His music is legendary, even coming from the overhead speakers at the grocery store.
I was introduced to the music of Bob Marley by my dorm mates at Carleton University in the Fall of 1976. One of them had just bought a copy of the Live! album recorded a year earlier (July, 1975) at the Lyceum Theatre in London.
We fired up the massive speakers that one of my roommates used as part of a rock band he played in. We put the needle down on side two of the album which opens with ‘No Woman, No Cry.’
From the first notes on the electric organ, I was entranced with the song's emotional power, both vocally and instrumentally. It was hard not to feel like your were part of the audience, as the music swept across the spectators in the hazy, historic Westminster theatre. The effect was no doubt aided by the sound system in our tiny dorm room suite which could have filled the ballroom of over 2,000 swaying fans.
From the Lyceum to the supermarkets of Babylon
Fast forward to the 21st century and the ubiquitous nature of background music. A few months ago, while searching shelves of the little grocery store where I was shopping for something vitally important like whole grain mustard, I heard the live version of ‘No Woman, No Cry’ begin to play on the overhead speakers.
I looked up and smiled for a moment, until I noticed that other shoppers were paying absolutely NO regard to the musical genius serenading them. It was just ‘musak’ to lessen the drudgery of searching for the right ketchup. Few shoppers probably realized that Rolling Stone ranked the live version of the song as No. 37 in the 500 greatest songs of all time.
Cool. Now where do I find that new low-calorie Dijon mayonnaise in Aisle 10?
Perhaps it is a great honour for Bob Marley’s music to be played like this. The Beatles and Michael Jackson weren’t far behind on the playlist, so he was in good company at least. Maybe the music of all the greatest artists is destined for audio wallpaper, but Marely’s music still seemed out of place in the condiments' aisle.
More than a music icon
Hearing that song got me thinking about Bob Marley and his history. That his music is still wildly popular, 34 years after his death is not in doubt. Legend, the Best of Bob Marley, is one of only two albums to remain in Billboard’s top 200 list for over 500 weeks. (The other is Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd). Legend has sold more than 28 million copies since it’s 1984 release.
‘No Woman, No Cry’ has been covered by more than 50 artists from Pearl Jam to Joan Baez, and ‘One Love’ was named song of the millennium by the World Health Organization. It may not be an exaggeration to call Marley one of the most revered musicians of all time.
But the power of the music is also driven by his history and unshakeable belief in Rastafari as a force against oppression.
His song ‘War’, was almost entirely drawn from a 1963 speech by Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie to the UN General Assembly. (Photo below)
Marley and his band, the Wailers, turned the speech into musical poetry that seems as relevant today as it did in the Sixties. The second paragraph of the speech started as follows: “That until the philosophy which holds one race superior and another inferior is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned…”
“That until the philosophy which holds one race superior and another inferior is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned…”
Marley used that line, almost word for word in the song, adding only three words - “Everywhere is war.” The rest of the song also uses much of the speech, word for word.
While a few people outside of the UN heard Selassie’s speech, millions listened to it on the 1976 Rastaman Vibration album, which reached Top 10 in the USA and remains extremely popular to this day.
Growing up in Jamaica
Some have speculated that because Marley was born to a white father and an Afro-Jamaican mother, he experienced the prejudices accorded to someone of mixed race at that time in Jamaica. He moved to Trenchtown near Kingston, at the age of 12.
He spent much of his youth in a “government yard” in Trenchtown - a social housing project with communal cooking and bathroom facilities. Here he learned about life in the slums, but also continued to explore music which he had started at Stepney Primary and Junior High School with Neville Livingston (Bunny Wailer) and Winston McIntosh (Peter Tosh.)
Marley had some initial musical success in Jamaica as early as 17, But it wasn’t until he married Rita Anderson at 21, that his spiritual and political convictions began to develop. His mother had moved to Delaware, USA a few years earlier in search of work, and he spent a short time there with her, working at a DuPont Lab and on the assembly line at Chrysler in Newark.
The thought of an introverted Bob Marley in his early twenties, working on the assembly line at a car factory in New Jersey, seems ripe for deeper exploration. He had already recorded in Jamaica with the Wailers and they even had a minor hit single.
During his time in the United States, he dreamed about his recently deceased white father and a ring with a black jewel. His mother produced the same ring from his dreams, but he was uncomfortable wearing it and handed it back to her.
He saw the dream and the ring as a test from God. What is more important?- possessions or spiritual fulfillment?
He returned to Jamaica, and explained the dream to a Rasta elder and soon afterward converted to the Rastafari religion. He started to grow dreadlocks and focus on both his music and his spiritual journey. The two would become tightly intertwined for the rest of his life.
He saw the dream and the ring as a test from God. What is more important - possessions or spiritual fulfillment?
It was 1966 and he would be dead from brain cancer within fifteen years. During that time he became an international musical superstar, deeply touching millions around the world, particularly in Africa and the Caribbean.
Rastafari - A short primer
It’s not hard to understand how Marley would be drawn to Rastafari beliefs. The religion originated in in the 1930’s among impoverished Afro-Jamaicans, rebelling against British colonial rule that saw them as 2nd class citizens - denying both political and economic equality to the majority.
The Rastafari religion interpreted the Bible as holding the truth about black history and their place as God's chosen people. But it also placed emphasis on personal experience and intuition. They are vehement that their religion has no dogma and believe in a single God, ‘Jah, not just as a deity, but also as living inside each one of us.
"Marley wasn't singing about how peace could come easily to the World but rather how hell on Earth comes too easily to too many."
And perhaps, most important to Marley, the Rastafari in Jamaica sought to create an identity based on reclaiming their lost African heritage. Suffering under slavery and colonial rule for centuries, this was a way to understand God on their own terms and in their own image. It was a way to restore hope and dignity that seemed all but lost to their people for more than 200 years.
Marley embraced these ideas and raised the profile of Rastafari around the world. Their beliefs and philosophy were infused into his music and his persona.
Mikal Gilmore from Rolling Stone summed it up this way. "Marley wasn't singing about how peace could come easily to the World but rather how hell on Earth comes too easily to too many. His songs were his memories; he had lived with the wretched, he had seen the downpressers and those whom they pressed down.”
Still in awe of the music
Back at the grocery store, I cue up at the checkout, still thinking about Bob Marley. His effect on me was perhaps minor, compared to those of African heritage. But the power of his music is a force that I still regard with awe, even when I’m buying mustard.