Remembering Bob Marley, 30 Years Later

On May 11, 1981, the reggae superstar died at age 36. Here's why his musical legacy and personal legend are still holding strong around the world.

In our fast-paced world, a celebrity is created virtually every minute. But there are few musical celebrities with a legacy as enduring as that of Nesta Robert “Bob” Marley.

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Today marks the 30th anniversary of the death of a true musical pioneer, a man whose impact transcended class, race and culture all over the world. The reggae legend inspired an almost spiritual following among a diverse set of believers, who expressed their devotion in iconography as varied as indigenous Australian shrines and posters on college-dorm-room walls.

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But the question must be asked: Why do so many people connect with Marley? The answer is fairly simple: Marley was an everyman, a gentle soul and a revolutionary. Many have identified with his humble upbringing in the tiny island of Jamaica, the Pan-African beliefs stemming from his Rastafarian faith, and his advocacy of social justice. When he penned politically charged songs like “I Shot the Sheriff” and “Get Up Stand Up,” they resonated as far more than mere recordings. They were calls to action.

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Many of Marley’s greatest and most recognizable hits came with the Wailers (including Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer), who grew up beside him in Trench Town, a Kingston ghetto that spawned many musical greats. Influenced by American music from the era, the band imbued their traditional Jamaican rhythms with the soul of Motown, creating a different take on black music.

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Carried by the Caribbean migration to England, the sounds of the islands were reaching new continents. A chance meeting with Island Records head Chris Blackwell in 1972 allowed Marley and the Wailers access to the same high-tech recording equipment that rock bands were using at the time. Their Third World sound crossed over into the developed world.

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Throughout the 1970s the musicians produced a slew of worldwide hits. Tracks such as “Exodus” and “One Love” made the charts in the U.S. as well as in the U.K. and other European countries.

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Ultimately, it was Marley’s penchant for social justice that made him an identifiable superstar. Although he was half white (born to a father of English descent), Marley always identified himself as Pan-African, and during the mid-1970s he dedicated a string of songs to the Diaspora: “Buffalo Soldier” to African Americans, “Africa Unite” to those in Zimbabwe and “War” to his brothers suffering through South Africa’s apartheid.

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He was not just outspoken politically; Marley was also not afraid to mix spirituality and song. For this strong believer in the Rastafarian movement and the divinity of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I, religion was an integral part of his music and work ethic. The movement most recognizable to outsiders by its adherents’ long dreadlocks, spiritual use of marijuana and belief in Africa (Zion) as the birthplace of mankind has been adopted in the African continent, the United States and even Japan. The influence of Marley’s faith can be seen on tracks such as 1974’s “Natty Dread” and “So Jah S’eh.”

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Marley’s involvement in Jamaica’s politics almost got him killed. In 1976 violent clashes between supporters of Jamaica’s two major political parties left hundreds dead, inspiring Marley to play the Smile Jamaica festival at the government’s invitation in order to help quell the ongoing bloodshed. Unfortunately, some saw the festival as a support rally for the People’s National Party leader, Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley, and his endorsement of political violence against dissent.

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As tensions in the country grew high, gunmen entered the Marley home, shooting Marley; his wife, Rita; and his manager, Don Taylor, in the middle of the night. They all survived, and despite his injuries, Marley performed at the festival two days later, saying, “The people who are trying to make this world worse aren’t taking a day off. How can I?” After the concert, Marley and his band left Jamaica for more than a year, recording the international hit album Exodus while in the U.K. However, his commitment to his home country would see Marley return, organizing the One Love Peace concert in 1978.

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Another love of Marley’s life was Rita, a musician in her own right who often sang backup for the Wailers and recorded several albums of her own. The couple met in the mid-1960s through Peter Tosh, fell in love and married shortly afterward. Throughout Marley’s career, Rita was by his side, even through his repeated infidelities. She was his rock, especially in his later years as he battled health problems.

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In 1977 a routine toe injury during a soccer game in France refused to heal. Testing revealed he had melanoma, a type of skin cancer. In accordance with his Rastafarian beliefs, Marley refused to have the toe amputated, and the cancer began to spread throughout his body. Marley lived, recorded and performed for more than three years despite the severity of his disease. In 1980 he released his last album, Uprising, penning the iconic classic “Redemption Song,” a track in which he confronted his mortality.

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His final concert took place at the Stanley Theater in Pittsburgh on Sept. 23, 1980. After unsuccessful cancer treatment in Europe, Marley died a few months later, in 1981, at a Miami hospital at the age of 36.

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But Marley lives on. The album Legend, released three years after his death, has gone platinum 10 times over and is still the greatest-selling reggae album of all time. Last year the Marley estate brought in more than $6 million, according to Forbes magazine.

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Marley’s influence was not limited to reggae. Eric Clapton owes one of his most famous hits to Marley and the Wailers — his version of “I Shot the Sheriff” reached No. 1 in the United States in 1974. And as hip-hop became a global force in worldwide music, Marley’s legacy inspired the world’s urban community. The Notorious B.I.G., Guru and the Fugees have reworked Marley classics over the years.

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And let’s not forget Marley’s living legacies. His talented children continue to record and perform worldwide. Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers — which also featured brother Stephen as well as their sisters Sharon and Cedella — were popular in the late 1980s and through much of the ’90s. Stephen released a groundbreaking album in 2009 called Mind Control and continues to tour regularly. Last year youngest brother Damian Marley released his collaborative album, Distant Relatives, with rapper Nas, blending African rhythms, hip-hop and traditional reggae sounds.

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Three decades after Bob Marley’s death, you can turn on any radio or walk down any street, and you will likely hear a Marley song or see someone wearing a Marley T-shirt. His image will continue to resonate for years to come; let’s also hope his peace-loving ideals will be embraced during the next 30 years — and 30 years after that. – The Roots