Dreadlocks, reggae music, soccer, and smoking pot for spiritual enlightenment no doubt would have made their way to the U.S. eventually, but Bob Marley definitely sped things up. He also had a hand in taking a religion with just a relative handful of followers in Africa and turning it into a worldwide belief system with some 1 million followers. > Read more
He brought the distinctly Jamaican sounds of reggae to amazing heights, and (though not deliberately) served to spotlight the importance of seeking treatment early for skin cancer. Marley's musical contributions were gigantic, sure, but he also made significant contributions to the cause of social justice, the plight of the Africans, and no slight contribution to the world of fashion, as well.
Bob Marley apparel remains a top seller today, nearly 4 decades after his death, not to mention his popularization of traditional Caribbean and African wear, including cork sandals, the Rasta colors (red, yellow, green, and black), crocheted beanie caps, Baja hoodies, and of course, that hairstyle. His hair inspired African Americans for the next 4-and-counting generations, although few people understand the spiritual significance of the dreadlocks.
Bob Marley's Beginnings
Born to a white (his family claims Syrian Jewish heritage) father and a young black (African-Jamaican) mother, Marley's father, who claimed to be a captain in the Royal Marines, supported his family financially but was most often absent while Marley was growing up. Marley's father passed away when Marley was just 10, and the boy grew up with no shortage of resentment over his father's absence. This is likely what pushed Marley to learn about and pursue his African heritage, identifying strongly with the mother left to raise him alone in their hometown Jamaican village.
Bob Marley's Religion
This process of seeking somewhere to belong brought him squarely to the religion Rastafari, usually shortened to just Rasta. Marley was raised Catholic, but once away from his mother's influence, he found a replacement, which he adhered to devoutly for the rest of his life. Rasta is why Marley often wore those same bright colors (no, it wasn't just a tie-dye hippie thing), never cut his long dreads, and indulged regularly and heavily in marijuana use.
Rasta is a religion based on the history taught in the Jewish and Christian scriptures. But they believe that Africans are God's chosen people (not the Jews) and that Western colonization of their continent, combined with the atrocities of the slave trade that spread the African people far and wide, have suppressed their rightful inheritance. They believe that the messiah (whom Christians believe is Jesus) was actually Haile Selassie I, ruler of Ethiopia from 1916 to 1930 and emperor from 1930 to 1974.
Rasta worshipers follow a strict vegan diet, called Ital, not unlike the "clean eating" diet popular in the West today. Followers refrain from eating processed foods and most meats and animal byproducts. Believing God instructed them not to cut their hair, they braid it into ever-growing locks, which became the "dreadlocks" hairstyle, and endows them with a few nicknames, including Rastafarians, Rastas, Sufferers, Locksmen, Dreads, and Dreadlocks. Rasta followers smoke pot as part of their spiritual experience, but they avoid drinking alcohol entirely. The symbol of the Rasta is the lion.
Bob Marley's Musical Heritage
But a musician Marley was, and that's how he'll forever be remembered. Together with a couple of childhood buddies, Marley formed the group The Wailers, specializing in a form of music known as ska. Ska gave birth to Rocksteady, which eventually culminated into the Reggae music we most associate with Marley, as well as the Caribbean people and the Rasta religion. The Wailers consisted of Marley, Bunny Wailer, and Peter Tosh, both of whom also enjoyed successful careers as reggae musicians after The Wailers Broke up. Bunny continues to perform today, as a sort of ambassador for the world of reggae music. Tragically, Tosh was shot and killed during a home invasion in 1987, by a man he reportedly befriended and tried to help after the man finished a previous prison sentence. Several of Tosh's colleagues and friends sustained serious injuries during the attack, as well, and the man responsible for the attack remains behind bars today.
Ska music became popular in the late 50's, combining hints of Caribbean mento (Caribbean folk and church music), a dash of calypso, a dab of American jazz, a bit of rhythm, and a pinch of blues. Ska is marked by a walking bass line, punctuated here and there with off-beat rhythms. Ska eventually evolved into Rocksteady, popular by the mid-60's, featuring the jazz and R&B of Ska, blending together with African and Latin American elements. Rocksteady was most notably marked by the "one drop" drum beat, featuring a heavy accent on the third beat of each musical bar, making it sound quite different from the easily recognizable styles of rock and roll and its ancestor, R&B.
Ska and Rocksteady eventually underwent another evolution, culminating in the reggae that made the career of Marley. Reggae does incorporate a few of the R&B, mento, and jazzy elements of its ancestors, plus a groovy slow pace and call-and-answer style of play that is uniquely reggae. Reggae is earmarked by its strong dependence on the drum and bass line.
Bob Marley the Man
Aside from being one of the world's most iconic singers and songwriters in modern history, he was also the father of 12 children, born to 9 different mothers. He passionately enjoyed association football (soccer) but like a mere mortal, he succumbed to a form of malignant skin cancer: melanoma. The first sign of melanoma was discovered in 1977, under one of his toenails. Rumors circulated that this was somehow caused by a soccer injury, but that isn't true. Melanoma is most often caused by exposure to the sun, genetics, a compromised immune system, or simply a mole that becomes malignant.
Doctors repeatedly advised Marley that the safest course of action was amputating the toe, but he feared that would hurt his ability to perform and wasn't in line with his Rasta beliefs. Instead, doctors removed the toenail and nail bed, and Marley underwent chemotherapy.
Cancer treatments did nothing to hamper Marley's schedule. In 1980, he was still performing and making plans for a world tour. The cancer spread all over his body, including his brain, and passed away on May 11, 1981. His last words were spoken to his son, Ziggy: "Money can't buy life."
Marley was only 36 years old when he died, but in that time, he managed to produce 13 studio albums (including those recorded with The Wailers) and 2 live albums, receiving innumerable awards, both during his lifetime and posthumously.
Marley once said, "The truth is, everyone is going to hurt you. You just got to find the ones worth suffering for." Most fans of the one and only Bob Marley agree that loving him, even for such a brief time, was most definitely worth the effort.