Bob Marley: An Artist Whose Music Had a Purpose

“One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain.”

Bob Marley

Music is a feeling turned into a melody when words lose the potential to express that experience. Talking of music derived from life experiences and not remembering Bob Marley would be disrespect to his art.

Bob Marley: An Artist Whose Music Had a Purpose

Bob Marley was a Jamaican singer whose life was posthumously recognized. He derived his music from his memories, his experiences of being racially displaced, of his life in the slums of Kingston’s Trenchtown and his Rastafari beliefs. The truthfulness of his music is such that it has now become omnipresent, relevant to all times and spaces. Even after his death from cancer, some 39 years ago, he is revered by millions of people around the world. The omnipresence of his music is expressed by the appearance of his image on T-shirts, hats, bags and coffee mugs, sold even today.

Bob Marley brought a new wave of the popularity of reggae music, a form which had sounded strange to many ears. Being the lead singer of the reggae band, he was known to be the world ambassador of reggae music with a sale of about 20 million records. His music was greatly influenced by the social issues of Jamaica, in the background of its political and cultural nexus.

WHEN A LEGEND WAS BORN

Bob Marley was born on 6th February 1945 in the village of Nile Mile in Saint Ann Parish, Jamaica, a country that experienced more than 200 years of slavery and colonialism. His father, Norval Sinclair Marley belonging to a mixed English and Syrian Jewish descent was a white Jamiancan whereas his mother, Cedella Booker, was Afro-Jamaican. Being a child of a white father and a black mother, he faced racial segregation and was derogatorily labelled as a “White boy”.

MARLEY’S MUSICAL JOURNEY

Bob Marley: Singing

Bob Marley took his first step towards producing music while he was at school with his stepbrother, Bunny Wailer. Later at the age of 14, he left his company to work with Soe Higgs, who was a local singer and devout Rastafari. Marley’s first two singles “Judge Not” and “One Cup of Coffee” produced by Leslie Kong, received little attention. In 1963, Marley, Bunny Wailer, Peter Tosh, Junior Braithwaite, Beverly Kelso and Cherry Smith formed a rock steady group called “The Teenagers” or “The Wailing Wailers” with Marley as its lead singer.

By 1966, Braithwaite, Beverly Kelso and Cherry Smith left their band and the core trio constituting Bob Marley, Wailer and Peter Tosh was left. Marley with Lee “Scratch” Perry and his studio band “The Upsetters” gave some of the Wailers’ finest songs. In 1968, Marley worked with Jimmy Norman and originated a 24 minutes tape from a 3-day Jam session. Roger Steffens, Reggae archivists termed this tape to be ‘rare’ as it was influenced by pop rather than reggae. 

Marley further experimented with different songs, adopting doo-wop style on “Stay With Me”. Island Records founder, Blackwell, viewed Marley as a person rich with an element required to lure the rock audience. His album “Catch A Fire” released worldwide in April 1973, was an honour to the deal made by Blackwell, who wanted him to prepare a complete album.

In 1974, on one hand his “Get up, Stand Up” and “I Shot The Sheriff” raised him to an international platform while on the other their trio broke up with the three assuming separate courses for some concealed reason. Despite this, Marley continued as “Bob Marley & The Wailers” and in 1975 produced his “No Woman No Cry” from the Natty Dread album. 

Bob Marley: Singing

Bob Marley then took over the stage as a singer, songwriter and rhythm guitarist. His lyrics defined social consciousness. They became a memoir about the growing unemployment, allotted food supplies and pervasive political violence he saw in Jamaica. Through his cultural and political awareness, Marley’s stature was raised to an influential cultural icon.

Marley, his wife and manager Don Taylor had been the victims of a politically motivated attack by an unidentified gunman inside his home. This assault took place just two days before “Smile Jamaica”, a free concert regulated by Michael Manley, then prime minister of Jamaica on 3 December 1976, to ease the uncertainties between two political groups. 

Bob Marley Getting Shot

The passion and determination of Bob Marley towards music was such that despite being injured he performed on schedule. The reason that he gave for his never-ending devotion was “When people trying to make the world worse don’t stop then how can I”. Such a great legend he was!

