The Secrets To Making Bob Marley An Icon

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Quick! Try and think of something you don’t like about Bob Marley. Nothing, right? All this invisible alien has is a general uneasiness about guys christened Bob who can then be called Robert when it suits them. Seems a little shifty. Other than that, the Jamaican reggae superstar’s place as an icon in the pantheon of greatness seems categorically assured. With a little digging, though, like we argued here with Nelson Mandela, a lingering uneasiness from few dangling skeletons emerges.


It was whilst licking a rather sugary lollipop in a crowded Marrakech bazaar in 2007 that this invisible alien got a real whiff of Bob Marley’s giant reach, bestriding across the globe’s latitudes like a giant Gulliver in Lilliput. As the immaculately bearded Persian vendor (who I later learned was from a tiny mountainous village) handed me a knitted Kilim Pouffe, he heard my Jamaican accent and placed the few words of English he knew to song:

‘don’t worry, 

about a thing,

 cause every little thing is gonna be alright.’

legendMarley’s smile was effervescent and immediately we connected. From Kingston to Marrakech, we joined through the penned words of this handsome dreadlocked Jamaican; the product of a poor teenaged black mother and a well-to-do white middle-aged father who hastily abandoned him months after his birth.

In Tunisia at the start of the Arab spring in 2011, people were singing Get Up, Stand Up. Immediately after the fruit seller set fire to himself to start the revolution, that was the slogan written on the wall near where he died. Not bad for a little Rasta boy from St. Ann, eh?

In the 34 years since his passing, Bob Marley has become arguably the world’s most-recognized musician, his image used to sell a range of products from t-shirts to shoes to headphones to coffee. In Jamaica you will find Marley/Tuff Gong Trading Stores and paraphernalia in stores and stalls across the nation.

And this is by no means confined to Morocco or Jamaica or Tunisia. Marley’s legions of fans, from children to pensioners, represent a United Nations-like array of ethnicities, creeds and national origins. Japanese, Europeans, Maoris, Indonesians and, of course, Africans — regard Bob Marley as a “Redeemer figure coming to lead this planet out of confusion,” and some consider him nothing less than the literal second coming of Jesus Christ. Say what you will about the adoration accorded John Coltrane, John Lennon, Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, but this is another order of iconicity. Maybe it’s the ganja — well, definitely it’s the ganja, right?


As an opening act for Lionel Ritchie and The Commodores, Bob Marley and the Wailers performed two consecutive sold-out nights at New York City’s Madison Square Garden (Sept. 19, 20), the third and fourth dates of Uprising’s US tour leg. The day following the band’s second MSG show, Marley collapsed while jogging in Central Park. Advised to immediately stop the tour, Marley continued through to Pittsburgh, where he delivered the last set of his career on September 23, 1980. On May 11, 1981, Bob Marley succumbed to complications from cancer aged just 36 years old.

At the time of his death in May 1981, he was the biggest star in reggae and the father of at least 11 children. He was not, however, a big seller.

So how then did this child from Nine Miles St. Ann, a rotten poor rural Jamaican dirt basin, rise to the status of global music icon? Is this a mere rag to riches story or were their more dubious, disturbing forces at work? How did Bob Marley outlast and outlive all his contemporaries to sell over 100 million albums in corners of the earth that had never heard of patois? A man that had never made a platinum record before his death is now selling them like cheap water in an Ethiopian village? What changed? Why is he so deified when, like most humans, he is filled with so many haunting contradictions? Is his iconic status justified?

Quick Rewind

Jamaica is a place of breathtaking natural beauty. However, it is also a country steeped in a history of violence and brutality. The pioneer of this was Christopher Columbus who ‘discovered’ the island in 1494 and proceeded to either slaughter the Arawak population that already lived there or sell them into slavery. From 1517 onwards, transported African slaves increasingly populated the island. Britain seized control from Spain in 1655 and set about an even more intense process of exploitation. By the end of the 18th century over 300,000 slaves inhabited the island and by the time slavery ended ‘officially’ in 1838, 42% of sugar exported to Britain came from Jamaica. It was a lucrative business for those who owned and controlled this wealth. For the captive population, though, it was a life of unmitigated misery. The cruel hypocrisy of this colonial rule is a constant theme of Marley’s work.

