Bob Marley died more than three decades ago, yet he is still a strong cultural and musical influence. We explore why the singer affects millions of people across the world to this day.
Robert Nesta Marley, famously known as Bob Marley, was born on 6 February 1945 and died on 11 May 1981. From the 1960s to the 1980s, he transcended three musical genres successfully, namely rock steady, reggae and ska. However, he was, and still is, accepted across the globe as the king of reggae.
His singing and songwriting talent allowed him to set his own course in the music industry. His musical style was highly influential and is still relevant to many people worldwide. Yet it is safe to say that it was the passion he embodied and communicated when he performed live that won over his audiences and earned him fans across the globe. His songs expressed peace, love, and equality, and these values were an expression of the philosophy he lived by.
It would be easy to dismiss Marley as a 20th-century figure. Truth is, he is still relevant and revered by millions of people across the world, even decades after his death. It is interesting to consider why this is the case.
Breaking from tradition
Bob Marley was born of a white, British-born father and a black Jamaican-born mother. His mixed racial background and life experiences contributed significantly to the person he became. Marley became the superstar he is today because of the factors that shaped him. These include his experience of racism, being raised in Trench town, Kingston, and his Rastafarian beliefs. The latter became an important movement in African-American politics.
Marley emerged as a Pan-Africanist, informed by the independence struggle of the Caribbean from 1950 to 1960.
Marley broke what had become a tradition among many mixed-race people - to deny their African roots. He strongly identified as African. His home country of Jamaica had experienced colonialism and slavery for more than 200 years. Trench town, Kingston, was a working-class area where the most oppressed lived. It was fertile ground for the Rastafarian movement. The Rastafarian movement can be described as one of the most profound attempts at celebrating Africa's contribution to humanity and increasing consciousness, and it spread from the Caribbean to different parts of the world.
Social movements are not static, however, and the Rastafarian culture has had to withstand being co-opted by the mainstream. It has also been criticised for having succumbed to patriarchal and homophobic notions.
Rastafarianism emphasised Marcus Garvey's teachings and the deification of Emperor Haile Selassie I as a symbol of resistance to white supremacy. Bob Marley's character and music were influenced by his growing awareness of the political developments of the 1960s.
The impact of the civil rights movement in America
The Caribbean political landscape was shaped by the impact of the African-American struggle for civil rights. The emergence of Marley and reggae was also influenced by American musicians such as Aretha Franklin and James Brown. The legacy of singers like Marvin Gaye and others inspired a new generation to take action in the liberation of their people.
His early career
Marley's career started in 1961, when he teamed up with Bunny Livingston and Peter Tosh to form The Wailin' Wailers. They transitioned from being "rude boys" to pushing the culture of defiance. From 1974 to 1981, Bob Marley took on the role of leader to many people in matters of truth and justice. He emerged as a Pan-Africanist, informed by the independence struggle of the Caribbean from 1950 to 1960. Despite the fact that Marley never declared any political interests, his music was reflective of the times.
Pan-Africanism emerged as a civil rights movement in the 1960s and 1970s and sought to unite Africans as one community. While it mostly referred to Americans and people living in Africa being united as one, people of the Caribbean strongly identified with Pan-Africanism as a celebration of the cultural, spiritual, scientific and artistic legacies of all Africans from the past to the present.
Marley sang about the struggles of African people while suggesting the need for Pan-African unity to overcome oppression.
Music has a long and rich history as a universal language that musicians have used to wage war against the perpetrators of tyranny, inequality and injustice. Songwriters and musicians have long used music to uplift those who are exploited, downtrodden, subjugated, oppressed and persecuted. Marley used his music in similar ways to impact the lives of those who were needy and oppressed. To some extent, Bob Marley's songs were protest songs against injustice, slavery, inequality and racism.
Scholars view American freedom songs created by enslaved African Americans and disguised as spiritual hymns as the "ultimate" in freedom songs. However, Marley's songs delivered political messages of peace, racial harmony and protest par excellence. His music promoted notions of understanding and love, while at the same time confronting racism in a message of defiance. He sang about the struggles of African people while suggesting the need for Pan-African unity to overcome oppression. He had a clear message to Africans, which was "Africans, unite! We are moving out of Babylon." His famous song "War" was partly based on the speech made in 1963 by Haile Selassie at the United Nations.
Marley was an artiste, who defended love, peace, emancipation and freedom. He warned against duplicity and hypocrisy in human relations, using music as a weapon and showing how musicians could and should be forerunners in the fight against oppression. His music promoted transparency, equality and accountability. Surely these are the values that see him remain relevant to this day. In fact, Africans are now in need of a new generation of Marley's to once again inspire us and give us faith, hope and charity.