Robert Nesta Marley, OM (6 February 1945 – 11 May 1981) was a Jamaican singer, songwriter, and musician. Considered one of the pioneers of reggae, his musical career was marked by fusing elements of reggae, ska, and rocksteady, as well as his distinctive vocal and songwriting style. Marley’s contributions to music increased the visibility of Jamaican music worldwide, and made him a global figure in popular culture for over a decade. Over the course of his career Marley became known as a Rastafari icon, and he infused his music with a sense of spirituality. He is also considered a global symbol of Jamaican music and culture and identity, and was controversial in his outspoken support for the legalization of marijuana, while he also advocated for Pan-Africanism.
Born in Nine Mile, British Jamaica, Marley began his professional musical career in 1963, after forming Bob Marley and the Wailers. The group released its debut studio album The Wailing Wailers in 1965, which contained the single “One Love/People Get Ready”; the song was popular worldwide, and established the group as a rising figure in reggae. The Wailers subsequently released eleven further studio albums; while initially employing louder instrumentation and singing, the group began engaging in rhythmic-based song construction in the late 1960s and early 1970s, which coincided with the singer’s conversion to Rastafarianism. During this period Marley relocated to London, and the group embodied their musical shift with the release of the album The Best of The Wailers (1971).
The group attained international success after the release of the albums Catch a Fire and Burnin’ (both 1973), and forged a reputation as touring artists. Following the disbandment of the Wailers a year later, Marley went on to release his solo material under the band’s name. His debut studio album Natty Dread (1974) received positive reception, as did its follow-up Rastaman Vibration (1976). A few months after the album’s release Marley survived an assassination attempt at his home in Jamaica, which prompted him to permanently relocate to London. During his time in London he recorded the album Exodus (1977); it incorporated elements of blues, soul, and British rock, enjoyed widespread commercial and critical success.
In 1977, Marley was diagnosed with acral lentiginous melanoma; he died as a result of the illness in 1981. His fans around the world expressed their grief, and he received a state funeral in Jamaica. The greatest hits album Legend was released in 1984, and became the best-selling reggae album of all time. Marley also ranks as one of the best-selling music artists of all time, with estimated sales of more than 75 million records worldwide. He was posthumously honored by Jamaica soon after his death with a designated Order of Merit by his nation. In 1994, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Rolling Stone ranked him No. 11 on its list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.
Early life and career
Robert Nesta Marley was born on 6 February 1945 at the farm of his maternal grandfather in Nine Mile, Saint Ann Parish, Jamaica, to Norval Sinclair Marley and Cedella Malcolm. Norval Marley was a white Jamaican from Clarendon Parish, Jamaica, whose family claimed to have Syrian Jewish origins. Norval claimed to have been a captain in the Royal Marines; at the time of his marriage to Cedella Malcolm, an Afro-Jamaican then 18 years old, he was employed as a plantation overseer. Bob Marley’s full name is Robert Nesta Marley, though some sources give his birth name as Nesta Robert Marley, with a story that when Marley was still a boy a Jamaican passport official reversed his first and middle names because Nesta sounded like a girl’s name. Norval provided financial support for his wife and child but seldom saw them as he was often away. Bob Marley attended Stepney Primary and Junior High School which serves the catchment area of Saint Ann. In 1955, when Bob Marley was 10 years old, his father died of a heart attack at the age of 70. Marley’s mother went on later to marry Edward Booker, a civil servant from the United States, giving Marley two half-brothers: Richard and Anthony.
Bob Marley and Neville Livingston (later known as Bunny Wailer) had been childhood friends in Nine Mile. They had started to play music together while at Stepney Primary and Junior High School. Marley left Nine Mile with his mother when he was 12 and moved to Trenchtown, Kingston. She and Thadeus Livingston (Bunny Wailer’s father) had a daughter together whom they named Claudette Pearl, who was a younger sister to both Bob and Bunny. Now that Marley and Livingston were living together in the same house in Trenchtown, their musical explorations deepened to include the latest R&B from United States radio stations whose broadcasts reached Jamaica, and the new ska music. The move to Trenchtown was proving to be fortuitous, and Marley soon found himself in a vocal group with Bunny Wailer, Peter Tosh, Beverley Kelso and Junior Braithwaite. Joe Higgs, who was part of the successful vocal act Higgs and Wilson, resided on 3rd St., and his singing partner Roy Wilson had been raised by the grandmother of Junior Braithwaite. Higgs and Wilson would rehearse at the back of the houses between 2nd and 3rd Streets, and soon, Marley (now residing on 2nd St.), Junior Braithwaite and the others were congregating around this successful duo. Marley and the others did not play any instruments at this time, and were more interested in being a vocal harmony group. Higgs was glad to help them develop their vocal harmonies, although more importantly, he had started to teach Marley how to play guitar—thereby creating the bedrock that would later allow Marley to construct some of the biggest-selling reggae songs in the history of the genre.