Despite the masses’ eventual release from captivity this wretchedness has continued. Punishing poverty and unmitigated violence has been the order the day. It was into this society at the end of British imperial rule and the impending end of World War II that Robert Nesta Marley was born on February 6, 1945.

With his two friends Neville “Bunny” Livingston and Peter McIntosh (later Peter Tosh), they formed the Wailing Wailers in Trench Town.

Around this time, Bob Marley was exploring his spiritual side and developed a growing interest in the Rastafarian movement into a fully fledged member of the group.


Selling Bob to the ‘Burbs’

At the time of his death in May 1981, Bob Marley was the biggest star in reggae. He was not, however, a big seller. So how did the geniuses responsible for his estate engineer this remarkable turnaround? How was Bob made legend?

Two years after Marley’s passing, Chris Blackwell, the founder of Marley’s label, Island Records decided to release a compilation of Bob Marley’s hits. He took one look at the artist’s sales figures and was shocked. Marley’s best-selling album, 1977’s Exodus, had moved only about 650,000 units in the United States and fewer than 200,000 in the United Kingdom. Those were not shabby numbers, but they weren’t in line with Blackwellthe artist’s profile.

Blackwell developed a vision for the compilation. He and his advisors balked at what they perceived as Marley’s somewhat “militant” image.

“I always saw Bob as someone who had a strong kind of political feeling,” Blackwell said. “Somebody who was representing the dispossessed of the world.” That wasn’t going to move units.

Change was afoot. He’d seen the way Island Records had marketed Marley in the past and believed it was precisely this type of portrayal (black militant) that was responsible for the mediocre numbers. They needed to crack the white suburban market.

They recognized that “record companies can – just like a documentary – slant [their subjects] in whatever direction they like.” “If you don’t get the demographic right and sorted in your mind, you can present it just slightly off to the left or the right. I thought that was happening, and had restricted his possible market.” Blackwell believed he could sell a million copies of the greatest-hits album. To do it, however, he would have to repackage not just a collection of songs but Marley himself.

“My vision of Bob from a marketing point of view,” Robinson (Blackwell’s right hand man) says, “was to sell him to the white world.”

Your Vibe Attracts your Tribe

It’s not that Marley didn’t have white fans when he was alive. Caucasian college students in the United States constituted a large percentage of his fan base. But for the compilation to meet Blackwell’s lofty sales goals, those students’ parents had to buy the album, too.

Blackwell had a hunch that suburban record buyers were uneasy with Marley’s image – that of a perpetually stoned, politically driven black iconoclast associated with violence. So he commissioned London-based researcher Gary Trueman to conduct focus groups with white suburban record buyers in England. Trueman also met with traditional Marley fans to ensure that the label didn’t package the album in a way that would offend his core audience.

Less than a decade before violence and drugs became a selling point for gangsta rap, the suburban groups told Trueman precisely what Blackwell and Robinson suspected: They were put off by the way Marley was portrayed. They weren’t keen on the dope, the religion, the violent undertones or even reggae as a genre. But they loved Marley’s music.

“There was almost this sense of guilt that they hadn’t got a Bob Marley album,” Trueman said. “They couldn’t really understand why they hadn’t bought one.”

At home one night, Trueman mentioned to his wife, that many of the respondents referred to Marley as a “legend.” He said he was going to recommend the title The Legendary Bob Marley. She shot back: “No, just call it Legend: The Best of Bob Marley.”

Perhaps most critically, Robinson softened Marley’s image. He chose a cover photo in which Marley appears more reflective than rebellious. He tapped Paul McCartney to make a cameo in the music video for the album’s first single, “One Love,” which portrayed Marley as a smiling family man. He even chose not to use the word “reggae” to promote the record, with a marketing campaign that included radio and television commercials – a novel and expensive idea at the time but one Robinson felt was necessary.

A Legend Is Made

Released three years after Marley’s death, Legend was an immediate, unqualified hit in the U.K. and the U.S. It is still one of the top 10 sellers in the SoundScan era, with more than 11 million albums sold and more than 27 million copies shipped worldwide.

