Bob Marley: A melodic voice for the voiceless
Marley, who died in 1981, is considered one of the most influential musical artists of the 20th century. He credited with introducing reggae music to much of the world. “Legend,” his 1984 compilation album with The Wailers has topped the Billboard reggae charts for the last three years, a testament to the timelessness of Marley’s music. Marley’s work has been covered or sampled by legendary artists such as Eric Clapton, Paul Simon and Stevie Wonder.
His music, while mellow and melodic, contained a message of resistance. “Buffalo Soldier” and “Get Up Stand Up” are among the many Marley songs that focused on fighting against discrimination and injustice.
“He was advocating everyone to make their voices heard, no matter their class in society,” Morehouse College professor Robert Tanner, who teaches classes in composition, theory, and music history, said of Marley. “They have the opportunity to use their voice to influence politics or economics. No matter who you are, you should be heard.”
Marley spoke in interviews about his desire for everyone to listen and be heard.
“Free speech carries with it some freedom to listen,” he once said.
Born in Jamaica in 1945, Marley grew up during the latter years that the British monarchy ruled over the Caribbean island. After gaining its independence in 1962, the country prospered through tourism and manufacturing, but its economic expansion did not extend into its growing workforce, resulting in political infighting and violence in its inner cities. Marley spent his formative years in some of the island’s poorest neighborhoods.
Marley began his musical career in the early 1960s with a band called “The Wailers.” After some turnover in the band, they became stars after recording their first album in 1972. Marley’s career nearly ended in 1976 when he was wounded in what is believed to have been a politically-motivated assassination attempt.
Marley fled Jamaica and, a year later, released “Exodus.” The album included some of his greatest hits, such as the title track, “Jamming,” “Waiting in Vain” and “One Love/People Get Ready.” Its songs included themes of African repatriation and spiritual enlightenment, through Rastafarianism. Time magazine declared “Exodus” the best album of the century.
“Every song is a classic, from the messages of love to the anthems of revolution,” the magazine wrote. “But more than that, the album is a political and cultural nexus, drawing inspiration from the Third World and then giving voice to it the world over.”
Marley’s desire to see an end to the violence resulted in one of Jamaica’s most important moments. In 1978, during a concert in the capital city of Kingston, Jamaica’s two rival political leaders, prime minister Michael Manley and opposition leader Edward Seaga, joined hands with Marley on stage that resulted in a relative truce.
“It’s difficult to think of a U.S. artist who has such influence,” said Tanner.
The United Nations recognized that influence, presenting Marley with the Peace Medal in 1978 while on tour in America. In November 1979, Marley performed at The Fox Theater in a show described by The Atlanta Constitution as a “rousing success.”
Marley died two years later from cancer.
His music, and his message, has continued through the work of other performers, particularly hip hop artists.
Public Enemy’s classic “Fight The Power,” a song synonymous with Black empowerment, includes a sample from Marley’s 1973 protest song “I Shot The Sheriff,” one of his biggest hits. Jay-Z said in a published report he hopes to be someday compared to Marley. The metro Atlanta-based Migos also used his music.
“The greatness of a man is not in how much wealth he acquires,” Marley once said, “but in his integrity and his ability to affect those around him positively.”
This year, the AJC’s Black History Month series will focus on the role of resistance to forms of oppression in the Black community. In addition to the traditional stories that we do on African American pioneers, these pieces will run in our Living and A sections every day this month. You can also go to ajc.com/black-history-month for more subscriber exclusives on the African American people, places and organizations that have changed the world.