Exploring the Life of the Most Famous Rastafarian: Bob Marley

By: Sean Ryan



In true rags to riches and exile to revered fashion, Bob Marley came from nothing to become one of the most iconic figures in music. In the simply named documentary, Marley (2012), Kevin Macdonald provides insight into the philosophy of Bob Marley and how he affected millions of people in his short, 36 years of life.

Born on February 6, 1945, in St. Ann, Jamaica, he was the bastard son of Norval Marley, a white British military man, and Cedella Booker, a local Jamaican. With his mixed background, he was labeled an outcast. Early in life, he began using music as a coping mechanism to escape from the social and economic hardships he experienced as a child. He continued to use this outlet not only to ease his own pains, but also the pain of others. At a young age, Marley converted to Rastafarianism, an African-based form of Christianity.  His faith and upbringing were major inspirations for his music. He often spoke of love, peace, and unity, and his music helped bring opposing factions together. However, he was not always universally loved. In a time of great political violence in Jamaica, someone attempted to assassinate him but failed. While this event affected Bob, he did not steer away from his moral views and continued to preach his beliefs in song. Marley toured the world until he fell ill to cancer and died on May 11, 1981. Even though he led a short life, he affected politics in several countries, made Reggae a globally recognized genre, and impacted millions of people’s lives. Bob Marley was able to take the adversities he experienced, such as poverty and rejection, and use them to develop and share his moral and ethical values with millions of people.

By the mid to late 1970’s, the conflict between the Jamaican Labor Party (JLP) and the People’s National Party (PNP) was coming to a peak in violence. While Bob was touring through England, a war between political parties was raging in Jamaica. In 1976, Prime Minister Michael Manley, head of the democratic socialist PNP,  reached out to Bob Marley and asked him to put on a free concert, to which he agreed. Bob never affiliated with one party, always attempting to stay in the middle. With his religious and moral beliefs, he only wanted peace for everyone and did not support either Michael Manley or Edward Seaga, leader of the JLP.  Even though he did not support either politician, some believed this concert supported Michael Manley. In the days leading up to the concert, an assassination attempt was carried out on Bob. Yet, Bob still played the concert, famously stating, “The people who are trying to make this world worse are not taking a day off. How can I?” While the concert was a success, the violence continued. Bob came back once again in 1978 to perform at the One Love Peace Concert. Famously, he brought Manley and Seaga up to the stage and had them shake hands. Unfortunately, just like the first concert, it did very little to relieve the tensions between the two factions. Undeniably, this hurt Bob. His home country was at war with itself, and he could do little to stop it. Bob had experienced many of the same hardships, growing up in poverty. He almost died for the cause, and very little matriculated from that sacrifice. However, this did not stop him from continuing to speak for the poor and oppressed.

Bob Marley, holding hands with opposing political figures, Michael Manley (left) and Edward Seaga (right).

Bob continued to fight for the people, only this time, in Zimbabwe. He wanted to reconnect with his African roots. The country had just officially become independent and invited Marley to perform. He agreed, but was unaware the concert was for dignitaries and not the general public. As he performed, thousands of people flooded the stadium in attempt to see him. They were met with tear gas. Yet, Bob continued to play, for these were the people he was there for. He continued to fight for and represent the poor man. He had no interest in appeasing the political leaders; Bob only wanted peace and unity for everyone. As a Rastafarian, Africa was heaven on earth, and the continual manipulation of its people by those in power hurt him deeply. Bob continued to for fight for his brothers, not only in Africa, but also in America.

Bob Marley, covering his eyes from tear gas during Zimbabwe Independence Concert.

During his tour in America, Marley noticed the vast majority of fans at his concerts were white. Bob wanted to reach out the black community, which in the 1980’s, was still being oppressed. In order to do so, he opened up for The Commodores, a soul/funk band, in September 1980 at Madison Square Garden. Even with immense success throughout  his career, Bob never lost touch with his roots, always fighting for the people without a voice.

Around the late 1970’s to early 1980’s Hip-Hop began to make waves. One of the most influential artists at the beginning was Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five. Their hit song, “The Message,” showed the dark and unforgiving world of urban living and attempted to give youths the motivation to pull themselves out of the ghetto. Other hip-hop artists began using music as a tool to teach and inspire the woefully poor to rise up against the oppression and discrimination that was so apparent in the 1980’s. For example, Public Enemy‘s “Fight the Power” and “Rebel Without a Pause.” Hip-hop artists like these two and Bob Marley all preached a message of standing up for the poor and rejected, albeit by different methods.

Kevin Macdonald delivered an intimate story of Bob Marley’s life and how he was able to affect so many people. He interviewed the people that were closest to him and implemented a previous interview of Bob Marley throughout the movie. He was able to take a balanced look at Marley’s life through the use of interviews from former bandmates, former producers, family members, his wife, baby mother, and children, among others. Through the use of so many different point of views and opinions, he created a well rounded vision of Bob Marley.

I have always had an interest in exploring rags to riches stories, especially in music. Artists like Nas, Jay-Z, Eminem, Modest Mouse, and Bob Marley expressed their woes through song like one else could. With the great adversity Bob Marley faced, he could have easily gone down a dark path to crime or lived in poverty for the rest of his life. Instead, he used those hardships as an advantage, not a crutch, to not only bring himself out of poverty, but also fight for millions of others in similar predicaments. In addition, Bob Marley was quite unique in the fact that he never changed and always stuck to his roots. All he wanted was to help others. He did not care about money or fame for himself. Bob famously stated in an interview with Gil Noble, “My life is for people; my life is only important if me can help plenty of people.”

In future research, I want to explore how his ethnic background and religion affected his everyday decisions and actions outside of music. Rastafarianism played a major role in his life. It influenced many aspects of his life, including his diet, opinions, lyrics, actions, et cetera. I want to explore how he first became involved in the religion, if his faith was ever tested, and if Rastafarianism caused him to be such a great humanitarian,  or if his instinctual philanthropic ideals led him to the religion. In addition, I want to explore how his mixed heritage and rejection as a child shaped him. The firsthand experience of being an outcast may have led to, at least in part, his constant call for unity between all people of different race and ethnicity.


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