But Legend‘s music is not without its critics. Writing for Slate, Field Maloney called the album “a defanged and overproduced selection of Marley’s music. Listening to Legend to understand Marley is like reading Bridget Jones’s Diary to get Jane Austen.” Soft, in a word.

While it’s unfortunate that Marley didn’t live to see the success of Legend, Robinson speculates that the album might never have been made on his watch. “Yet it’s hard to argue that Legend isn’t an iconic work musically. The songwriting on “No Woman, No Cry” and “Redemption Song” is so compelling that the works transcend genre – as Clapton’s success with “I Shot the Sheriff” demonstrates. It’s also worth noting that Robinson didn’t intend that the record be comprehensive; he just wanted to get Marley’s music onto stereos worldwide. In doing so, he did something bigger: he helped make Marley’s image and message ubiquitous.

Today you’ll see the artist’s face on beach towels and his lyrics on posters in countries from Russia to Chile. And, ironically, over the past three decades, rebelliousness and violence have become a routine method of marketing pop stars. Robinson may have softened Marley’s image, but he didn’t whitewash it. Marley remains an international touchstone of rebellion, known as much for his social and cultural convictions (and his affinity for good weed) as for his music. Though Legend may be the preferred dinner-party soundtrack for polite company, it also has been the gateway drug for generations of Marley aficionados. They heard something in the record and wanted more. A political firebrand came to represent feel good partying. Depending on the slant you bring to him, this is either a travesty or a salute to The Gong’s enduring influence.


We need to Talk About Peter!

Peter Tosh was not a man of peace. He was a revolutionary. “Peace,” he told the feverish 40,000-strong crowd at the famous One Love Peace Concert in 1978, is “the diploma you get in the cemetery”, written on your tombstone: “Rest in Peace!”Peter

Tosh believed in action. Standing 6ft 4in in his black beret and often wielding a guitar shaped in the form of an M16 assault rifle, he was the most militant member of the world’s greatest reggae band, The Wailers. For some, next to him, Bob Marley looked like a mere pop star.

He knew what he was doing that charged evening as he strode to the microphone in his black martial arts uniform and put his life on the line in one of the most passionate and dangerous political speeches ever given by a musician. Addressing Jamaica’s two leading politicians, Prime Minister Michael Manley and Edward Seaga, the Leader of the Opposition, as they sat before him at a time when the country was being ripped apart by murderous political gun battles in its poorest districts, Tosh warned: “Hungry people are angry people.” Retribution was inevitable, and came five months later. He was taken into a police station and beaten relentlessly until his skull cracked open and the hand he attempted to shield himself with was broken. He only survived by playing dead.


To Be Or Not To Be

Today, Tosh is relatively unknown. To be considered an icon, requires more than mere talent and conviction. One needs luck, circumstance and a mishmash of events for historians to pick apart (Just ask Napoleon or Garvey). The One Love Peace Concert went down in history because Bob Marley called Manley and Seaga on stage and made them shake hands in front of the television cameras. Tosh’s earlier, braver action was not televised because he ordered the “lickle pirates from America… wid dem camera and dem TV business” to stop filming. In the recorded version of that night, and in the history of popular music, Bob, the man who he taught to play the guitar, would overshadow Peter.

It is 30 years now since Tosh’s own passing. He was the victim of a treacherous murder, robbed and slain in his own home by an acquaintance: a brutal example of the desperate ghetto behavior he had warned Jamaica’s leaders about. Whereas Marley’s funeral was a global news story and brought Jamaica to a standstill, Tosh’s burial was a fiasco. His mother had to disown one of the two fathers’ who turned up and protesters, including one who stood by the coffin and implored the body to “Arise and open the casket”, interrupted the service

Iconic status requires public acceptance. A wily personality and the ability to charm. Right leaning folk may hate Che Guevara or even Barack Obama, but their charisma will make future generations sit up and take note. Here, Marley beat Tosh all ends up. Tosh’s persona was exemplified by his relationship with the Rolling Stones. The band made him the only signing to their record label and hoped to gain credibility from association with an uncompromising iconoclast. But the relationship was short lived. Mick Jagger sung with him on a duet and gave him a hit (“Don’t Look Back”), but it wasn’t enough for Tosh.

