Revolutionary Reggae: Bob Marley

Marley (2013) movie poster.

Bob Marley. The name resonates in the hearts of reggae lovers around the world. He was a fascinating and prominent figure that rose to fame in the late 1960’s by infusing his Jamaican roots and spirituality into his music.  The biographical documentary Marley (2013) directed by Kevin Macdonald focuses on Marley’s life and the influence of his beliefs and music on social, political, and cultural norms.  The film allows the audience to establish a connection between his songs and the influence that led to their creation. In essence, as the film puts it, “the most important thing culturally that was happening in Jamaica at that time was Bob Marley [entering] the world stage”. The film takes the audience all the way back to Marley’s roots allowing for a better understanding of his cultural significance.  Marley also demonstrates the power of love and music and its potential to inspire social change.

Interview where Marley discusses his spiritual and cultural beliefs.

Robert Nesta “Bob” Marley was Jamaican-European of British decent. Due to his race, Marley had to work to be socially accepted and was often referred to as “half-caste”.  Although Marley was immersed in the Jamaican culture this sense of exclusion eventually led him to cross paths with the Rastafari Movement. His humble beginnings, embraced spirituality, and desire of unity would all be reflected in his music and take the world by storm.

The documentary chronicles Marley’s life through pervious interviews and clips of Marley himself and current interviews of his family and loved ones. They allow the audience into Marley’s life explaining how who he was and how he lived his life would shape reggae culture.  The film offers an unbiased perspective on Marley, portraying both qualities that were admired and others that were highly criticized. Overall, the film stays true to the life and music of the legendary Bob Marley and also demonstrates how significant his spiritual beliefs were in the formation of reggae culture.

The Rastafari Movement had great influence in his life and of course his music. He rejected the Westernized, Babylon, style of life that focused too much on stigmatization and materialism.  This can be seen in the song “Babylon System” released in 1979.  Marley was able to “advocate for social change while simultaneously allowing listeners to forget their troubles and dance”. The intricacy between reggae and Rasta is crucial to understanding the significance of the reggae form and the spirituality of the Rastafari movement Bob Marley embraced.

Marley at the One Love Peace Concert joining the hands of the political leaders of the two warring parties.

Marley was not only influential culturally but also politically. He rose to international stardom after the release of “No Woman, No Cry” in 1975. It was around this time that Jamaica was experiencing political turmoil. Marley was asked to perform a free concert to ease the tension between the two political parties, the Jamaican Labour Party and the People’s National Party. His acceptance to perform in the concert was seen as equivalent to declaring his political affiliation. Days before the concert, Bob Marley was shot due to political motivation. Two days after being shot he performed in “Smile Jamaica” and the audience consisted of people from the PNP and the JLP but they all sang and danced side by side. For that one night, he was able to create unity among the Jamaican population. Unfortunately, even after the One Love Peace Concert in 1978, political violence continued to rise.

Marley strived for unity and equality. His music was intended to raise awareness of the world around you and its social injustices. It was music that any ethnicity would be able to listen to however he was unable to reach certain demographics besides the white population. The film discusses how it was a startling topic for Marley.  Bob eventually began to lighten up his revolutionary rhetoric with songs like “Three Little Birds” and began to appeal to the mass media culture. It is important to note that although Marley did have a black audience it was nowhere nearly as large as his white audience.  During one of his last few concerts he finally begin to appeal to the black audience on a larger scale when Bob Marley and the Wailers opened up for the Commodores.

The film allows the audience to understand the interpretation of Marley’s music. In the Bob Marley website they mention his legacy and the impact he’s had on the world:

“The Bob Marley influence upon various populations remains unparalleled, irrespective of race, color or creed. Bob Marley’s revolutionary yet unifying music, challenging colonialism, racism, “fighting against ism and scism” as he sang in “One Drop”, has had profound effects even in country’s where English isn’t widely spoken.”

Every song was influenced by an experience, event, or belief of Marley. His music is genuine and it’s real. It was because his music was so personal and powerful that listeners were able to feel that sense of unity and temporarily abolish the isolation factor of music. However this very same quality of Marley’s music allowed individuals to connect and relate on a much more personal level.  Bob Marley is a legendary figure that continues to live on through his music, a social activist whose most powerful weapons were his words and guitar.


Bob Marley and the Wailer’s last concert in the Stanley Theatre in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on September 23, 1980.

In 1981, Bob Marley died as a result of melanoma that over the years had spread to his lungs and brain.  In 1980 “Redemption Song” was released from his album Uprising. This particular song was the last song on his last album and it was Marley’s coming to terms with his mortality.  On September 23, 1980 in Pittsburgh Bob Marley and the Wailers performed their last concert at the Stanley Theatre. Even after his death his legacy and music continue to live on.

Marley was a fantastic documentary that I’d highly recommend to anyone interested.  Even after the film, some questions remain unanswered, such as why did he appeal to certain audiences and not others? Were his messages about social activism received and embraced or were his spiritual beliefs spun into something negative by the media? Regardless of the answers Bob Marley was a freedom fighter and he certainly fought in one of the loveliest ways through love and music.

“Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds!” -Bob Marley


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