On 21 May 1981, Jamaican Prime Minister Edward Seaga delivered the final funeral eulogy to Marley, saying:
His voice was an omnipresent cry in our electronic world. His sharp features, majestic looks, and prancing style a vivid etching on the landscape of our minds. Bob Marley was never seen. He was an experience which left an indelible imprint with each encounter. Such a man cannot be erased from the mind. He is part of the collective consciousness of the nation.
Awards and honours
- 1976: Rolling Stone Band of the Year
- June 1978: Awarded the Peace Medal of the Third World from the United Nations.
- February 1981: Awarded the Jamaican Order of Merit, then the nation’s third highest honour.
- March 1994: Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
- 1999: Album of the Century for Exodus by Time Magazine.
- February 2001: A star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
- February 2001: Awarded Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
- 2004: Rolling Stone ranked him No. 11 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.
- 2004: Among the first inductees into the UK Music Hall of Fame
- “One Love” named song of the millennium by BBC.
- Voted as one of the greatest lyricists of all time by a BBC poll.
- 2006: A blue plaque was unveiled at his first UK residence in Ridgmount Gardens, London, dedicated to him by the Nubian Jak Community Trust and supported by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
- 2010: Catch a Fire inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame (Reggae Album).
A statue was inaugurated, next to the national stadium on Arthur Wint Drive in Kingston to commemorate him. In 2006, the New York City Department of Education co-named a portion of Church Avenue from Remsen Avenue to East 98th Street in the East Flatbush section of Brooklyn as “Bob Marley Boulevard”. In 2008, a statue of Marley was inaugurated in Banatski Sokolac, Serbia.
Internationally, Marley’s message also continues to reverberate among various indigenous communities. For instance, the Australian Aboriginal people continue to burn a sacred flame to honour his memory in Sydney’s Victoria Park, while members of the Native American Hopi and Havasupai tribes revere his work. There are also many tributes to Bob Marley throughout India, including restaurants, hotels, and cultural festivals.
Marley evolved into a global symbol, which has been endlessly merchandised through a variety of media. In the light of this, author Dave Thompson in his book Reggae and Caribbean Music, laments what he perceives to be the commercialised pacification of Marley’s more militant edge, stating:
Bob Marley ranks among both the most popular and the most misunderstood figures in modern culture … That the machine has utterly emasculated Marley is beyond doubt. Gone from the public record is the ghetto kid who dreamed of Che Guevara and the Black Panthers, and pinned their posters up in the Wailers Soul Shack record store; who believed in freedom; and the fighting which it necessitated, and dressed the part on an early album sleeve; whose heroes were James Brown and Muhammad Ali; whose God was Ras Tafari and whose sacrament was marijuana. Instead, the Bob Marley who surveys his kingdom today is smiling benevolence, a shining sun, a waving palm tree, and a string of hits which tumble out of polite radio like candy from a gumball machine. Of course it has assured his immortality. But it has also demeaned him beyond recognition. Bob Marley was worth far more.
Bob Marley was a member for some years of the Rastafari movement, whose culture was a key element in the development of reggae. He became an ardent proponent of Rastafari, taking its music out of the socially deprived areas of Jamaica and onto the international music scene. He once gave the following response, which was typical, to a question put to him during a recorded interview:
Interviewer: “Can you tell the people what it means being a Rastafarian?”
Marley: “I would say to the people, Be still, and know that His Imperial Majesty, Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia is the Almighty. Now, the Bible seh so, Babylon newspaper seh so, and I and I the children seh so. Yunno? So I don’t see how much more reveal our people want. Wha’ dem want? a white god, well God come black. True true.”
