Long live Bob Marley

The reggae icon's rich legacy thrives 40 years after his death

A mural by Portuguese artist Odeith of Jamaican singer Bob Marley (above, in a November 2019 photograph) in Sacavem on the outskirts of Lisbon.
A mural by Portuguese artist Odeith of Jamaican singer Bob Marley (above, in a November 2019 photograph) in Sacavem on the outskirts of Lisbon.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

KINGSTON (Jamaica) • It has been four decades since Bob Marley's death, a period longer than the reggae icon's brief but potent life that skin cancer ended when he was 36.

Yet, Marley lives on as a voice of the dispossessed, the palpable vibrancy, spirit of protest and moral zeal of his songs, including One Love, Redemption Song and I Shot The Sheriff, enduring in a way few bodies of popular music have done.

His rich anthems of peace and struggle, hope and discontent, still reverberate globally and especially in his native Jamaica, a small nation whose rich culture its most famous son popularised on an international stage.

"It is said the brightest stars sometimes don't burn as long and, in many ways, Bob Marley was our brightest star. He accomplished a lot in a short period of time," said reggae artiste Judy Mowatt, an original member of the influential I-Threes trio whose vocals backed Marley.

"Looking back now, I believe, in many ways, he was before his time," she said. "His words have been prophetic. He was a man who believed everything he sang. It wasn't just lyrics and music."

Marley was diagnosed with acral lentiginous melanoma in 1977, which was first discovered underneath a toenail when he suffered a foot injury playing football.

He opted against doctors' recommendations that he amputate his toe, a procedure that would have violated his staunch Rastafarian faith.

While in New York in 1980 to perform two shows at Madison Square Garden, Marley collapsed during a Central Park jog.

He was rushed to the hospital, where doctors found the cancer had crept into his brain, lungs and liver.

Marley performed what would be his final show in Pittsburgh on Sept 23, 1980.

Not long after, he cut his tour short and underwent months of ultimately unsuccessful alternative cancer treatment in Germany.

On his way home to Jamaica to receive one of his nation's highest awards, the Order of Merit, Marley's condition worsened.

He landed in Miami to seek emergency treatment. "Money can't buy life," he reportedly told his son Ziggy from his hospital bed before his death on May 11, 1981, 40 years to the day on Tuesday.

Learning of Marley's death is a moment seared into Mowatt's consciousness.

"It was a Monday morning, sitting on the verandah like I am now, and I got a telephone call that Bob passed," she said.

"It was very painful. All the years we have worked together has come to a closure and it just hit me. Bob was gone forever."

Marley was given a state funeral in Jamaica on May 21, 1981, that combined elements of Ethiopian Orthodox and Rastafari tradition.

He was eulogised by former prime minister Edward Seaga and buried in a chapel near his birthplace, with his guitar.

This year's 40th anniversary of Marley's death is particularly poignant after Bunny Wailer, the last surviving member of the original group The Wailers, died in March.

"This is the first year we are memorialising Bob's transition anniversary from 1981 in the context of all three Wailers leaving, Peter (Tosh) having left in 1987 and Bunny surviving them both for 40 years and 33 years respectively, transitioning here in 2021," Ms Maxine Stowe, Bunny Wailer's long-time manager, said.

The Wailers "are now reunited in another plane of existence", she said.

The group in the 1960s helped transform reggae, with its heavy bass lines and drums, into a global phenomenon .

The genre - which emerged out of Jamaica's ska and rock-steady styles, also drawing from American jazz and blues - has influenced countless artistes and inspired many new music styles including reggaeton, dub and dance hall.

The style is often championed as a music of the oppressed, with lyrics addressing sociopolitical issues, imprisonment and inequality.

"His voice was an omnipresent cry in our electronic world, his sharp features, majestic locks and prancing style a vivid etching on the landscape of our minds," the late Mr Seaga said during his eulogy.

"Most people do not command recollection. Bob Marley was never seen. He was an experience which left an indelible, mystical imprint with each encounter," he added.

"Such a man cannot be erased from the mind. He is part of the collective consciousness of the nation."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 15, 2021, with the headline 'Long live Bob Marley'. Subscribe