As first published in TAP MAG ISSUE 3 to mark Bob Marley’s 70th birthday
February 6th 2015 marked Bob Marley’s 70th birthday. As the world celebrates, we want to have a look at the life of the King of Reggae; a man who is the definition of one manifesting own destiny. Bob had a vision and refused to give in until he realized it.
Born in a small village of Nine Miles, Saint Ann Parish Jamaica as Nesta Robert Marley; a Jamaican passport official would later swap his first and middle names. His mother Cedella “Ciddy” Malcolm was seventeen years old when she met (Bob’s father) Norval Sinclair Marley, a white Jamaican of English descent originally from Essex, England. Marley senior was a captain in the Royal Marines, as well as the official superintendent of the British owned lands in the parish of Saint Ann where his mother was born. By the time Cedella was nineteen, Norval had already abandoned her and Bob. As Rita Marley once recalled, “Bob only remembered meeting his father once, he only offered him a “Willy” penny (which is an old copper coin thought of as a collector’s item)”. Bob’s father was twice Cedella’s age and died of heart attack at about age 70. Bob was ten years old. He spent his early years with his grandfather (Cedella’s father) Omeriah Malcolm who was a traditional healer, a successful businessman, a well-respected member of the community and someone who immensely inspired Bob’s black consciousness.
“My father was white and my mother was black. Them call me half-caste or whatever. Me don’t dip on nobody’s side. Me don’t dip on the black man’s side nor the white man’s side. Me dip on God’s side, the one who create me and cause me to come from black and white.”
At fourteen, Bob and his mother moved from the rural areas of Saint Ann into Kingston city. While there, Cedella met Mr Thaddeus Livingston; she worked for him and moved her family in with him only to find out that Mr Livingston had another family. She then decided to move on to Wilmington, Delaware (USA) where some of her family and friends resided in search of a better life. By this time, Cedella had already had a baby girl called Pearl with Livingston whom she took with her to the US; leaving Bob alone with Mr Livingston. His mother’s plan had been to send for him in three months’ time, but she soon learnt how difficult it was to secure documents in the USA. Hence, Bob had to endure some troubling times by himself in Trench town, one of the toughest slums in Jamaica.
Livingston’s common-law wife resented Bob and their relationship became estranged and Bob left the household. He couldn’t find a place to lay his head until a friend offered him a place to sleep, in the auditioning/waiting area of his studio. However, Livingston’s biological son, Neville (otherwise known as Bunny Livingston and later Bunny Wailer) remained a close friend of Bob and was later to became one of the Wailers’ founding trio. Bob even considered Bunny his own brother. With his mother away, and with no family or relatives to see him through the hard life of Kingston and Trench town, Bob was an emotional wreck. According to his wife, he often wondered where his mother was. In fact, one of his early songs is “Where Is My Mother,” is a dedication to his mother.
As a young mixed race teenager, growing up in the all black and poverty ridden trench town slums; Marley suffered racial prejudice because of his mixed racial origins. Questions about his identity were to follow him his whole life. One of his greatest quotes summarizes his feelings on this particular issue. “I don’t have prejudice against myself. My father was a white and my mother was black. Them call me half-caste or whatever. Me don’t dip on nobody’s side. Me don’t dip on the black man’s side nor the white man’s side. Me dip on God’s side, the one who create me and cause me to come from black and white.” Nevertheless, throughout his entire life and mainly because of his beliefs, he self-identified as a black African/Jamaican. In his songs such as “Black Survivor”, “Rat Race”, “Zimbabwe”, “Babylon System” and “Blackman Redemption”, Marley sings about the Black people’s struggles against oppression from the West or “Babylon”. As a teenager Bob was nicknamed “Tuff Gong” because of his ability to fend for and defend himself in the streets of Trench town.
Bob married Rita Marley at the age of 21. At the time, Rita already had a baby girl from a previous relationship and when they had Cedella and Ziggy, their little income from music wasn’t enough to take care of the family so Bob decided to join members of his mother’s family in Delaware so he could support his new family. While in the US, Bob was introduced to the civil rights movement and realised that the state of black people in America was similar to what he had experienced in Jamaica. He became more aware of the global “Black Struggle”. His stay in America wasn’t as he had expected though; he was worried sick about Rita and the three kids he had left her with. He increasingly became homesick and at some point his “homesickness” was thought to be uncontrollable. When he first arrived in the USA, he got a job working in a Chrysler factory but was now out of work and doing menial tasks. In fact he even worked as a cleaner at Hotel DuPont in Wilmington Delaware. He became frustrated and decided to go back to Jamaica. In one of the letters he sent to Rita while in the US, he noted that “today while I was vacuuming, the vacuum bag burst and all that dust went up in my face. If I stay here, this is going to kill me”.
