Bob Marley a Music, a Message for the World

By Kuelker, Michael | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), February 5, 1995 | Go to article overview

Bob Marley a Music, a Message for the World


Kuelker, Michael, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


Do I contradict myself?

Very well then I contradict myself,

(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

- Walt Whitman, "Song of Myself" -

BOB MARLEY was large. He contained multitudes.

In a sense, Marley can be compared to Walt Whitman, considered the first authentically American poet, who said the land is the best poetry.

Similarly, Marley is the most significant artist yet to emerge from the Third World because he took the center of Jamaican life everywhere he went - and made his listeners feel he was singing about them.

"The power he willed in the music was incredible," says Kirk Wheeler, bassist for Reggae at Will, a local band.

"He could incite world leaders to make changes through the power of the word-sound. I'd compare him to leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, people who created change."

He was born Nesta Robert Marley 50 years ago, on Feb. 6, 1945, in Nine Mile, Jamaica, a tiny village in the parish that spawned Marcus Garvey, a founder of the cultural and spiritual resistance movement known as Rastafarianism.

In the time between Marley's first recording - "Judge Not," an awkward ska single in 1961 - and his death from cancer in 1981, Marley and his band, the Wailers, internationalized reggae music, accomplishing what several generations of pan-Africanist scholars had been doing for decades: raising consciousness about black liberation and bringing the message of the Rastafarians from where it began in the green hills of Jamaica to the world arena.

Marley's "Legend" album, a greatest-hits collection, has sold more than 10 million copies worldwide, and his catalog still generates sales of nearly a million copies annually.

In his songs, Rasta merged with street and beat, as when he set a speech on human rights by Haile Selassie (emperor of Ethiopia and the spiritual leader of Rastafarians) to music in "War," a blistering indictment of racism and post-colonial oppression. Backdrops of Garvey and Haile Selassie were fixtures on Marley's concert stage.

Marley's difficult beginnings did not foreshadow the impact he would make with his message and his music. Nor did they fortell the messianic-level legacy he would leave in the years after his death.

He was the child of Cedella Booker, an 18-year-old black girl, and a white army captain who was almost 50. Marley seldom saw his father, whose family shunned the interracial marriage.

"Bob was very light, and the people at Nine Mile were very dark," said Leroy Pierson, a St. Louis musicologist who is co-writing a complete discography of the Wailers and a biography of Bunny Wailer. "When he was very little, Bob got beaten regularly. He was abused and discriminated against by Jamaicans, by young kids, to an extent that I'm not sure any of us can comprehend.

"Bob got it from both sides; he was both white and black. Bob chose to be black philosophically and intellectually."

For some of his youth, Marley lived in Kingston, Jamaica's capital, settling in Trenchtown, a neighborhood on the west side of town where society's pariahs lived in shanty towns and tenement yards.

Class differences in a culture that was under British colonial rule until 1962 exerted deprivations and restrictions.

"Trenchtown is the worst hole in the Western Hemisphere, next to Port-au-Prince," said Pierson. "Just to be there was the mark of Cain as far as the rest of society was concerned."

In Trenchtown, Marley, Bunny Livingston (later Bunny Wailer) and Peter McIntosh (a.k.a. Peter Tosh), who was murdered in 1987, launched the Wailers' recording career. Releasing dozens of singles in the mid-1960s that caused ripples in Kingston's urban scene, the Wailers became famous but never earned much money.

Any bona fide artist creates a world in his art. Marley's world, like Whitman's, contained contradictions. …

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