When we think of Reggae music, Rastafarianism and the island of Jamaica, the vision that usually comes to mind is of the mythical figure that was known as Robert Nesta “Bob” Marley (1945-1981). He has been gone for more than thirty-seven years but his music still inspires millions of people around the world and his image graces t-shirts, posters, book covers and other items deemed to be collectibles by their sellers. To some, there is no Reggae without Marley and he is considered to be one of Jamaica’s greatest icons, the superstar from Nine Miles who made his way up through the ghettos of Trench Town until making it big in the music business, where he found international fame. His untimely death on May 11, 1981, sent shock waves through the music industry and the sense of loss continues to confuse as many will ask the question, why did he leave this world at such a young age? To answer that question, it is first necessary to understand Marley’s life. Timothy White (1952-2002), a former journalist with the Associated Press, interviewed Marley scores of times and conducted extensive research to compose this phenomenal biography of the late musician. But just who was Bob Marley? And what was it about him that captivated millions?
The story begins in the small village of Nine Mile, St. Ann Parish, where Bob enters the world in the early part of 1945. The son of a white father and Black Jamaican mother, his early life was that of a child caught between two different worlds as his parents each sought to keep him close to heart. In the end, his mother would win out and throughout his life, she would always remain in his corner. Cedella “Ciddy” Marley is a strong presence in the book from start to finish as she raises Bob before making the painstaking decision to relocated to the United States settling in Wilmington, Delaware. Her young son tried his hand at American life but fate intervened and he returned to his destiny in Jamaica where he would rise to stardom and become the king of Reggae music. But his story is far more than just singing tunes.
The reader should know that White chose to include Jamaican Patois as he recounts the statements of Marley and others whose words were critical in the formation of the book. Those unfamiliar with the dialect might have a little trouble at first following along. For others, especially those familiar with Jamaica or those who come from the island, will follow along rather easily. I think the decision to include and not translate the interviews in standard English is what gives the book its authenticity. White transplants the reader from the comfort of the their own dwelling to the village of Nine Mile where language is sharp, words fiercely spoken and modern amenities unheard of. But without learning the story of Marley’s early life, his future would not make any sense. Furthermore, White captures the social climate of Jamaica and for some readers, it may seem like another world. Culture, politics and violence are found in the book bringing the reality of life in Jamaica vividly real. And in the middle of this was Bob, the voice of peace and icon of the infusion of Reggae and Rastafarianism, in which he and others pay their homage to the late Emperor Haile I Selassie (1892-1975). It is critical for the reader to understand the impact of Selassie on Jamaican culture, Bob’s life and the pillars of the Rastafarian movement for these points will explain the path he took later in his life.
No book about Marley or Jamaica at that time would be complete without the political battles which nearly ravaged the island. Marley found himself in a tug of war at times, between the right and left-wing parties of Edward Seaga (Jamaican Labor Party) and Michael Manley (People’s National Party) (1924-1997). Their battles and the violence that broke out across Jamaica, set the stage for the poverty, drugs and turmoil that continue to grip the island. Thousands of Jamaicans would suffer and Marley himself nearly lost his life during an ambush in which he and his wife Rita were shot and wounded. Other musicians would always meet violence and Marley’s former band mate Peter Tosh (1944-1987) would pay the ultimate price in a climate in which violence spiraled out of control. But throughout all, Reggae remained strong and is pioneered today by Marley’s children and a younger generation of singers. The Rastafarian movement continues as well, with more converts growing their locks, embracing Ganja and giving praise to Jah.
Reggae is a genre of music that has brought millions of people together in harmony as the soft tunes and uplifting lyrics reached deep into the soul causing the listener to be engulfed in emotion. Many have come and gone but there will always be the late king, Robert Nesta “Bob” Marley.
“None but ourselves can free our minds.” -Bob Marley