Had he been alive today, Bob Marley would be 70years old. Actually some say that he is not dead! These people say they can still vividly hear his voice. His legacy is far from being forgotten especially in his home country where they have a national holiday every year on his birthday. Bob single-handedly introduced Jamaica and reggae music to the world. He was also the first international superstar from a third world country. Today, it doesn’t matter if you’re in China or Brazil, if you go to a club or you’re just walking on the streets; you’re likely to hear some Marley jams. His song “One Love” was voted the song of the last century and it was proudly sung during President’s Obama’s inauguration to office. Since President Obama is a big fan, Bob’s family (led by eldest son Ziggy Marley) were one of the few families invited to dine with President Obama in his early months at the White House.
Bob’s life could have ended in December of 1976. He was scheduled to perform at a concert (smile Jamaica) with an aim of easing tensions between two opposition parties in Jamaica, during that year’s election. Promoters told him that his presence at the concert would help reduce violence especially in the ghettos. Against the advice of many who believed it would be dangerous for him to attend, Bob agreed to be present and just two days before the concert, while rehearsing at his Hope Road home, Bob and three other people; his wife Rita, Manager Don Taylor and a guest Lewis Griffiths, were all shot. As Rita recalls, Bob could have easily been killed, “the gunman who got him was aiming for the heart, but the bullet just grazed his chest, hit and lodged in his elbow, where it stayed for the rest of his life’. As for Rita, she was shot in the back of the head and credits her life today to God and her thick dreadlocks which prevented the bullet from making direct impact. Most people would have been cowed by this incident but not Bob.He came out of the hospital and went directly to the concert. Asked why he had gone to perform despite the obvious threat to his life, his answer was, “the people trying to make this world worse are not taking the day off!”.
AFRICA AND ROYALTY
Bob could at times be described as psychic. Those close to him say he once predicted that he would die at the age of 36! It is also understood that as a boy, just like his grandfather, he used to read peoples palms. When it came to Africa though, Bob had but a single message. Africa was home and that’s where he wanted to be. In one of his interviews, he says that he wanted to finish recording his music so he could go back to Ethiopia (meaning Africa), buy a farm and raise his children in peace. Unfortunately, he passed before he accomplished that dream but soon after he was gone, Rita Marley travelled to Ethiopia (she describes her presence in Ethiopia like putting a foot in heaven’s door) and was able to leave a piece of his dreadlocks there! She has since built a home in Ghana near a village called Konkonuru. In his latter days, Bob also described his invitation to perform at Zimbabwe’s Independence Day as the biggest honour of his life. Earlier in his life, Bob’s other vision that one day he would be rewarded by a ring had been realised when Emperor Haile Selassie’s son, Prince Asfaw Wossen, gave him a ring that once belonged to the Emperor himself. Bob wore the ring for the rest of his life and never took it off.
Like most boys who trace their roots in various shanty slums of the World, Bob Marley was known to be a mad soccer fan. Wherever his tour bus stopped, whenever studio sessions were over, whenever he had time to spare, everyone knew it was time for some football. In 1975 during a football game in France, one of the players wearing sharp metal cleats stepped on Bob’s right foot and he suffered a serious injury to his big toe. Being the hard man he was, he refused to see doctors deeming the injury as “nothing” to stop him from performing and enjoying his football. Two years later, when he re-injured the toe, the nail fell off and malignant melanoma developed. Ironically, this type of cancer rarely affects people of colour! At this stage, doctors suggested that they cut the toe before the cancer spread but since Bob was under pressure to perform and his career had started to get off the ground, with all these factors combined with his Rastafarian roots of staying natural, he refused to permit the doctors to cut off the toe. On the morning of May 11, 1981, at the age of 36 as he had envisioned as a youngster, Bob Marley went to meet his creator. He died from the same melanoma that had spread to his lungs and brain. Happy Earth day Bob and thanks for the music and inspiration. One Love, Forever.