A son of British colonial Jamaica, Tosh was very serious about his politics. He was a strident campaigner against apartheid and refused invitations to perform in South Africa (playing instead in neighboring Swaziland). As early as 1979 he was refusing to perform in Israel because of his support for a Palestinian homeland. The same year – he was booked to appear alongside Bruce Springsteen at Madison Square Garden. He walked on stage smoking a ganja spliff and wearing Palestinian dress – it was Jewish New Year and he was in New York, the heartland of American Jewry.

Thus, whilst Bob Marley is an icon, his former band mate is the footnote at the base of the page. Whilst Bob was crying out for peace, Tosh was crying out for revolutionary justice. Marley was the mixed race, sweet singer to Tosh’s black, dark, gruff rebelliousness.

After Marley died in 1981, Tosh appeared to resent the shadow his great friend cast over the future of Jamaican music. During the remaining six years of his life, he would never really sit on that throne. He refused to ‘sellout’ to white dope smoking college kids. Today, Tosh’s message seems to be most keenly received on the continent of Africa, where he remains immensely popular:

“Don’t care where you come from, as long as you’re a black man, you’re an African,” stated the musician in ‘African’, one of his most important songs. The establishment in Jamaica really, really did not like Peter Tosh. He was considered a crazy man and to this day there’s a lot of bitterness towards him. The former Wailer is “a forgotten man.”


Tough Gong


But if it’s foolish to deify Bob Marley, it’s far more foolish to dismiss him. Praise Peter Tosh all you want — he deserves it. But credit Marley’s reservations:

“Is like them don’t want understand mi can’t just play music fe Jamaica alone. Can’t learn that way. Mi get the most of mi learning when mi travel and talk to other people.”

And that’s how icons are made. By expanding their scope. By planting tiny seeds and allowing them to grow into beanstalks. Some would even argue it requires bending the purity of principles in order to meet the masses.

And that’s how icons are made. By expanding their scope. By planting tiny seeds and allowing them to grow into beanstalks. Some would even argue it requires bending the purity of principles in order to meet the masses. Sean Paul and Shaggy, two of Jamaica’s biggest selling artists of the twenty first century are neither particularly special lyricists, socially conscious or imaginative. But like Marley, they got circumstance, luck (some would say skin tone) and skill to work for them.

Who Were You Really Bob?

No woman no cry? Really?

Unsurprisingly, Marley’s choices and circumstances embroiled him in contradictions. His insatiable studiowomanizing is the least of them but presents him as a preacher unable to follow the dictum of his own scripture. Whilst married to Rita, Marley had a number of children with other women and numerous affairs.

War? Or peace?

Bob Marley sung of One Love and Three Little Birds. From his esteemed lips came the cry to get up, stand up for your rights. He spoke of the need for togetherness and the evils of war. He is often equated with supposed peaceniks like Mandela, Gandhi and Mother Theresa. Less is known of this man of peace who delivered the occasional beat down and hired ropey-haired thugs who promoted his records by delivering many more beatings around the Jamaican capital and beyond. And what are we to make of the Marley who, according to several biographies, watched the private executions of three men who’d tried to assassinate him shortly before his 1976 Smile Jamaica concert — a comeuppance that came down a week or so after his 1978 One Love Peace Concert?

Rastafarian. Religion or manipulative cult?

His religion was Rastafarianism, whose followers declared that the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie (born Ras Tafari) was the living god, or ‘Jah’ as they called him. This claim was difficult to maintain for a number of reasons.

Firstly, neither Selassie himself nor his family ever accepted such an ultimate accolade, though he was happy on occasion to bask in the adulation it afforded him. Secondly, his 40-year rule was characterized by nepotism, personal cowardice and cold tyranny. Finally and perhaps most conclusively, he died in 1975, thus giving the lie to his followers’ claims of his immortality. How then, some would ask, could the iconic, clever Marley believe this stuff?