WHEN RACIAL SEGREGATION PUNCHED HIM HARD

Bob Marley was racially criticised and bullied for having a fairer color. Being a victim of racial segregation, be dealt with identity crises, as a solution to which he developed the notion of being on God’s side. His insecurities troubled him to such an extent that he used shoe polish to blacken his hair. This fact contrasts with his reggae superstar image and highlights the uncertainties and difficulties of his private life unleashed on him due to his mixed inheritance.

Initially, Marley’s music grabbed the attention of white folks, due to his rejection by the African-Americans. His 1984 compilation ‘Legend’ had more number of plays in Delta chi frat house, a club in Buenos Aires than all black parties in New York City. His inability to attract the attention of Black American audiences in a way like his contemporaries like Gaye and Stevie Wonder did, troubled him.

Bob Marley and Rita Marley

Though his marriage to a Black woman, Rita, did make a social statement and directed a brief change in people’s perspective towards him and racism in general, its effect was only short-term. Due to the lack of pyro-techniques like coloratura and melisma on which the Black American music lovers had a high premium, Marley’s music has a foreignness associated with it. His Jamaican heritage also made him a victim of xenophobia.

Bob Marley was embraced by the white folks after the release of ‘Legend’ and was partly loved by the blacks due to his acknowledgement of Africa specific struggle in songs like “War” and “Zimbabwe”. His Afro-centricism spoke to black Africans in the 70’s as rap and hip-hop did in the ’80s. His influence of reggae could be found even in the modern artists, like in the works of Rihanna.

HIS MUSIC AS A MESSAGE 

  • Bob Marley: An Artist Whose Music Had a Purpose
  • Bob Marley: An Artist Whose Music Had a Purpose

In the 1960s, being fascinated by the Rastafarian beliefs in contrast to his upbringing in the Catholic tradition, Bob Marley converted to Rastafari and left the deadlocks to be his trademark. His inclination towards culture played a central role in the evolution of reggae. In his songs “One Love” and “No Woman No Cry”, he preached peace and serenity to the masses. He took the music out of the socially deprived areas of Jamaica to the International music arena. 

Bob Marley devotedly spoke about the Black Diaspora. He brought the lives of the people, marginalised due to the slave trade and imperialism, to the mainstream. Through his music, he told the stories of the displaced population. In letting the truth about their lives reach the masses he claimed victory over daily agony.

The central theme of his message delivered through songs was the repatriation of black people at Zion. The cry about the struggles of blacks and justice against this oppression is evident in his “Black Survivor”, “Babylon System” and “Blackman Redemption”. His appearance in the Amandla Festival in Boston, July 1979 marked his resistance to South African apartheid, depicted through his song “War” in 1976.

INJUSTICE TO HIS ART

Though his music possessed hypnotic and addictive qualities, none of his staples rose to the U.S hits. His “Roots, Rock, Reggae” from ‘Vibration’ peaked to number 51 on the Hot 100, hence it can be said that one of the most loved artists in music history never had a Top 40 hit in the U.S. In contrast UB40, a multi-racial reggae band from England, benefitting from Marley’s prestige, enjoyed five U.S, Top 40 singles on the Hot 100. Can we then say that society then was so engaged in practising racial segregation that they did not even mind to let go of pure art? 

LIFE WAS UNFAIR TO HIM

In July 1977, Bob Marley was detected with a type of malignant melanoma in the nail of one of his toes. He prioritised music over life, rejected amputation and continued to travel and perform. The “Redemption song” of his album ‘Uprising’, released in May 1980 is considered to be Marley’s subservience to morality. He performed the first concert of his life in September 1980 at Stanley Theater in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. He died at the age of 36, on 11th May 1981, at Lebanon hospital in Miami with his final words Money can’t buy life to his son, Ziggy.

Sadly we live in a world where the value of a thing is recognised only when it is lost. Though hailed, loved, listened and sung today, Marley never witnessed his well-deserved fame while alive. The healing touch of his voice, his majestic looks and the purity of his art were suppressed by the social and political prejudices. Despite all such hurdles, he never stopped and worked with faith for God and society. Taking all the prejudices to himself, all he has left behind with his music is love, peace, happiness and freedom.

“Life is one big road with lots of signs. So when you’re riding through the ruts, don’t complicate your mind. Flee from hate, mischief and jealousy. Don’t bury your thoughts; put your vision to reality. Wake up and live!”

Bob Marley

Liked this piece? Also Read: Vincent Van Gogh: Life, Paintings and Afterlife.

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