Bob Marley: still a legend

6 Feb

Guest post, Chicago cinéaste Beth Michelle: 

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Robert Nesta Marley, if he had survived the cancerous melanoma that claimed his life at the age of 31, would have been 70 years old this year on February 6th. With that in mind, it’s a good time to look back at the profound influence he had on popular culture, as well as the spiritual and political zeitgeist of our time. Bob Marley was much more than a famous pop star with enviable record sales. He stood for Rastafarian ideals, promoting intercultural unity and harmony among races. As such, it’s important to look at his considerable achievements independent of the commercialism that distorts his legacy today.

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Marley grew up in a tumultuous time in Jamaican history. When he was a child, the country was still under heavy-handed British rule. This era witnessed tremendous exploitation of Jamaican natural resources for British profit. Full independence for Jamaica, which finally arrived in 1963, only plunged the emerging nation into another difficult period in its young history. Years later, in songs like “Africa Unite” and “Get Up, Stand Up,” Marley expressed the desires and yearnings of colonized people, and the fighting spirit that was instilled in him at an early age.

Marley, who was raised by his mother, didn’t have an easy childhood, yet friends and family remember him as relentlessly cheerful and positive. He worked many odd jobs in his teenage years and young adulthood, such as welder and factory worker, but wasn’t depressed or embittered. Music was always a source of comfort and solace. In 1963, when Marley met fellow musicians Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, the iconic band “Bob Marley and Wailers” was born.

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Yet despite the remarkable success of his band, Marley was truly a man in love with life, not material possessions. He recounted some of the happiest periods of his life as being before his stardom, when he was living simply off the land with his family. Once he became successful, he was extremely generous with family and friends. Marley’s actions were motivated by music and spiritual teachings, not financial power.

Long before he became an international superstar, Marley was renowned for his musical gifts and captivating stage presence. He was widely popular in Jamaica for many years as a songwriter and performer before he released music internationally through Island Records. Once he and the Wailers became international stars, he was a formative influence on many English and American musicians, spanning cultures and generations. Sting, Carlos Santana, Joe Strummer of The Clash, John Densmore of The Doors and many others have spoken about how much Marley has meant to them musically. Eric Clapton’s popular cover of “I Shot the Sheriff” also speaks to the transferability of his music.

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However, striving to be more than just a musician, Marley made great contributions to the intellectual life of 60s and 70s counterculture. Songs like “Get Up Stand Up,” expressed profound dissatisfaction with the structural inequality perpetuated by the establishment. Beyond that, Marley’s words served as a call to a broader intellectual independence. “One Love” is a song that calls for humanity to come together, independent of leaders and nationalism in a true spirit of unity.

Marley’s Rastafarian belief system was a big part of who he was as an artist. He used ganja for spiritual reasons, not merely recreational, incorporating personal discoveries into his artistic oeuvre. He believed in African unity as advocated by Emperor Haille Selassie of Ethiopia, and beyond that, the unity of all mankind.

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Many aspects of Marley’s legacy have come under scrutiny in recent years. While his music continues to stand alone, his image has been largely absorbed and neutralized by the establishment he once railed against. Unwilling to sign a Last Will and Testament due to his Rastafarian beliefs, holders of his estate have been able to co-opt his celebrity and use it to peddle everything from screen-printed T-shirts to cannabis-infused lip balm. The power of his intellectual ideas – beliefs in the spiritual components of ganja, unity among people, and independence from exploitation – has been largely repackaged as a “feel good” commodity, which any consumer may purchase for a price.

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There is hope, however, that Marley’s music will outshine the tarnished image of his celebrity. His son Ziggy continues to perform his father’s reggae music along with his own, recently  performing live on DirecTV’s Guitar Center Sessions, and continuing to tour. Never fading from popularity, the Marley reggae sound was popularized again with the resurgence of ska in the 90s, and has been incorporated into elements of today’s hip hop and rap beats. And of course, Marley’s original music remains as beloved today as when it was first released.

At this point in our society, it’s nearly impossible to find an art form that has not been touched by commercialization. While there has been a clear exploitation of the “Rasta” culture as well as Marley’s own easily recognizable visage by mainstream music elite, components of the Rastafarian religion remain embedded in the core of his work. Marley’s music will forever be a voice for the poor and oppressed, spreading messages of universal love and unity.

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Beth_KellyBeth Michelle is a Chicago-based blogger with a nasty film addiction. Her primary interests include pulp cinema, fashion photography and vintage Japanese film cameras.

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