Had he not lost his fight to cancer, Bob Marley would have turned 69-years old this Thursday.
While most people cite Marley and his landmark compilation album Legend as their introduction to reggae music, it’s hard to realize the full scope of his legacy. Serious reggae aficionados have a love/hate thing with Marley’s popularity.
On the one hand, he got a lot of people listening to reggae. On the other hand, he is so popular that a lot of people cannot distinguish between his music and every other reggae artist on Earth. Put on literally any album by Toots & The Maytals and watch how many people immediately think it’s Marley.
However, it is Marley’s social impact that is often washed away with his musical and cultural impact.
While his poster is a mainstay of college dorm rooms everywhere, it is his role as social catalyst that is lost. During a stroll through the infamous Trenchtown on his previous television show, chef Anthony Bourdain made a stunningly astute observation. He noted that in any place where there is revolution, you see two faces: Che Guevara and Marley.
Not only through his music, but through his activism, Marley was able to unite a Jamaica torn by violence between rival political factions. It was acts of defiance like this, along with his lyrics, that urged people to break their chains and insist upon changes for peace and unity. He not only believed in equality, he demanded it. This was the kind of guy Marley was.
It’s a little-known fact that Marley never received a cent of royalties for his classic hit, “No Woman No Cry“. While it is fact that he wrote the song and its hauntingly beautiful melody, the credited writer is Vincent Ford. Ford ran a soup kitchen in Marley’s neighborhood of Trenchtown and needed some money. Rather than write a check, Marley handed writing credit for his hit song to Ford, ensuring the people of Trenchtown would never go hungry. Maybe it’s worth an iTunes download?
Marley’s legacy is so often misunderstood, it borders on disrespectful. Did Marley smoke a lot of marijuana? Sure he did. Was it because he loved getting high? No. Ganja was a holy sacrament to Marley. He smoked marijuana because he believed it brought him closer to the Lord. It was part of his Rastafarian beliefs, which are also widely misunderstood.
So many kids will throw a Marley t-shirt on and cry “Jah! Ras Tafari!” without even knowing what it is. Marley believed firmly in the tenets of Rastafarianism, which stated that black Jamaicans are the original children of Israel, exiled from Africa and would one day be delivered back to their Zion in Ethiopia. They also believed that Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia was the second coming of Jesus Christ and would deliver them back.
This deep belief drove Marley’s fight for equality. He knew that if he and his people were enslaved and oppressed in Jamaica, the struggles elsewhere must have been terrible. He saw it as his job to not only hasten the deliverance of his own people, but of oppressed people everywhere.
While popularizing reggae music virtually singlehandedly, Marley changed the landscape of music. However, it was his commitment to human rights and equality that made his true mark on the world. To cloud that legacy is to deny oneself a vital part of history and to close an area of human compassion that needs opening.
If Marley were alive today, he’d more than likely laugh his trademark laugh and tell you “it’s okay, be who you are.”