizing, is correct in its essential argument: that the story of Jamaican music during Marley’s formative years—the 1960s—is crucial to the larger history of popular music in the twentieth century. For example, Jamaican music in the 1960s sowed the seeds for the efﬂorescence, a decade later, of hip-hop, the most popular genre of music in the United States, and the world, today. The ﬁgure commonly credited as the progenitor of hip-hop in 1970s New York, DJ Kool Herc (né Clive Campbell), was a Jamaican-born immigrant who’d grown up watching Kingston disc jockeys “toasting”—declaiming lyrics over their records’ instrumental sections—at city dances.4 In and out of school in his early Kingston days, by his mid-teens Marley was mostly out. He worked brieﬂy as a welder, but spent much of his time hoping for a career—or at least a moment of ghetto notoriety—in the nascent music business that had sprung up in the capital. Since youth, Marley had 3 On Marley’s early years, see also Timothy White, Catch a Fire: The Life of Bob Marley (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1983; revised 2006). Though marred by a tendency toward hagiography and ﬁctionalized recreations of key events, White’s book is commonly regarded as the deﬁnitive Marley biography. It is now in a fourth edition. 4
See Jeff Chang, “Making a Name: How DJ Kool Herc Lost His Accent and Started Hip-Hop,” in Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation (Picador, 2005), the deﬁnitive history of the genre. The New York Review