Rastafarians were subjected to disdain, harassment and exclusion in Jamaica. Yet there is a real sense in which, given the island’s tortured history, we can understand the sect’s appeal to the young Marley. Christianity, the island’s dominant religion, was just another tool for the white man to keep their brains in chains. Writing in 1843 in response to fellow German philosopher Hegel, Karl Marx argued:

‘Religious suffering is at one and the same time the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world and the soul of soulless conditions.’

In short, religion provides a framework within which a believer can understand their suffering and take some comfort from the hope that as long as they maintain their faith a better world awaits them in eternity.

Rastafarianism is founded on a belief that the Promised Land can be found in the here and now, on earth, in Africa. Rastafarians incorporated ganja into their belief system, regarding it as a sacred herb that provides followers with nourishment and ‘upliftment.’ For many black people in search of an authentic faith, Rastafarianism, quite plausibly, seemed as good as any.


All About The Ganja?

As a member of the Rastafari movement, which saw smoking cannabis as a spiritual act that brings followers closer to their incarnation of God, Marley was the world’s most prominent marijuana smoker and has, since his death, practically become the patron saint of weed, with images of Marley enjoying spliffs adorning the walls of weed-friendly homes and businesses like pictures of Jesus or the Virgin Mary in Christian homes. The fact that Marley’s lyrics were usually about love, peace, and freedom and his music’s often languid, tropics-infused vibe is perfect for relaxed grooving probably doesn’t hurt, either. But Marley was much, much more than a pot smoker and a purveyor of music for barbecues and pool parties.

smoking with the lionThis perceived flakiness is false. He’s become the symbol of a spring break. And when he does get played on the radio now, it’s the mellow songs, not the angry songs, that get heard – the ones that have been compiled on albums such as Legend. When the invisible aliens meet people from around the world, we quickly realize that though they all knew the cheery love tunes, none of them had heard the songs of struggle, and that applied to all Bob’s catalogue. Yet the invisible aliens remember his wry smile and tone of mild protest as he asked: “How long must I sing the same song?” when he was criticized for following Exodus with the soft, sweet Kaya.

“If I had more men behind me, I would just be more militant!” he insisted. And yet Bob was also happy to be making a new point. He didn’t want to be seen only as a soldier, because “you have to think of a woman sometimes, and sing something like “Turn the Lights Down Low.” He couldn’t have anticipated that one day the fighter would have been transformed in the popular imagination into a lover and feel-good party dude. But his musical legacy is now in the hands of a new generation. The post-mortem marketing of Marley has been phenomenally successful, if somewhat soulless, utilitarian and bleak; the cold hard grab of capitalism too hard to resist.

But his musical legacy is now in the hands of a new generation. The post-mortem marketing of Marley has been phenomenally successful, if somewhat soulless, utilitarian and bleak; the cold hard grab of capitalism too hard to resist.


In short, Bob Marley has yet to remake the world — a failing he shares with just about everyone else who’s tried. But that doesn’t mean he hasn’t changed it. Gandhi and King and Mandela didn’t leave utopias behind either, and unlike them, Marley was merely a musician no matter how much praise he proffered Jah. His music is as firmly ensconced in the pantheon as Marvin Gaye or James Brown, and it signifies a remade world even if that doesn’t make it so.


The Good Die Young


“Won’t you help to sing, these songs of freedom?

Cause all I ever had

Redemption songs, 

Redemption songs

Redemption songs.”

Like Tupac Shakur, Marley’s iconic status is cemented by the fact that he died so young. Time magazine Bob and Pacdeclared Marley’s Exodus its album of the 20th century. He took reggae, a musical form indigenous to a tiny Caribbean island with a heavy emphasis on a rhythmic interplay between drums and bass guitar, and popularized it across the world. More importantly, in the heady political atmosphere of the 1960s and 1970s he articulated the anguish and the optimism of the oppressed and exploited in a way that had universal appeal. The titles of some of his most famous releases alone – ‘War,’ ‘Revolution,’ ‘Burnin’ and Lootin,’ ‘Get Up Stand Up,’ ‘Rebel Music,’ ‘Uprising’ – surely make him worthy of closer consideration, an iconic figure. And especially in these heady times when the open sores and wounds of injustice litter our body politic, Marley is as relevant as he’s ever been.