Archbishop Abuna Yesehaq baptised Marley into the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, giving him the name Berhane Selassie, on 4 November 1980, shortly before his death.
Bob Marley married Alpharita Constantia “Rita” Anderson in Kingston, Jamaica, on 10 February 1966. Marley had many children: four with his wife Rita, two adopted from Rita’s previous relationships, and several others with different women. The official Bob Marley website acknowledges 11 children.
Those listed on the official site are:
- Sharon, born 23 November 1964, daughter of Rita from a previous relationship but then adopted by Marley after his marriage with Rita
- Cedella born 23 August 1967, to Rita
- David “Ziggy”, born 17 October 1968, to Rita
- Stephen, born 20 April 1972, to Rita
- Robert “Robbie”, born 16 May 1972, to Pat Williams
- Rohan, born 19 May 1972, to Janet Hunt
- Karen, born 1973 to Janet Bowen
- Stephanie, born 17 August 1974; according to Cedella Booker she was the daughter of Rita and a man called Ital with whom Rita had an affair; nonetheless, she was acknowledged as Bob’s daughter
- Julian, born 4 June 1975, to Lucy Pounder
- Ky-Mani, born 26 February 1976, to Anita Belnavis
- Damian, born 21 July 1978, to Cindy Breakspeare
Other sites have noted additional individuals who claim to be family members, as noted below:
- Makeda was born on 30 May 1981, to Yvette Crichton, after Marley’s death. Meredith Dixon’s book lists her as Marley’s child, but she is not listed as such on the Bob Marley official website.
- Various websites, for example, also list Imani Carole, born 22 May 1963 to Cheryl Murray; but she does not appear on the official Bob Marley website.
Marley also has two notable grandsons, musician Skip Marley and American football player Nico Marley.
Aside from music, association football played a major role throughout his life. As well as playing the game, in parking lots, fields, and even inside recording studios, growing up he followed the Brazilian club Santos and its star player Pelé. Marley surrounded himself with people from the sport, and in the 1970s made the Jamaican international footballer Allan “Skill” Cole his tour manager. He told a journalist, “If you want to get to know me, you will have to play football against me and the Wailers.”
Marley was a Pan-Africanist and believed in the unity of African people worldwide. His beliefs were rooted in his Rastafari religious beliefs. He was substantially inspired by Marcus Garvey, and had anti-imperialist and pan-Africanist themes in many of his songs, such as “Zimbabwe”, “Exodus”, “Survival”, “Blackman Redemption”, and “Redemption Song”. “Redemption Song” draws influence from a speech given by Marcus Garvey in Nova Scotia, 1937. Marley held that independence of African countries from European domination was a victory for all those in the African diaspora. In the song “Africa Unite”, he sings of a desire for all peoples of the African diaspora to come together and fight against “Babylon”; similarly, in the song “Zimbabwe”, he marks the liberation of the whole continent of Africa, and evokes calls for unity between all Africans, both within and outside Africa.
Marley considered cannabis a healing herb, a “sacrament”, and an “aid to meditation”; he supported the legalisation of the drug. He thought that marijuana use was prevalent in the Bible, reading passages such as Psalms 104:14 as showing approval of its usage. Marley began to use cannabis when he converted to the Rastafari faith from Catholicism in 1966. He was arrested in 1968 after being caught with cannabis but continued to use marijuana in accordance with his religious beliefs. Of his marijuana usage, he said, “When you smoke herb, herb reveal yourself to you. All the wickedness you do, the herb reveal itself to yourself, your conscience, show up yourself clear, because herb make you meditate. Is only a natural t’ing and it grow like a tree.” Marley saw marijuana usage as a vital factor in religious growth and connection with Jah, and as a way to philosophise and become wiser.
- The Wailing Wailers (1965)
- Soul Rebels (1970)
- Soul Revolution (1971)
- The Best of The Wailers (1971)
- Catch a Fire (1973)
- Burnin’ (1973)
- Natty Dread (1974)
- Rastaman Vibration (1976)
- Exodus (1977)
- Kaya (1978)
- Survival (1979)
- Uprising (1980)
- Confrontation (1983)
- Live! (1975)
- Babylon by Bus (1978)