A spray of dreadlocks, a sinuous beat, a voice singing of revolution, revelation and romance. There was a man, born in that same locale of many names, that some called The Skipper, for his commanding nature and that others called the Tuff Gong, for his fortitude. He referred to himself, at various times and in various songs, as the Duppy Conquerer (for his power over the spirit world), the Small Axe (who can cut down the big tree) and a Soul Rebel. For a time, disillusioned by his struggles in the cut-throat Jamaican music scene, he lived in Wilmington, Delaware, worked in an auto plant, and went by the alias Donald. But he soon returned to Jamaica and embraced his destiny as a music superstar as well as the name that we now know him by: Bob Marley.
Robert Nesta Marley, who was born in Jamaica in 1945 and died in Miami in 1981, would have turned 69 years old on February 6th. Like the island on which he was born, he was man of many names and many identities. When Bono, the lead singer of the Irish rock band U2, inducted Marley into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994, he said this about the Tuff Gong: “He wanted everything at the same time and was everything at the same time: prophet, soul rebel, Rastaman, herbsman, wild man, a natural mystic man, ladies man, island man, family man, Rita’s man, soccer man, showman, shaman, human, Jamaican.”
The groundswell for Marley and reggae began underground, with ordinary fans, which was entirely fitting since his music was inspired by ordinary people. When Marley recorded his albums, the studios in which he worked were often packed with friends and girlfriends, musicians and onlookers, folks who were playing on the record, and folks who were just playing around. “Marley would pull ideas from those around him—the jokes, the encouragement, the wisdom of those who spoke with the natural poetic authority that many Rastafarians are known for,” Kwame Dawes wrote in his study Bob Marley: Poetic Genius. Marley told a Jamaican magazine in 1978, “Well, is the people of Jamaica really make me what I am. Is them say ‘go Bob’….I sing, the people applaud. Them people down here is the greatest people in the world. Is them build I and I.”
The rest of the world eventually caught up to what many Jamaicans, and fans of counter-cultural music, had known for years. Playboy wrote about Marley in 1976, “Let’s say this right up front and underline it twice: Bob Marley and the Wailers seem to have emerged as the finest rock-‘n’-roll band of the Seventies….And that includes the Beatles, Otis Redding, the Stones, all of them. That’s how good they are.”
Marley worked primarily within one genre—reggae—but his songs investigated many moods and many modes. Marley was a musical genius for a multicultural age, a man for all seasons who died before his time, a shape-shifter who never fit into established musical formats. There are so many varied moments in his work: the stately guitar of “Redemption Song,” the spritely horns of “Is this Love”, the soothing, seductive bass of “Stir it Up.” “Babylon System” wakes you up like strong bitter coffee; “Turn Your Lights Down Low” goes down sweet, like mango juice. For every moment in life, there seems to be a Marley song that fits.
Pop music success is often about hooks and image, radio play and squeezing into niches. Today, pop music often divides listeners more than it unites them, as fans take sides for and against gangsta rap or rap-rock or alt. country or teen pop. Shallow music sells because it can be understood readily within the 3-minute span of a pop song; great music endures because it can stand up to repeated listens, and, in fact, grows with each hearing.
In much of today’s popular music, romance is dying, politics is fatal and God is dead. But Marley covered it all—the sexual, the political, the spiritual—and made all of these concerns seem like the most natural topics to be singing about. He took Jamaica’s complicated history—a jumble of such disparate concepts, places and things as Rasta philosophy, Garveyism, pirates, rebellion, guava jelly, and Trench Town — and refashioned it into focused, complex music that was concerned with reality but shot through with magic. He was a musical magic realist, a “Natural Mystic”, a man who had visions of Jah, but believed in looking “for yours on earth.”
Because Marley dared to make music of depth, it has had longevity as well. Once shunned by many African-Americans and held at arm’s length by whites, Marley is now embraced by whites, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Americans, Africans, Jamaicans and more. A man of many names and many fans, the general public’s feelings towards Bob Marley are now best summarized by the title of what is among his most singular songs: One Love.