On February 6th, 2016, the late Robert Nesta Marley would have been celebrating his 71st birthday. Gone too soon. Still we all take comfort in the music he left behind. Writer and Television Producer, Kim Gertler wrote this article in 2001. It was then and now an accurate description of Marley as an artist for all time. So as we celebrate the man and his music, it is also a time of reflection on his impact on the world. So from the WORD Vaults, enjoy!
“One good thing about music — when it hits you feel no pain. So hit me with music”
– Bob Marley, “Trench Town Rock.”
May 12th of this year  marked the 20-year anniversary of the passing of Bob Marley — who died of cancer at Miami at the age of 36. If it seems hard to believe that the world has been without Bob for that long, maybe it’s because Marley’s music and message continue to echo around the planet with increasing intensity and relevance.
Thanks in part to millennium media frenzy, Marley’s vision has seemed to gain momentum at an even faster rate in the last two years. Time magazine called Exodus “the album of the century,” the BBC called “One Love” their millennium theme song, as unlikely stars of hip hop, rock and r&b line up to pay tribute. “What I really love is the internationalization of Bob Marley — the way he has spread throughout the the world,” says Roger Steffens, an archivist, an author, a broadcaster but most of all, the world’s most obsessed and passionate Marley fanatic.
Steffens is showing me a beaded doorway curtain from Malaysia bearing a saintly likeness of Bob. On the opposite wall, a Marley sarong from Bali and a giant Brazilian tapestry underscore his point. I am surrounded by six entire rooms that comprise the collection. Many large custom-made wooden cabinets houses thousands of audio cassettes — laden with live performances, unreleased rarities, and custom sound system mixes that — on their own, are a definitive reggae history. Then there are the records, posters, articles, photographs, buttons, banners, tickets, t-shirts, film, video, CDs, and assorted relics of reggae history.
The phone is ringing off the hook. Tickets, logistics, gossip and good vibes are flowing as the reggae mafia start to arrive for the big event. Everyone is in town. A good chunk of the Marley clan is represented. Fans from all over the world, old school Jamaican musicians, website, whiz kids, a singer from Ethiopia. Even a handful of Hollywood starts: Emilio Esteves, Sheila E, Steven Segal and Mario Van Peebles are here to pay respect.
All roads lead to the unlikely Marley mecca back at Steffen’s Echo Park home. It is February, the month of Bob’s birth, and in Los Angeles, fans, journalists and musicians are keeping the fires burning with a massive series of tributes and events. A star on the walk of fame, three days of concerts featuring top names in reggae music, a lifetime tribute award at the Grammys and on this night — the grand opening of an incredible museum exhibition featuring Steffen’s collection.
He has been offered more than a million dollars for his treasure trove of Marley memorabilia culled from far and wide over more than three decades. Now, for the first time ever (and until September see www.worldofreggae.com, the public can check it out.
The World of Reggae featuring Bob Marley unspools the story of the man and the music, in photos, posters, film footage, t-shirts, buttons and hundreds of rare recordings, most of them signed, that fill two small buildings at the Queen Mary Hotel in Long Beach. Teens from Japan, tv crews and famous friends are put on hold as Roger chats reverently with an elderly Jamaican who seems on the verge of tears.
Finally, a chance to hear the half that’s never been told. The story of Marley is really the story of reggae music. Not just because Marley sells an alarming percentage of all reggae.
“My own informal survey indicates that at least half of all reggae music sold is Bob Marley music,” says Steffens. Not just because Marley made cutting edge music through every phase of Jamaica’s musical maturation; not even because he is the best known and most-loved of all singers in the genre. The story of Marley and of reggae is an epic story of suffering, perseverance, struggle and triumph. It is the story of the underdog, the unheard and unseen masses, the oppressed and the dispossessed.
It is hard to imagine anyone but Bob Marley at the centre of this epic. A new kind of superstar comprised of so many disparate characters: the third world rebel, the street smart rude boy, the natural mystic and philosopher, the international ambassador, the family man and the lover are personalities summoned by the tuff gong for their unique secret powers.
Then there are the many musical phases of Marley. For songs familiar to most fans are a mere fraction of the output of a creative lion who rarely stopped writing, singing, performing and recording his songs of freedom, A steady stream of compilations, reissues and out-takes has emerged from the vaults. A new disc, Shakedown: Bob Marley Remixed Vol. 1, is a full length album of Marley remixes, including the underground remix of Marley track, “Funkstar de Luxe) which hit number one last year. Universal Music is reissuing the entire Island Records Marley catalogue with all kinds of bonus tracks, photos and text. Recently-released gems like “Iron Lion Zion” and “I Know a Place” suggest that more unknown Marley classics linger in the vaults. There may even be a great lost Marley dub album!
For lovers of the music it’s painful to attempt to conceive the music that might have been made in the last two decades, were Bob still alive. But the body of work that Robert Nesta Marley achieved in his 36 years is staggering in its volume and its depth. The songs have a strange mythic power, a kind of invincibility — undiminished by time, repeated playings, tacky remixes or even the sadness of Bob’s demise.
When Bob Marley left the planet he clearly left a big hole. For years journalists, promotion people and fans searched for a successor to the reggae king’s throne. It’s clear that there will never be another Bob Marley.
Perhaps not surprisingly so, Marley’s children continue to spread the musical message, to great effect. Great music has come from Ziggy, Stephen, Ky-Mani and Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley, whose upcoming release Halfway Tree mixes dancehall, hip hop and reggae, with guest artists Eve and Capelton. I asked him why the new generation of Marleys are so together.
“Our father has always sees music as God’s work. Our faith plays a real large role in our lives and it affects our lifestyle a great deal. Carrying on our father’s work is really part of our mission as God’s people. For the same reasons our father did the things he did are same reasons that we do what we do, you know?”
Together the Marley kids (there are 11 in total) have recently formed “Ghetto Youth”, a company and cottage label (distributed by Motown) aimed at promoting reggae and Jamaican artists to the world.
Bob Marley and his music stand alone. He is loved around the world like no other artist, before or since, by wave after wave of new listeners. Maybe the key to his appeal is that Bob Marley really walked the walk. While most of today’s pop singers change their politics, and their personae as often as their hair, Marley’s life was as extraordinary as his music. He courageously took the stage weeks after an assassination attempt to unite warring factions (the People’s National Party’s Michael Manley and the Jamaica Labor Party’s Edward Seaga during a Jamaica’s bloody 1978 elections. In 1980 Marley took his entire band to Zimbabwe at his own expense to musically inaugurate the newly independent nation on the eve of its independence.
Wherever Marley went, his life and music made an impact. Actor/model Linda Carter became a friend of Bob’s after meeting him backstage in Toronto. “They had a particular way of living, they brought Jamaica with them – they were nothing anyone had ever seen before, this group of Rastas, traveling like a big extended family; I remember they had their own chef preparing amazing ital food, it was very warm.”
There is no artist or figure in pop culture that comes close to Bob Marley, for his brilliance, for his influence, for his potency and his poetry. According to Roger Steffens, the reason for this is obvious. “The reason he is so popular is that he is really saying something. The international symbol for freedom around the world is Bob Marley.”
Back in L.A. the musicians are chatting and exchanging stories about Bob. Joseph Hill, the lead singer of the reggae band Culture is telling the tale of being summoned in the middle of the night to play percussion on the Survival LP.
Marcia Griffiths of the I-Threes pauses when I ask her to tell me something none of us know about Bob Marley.“He had this tough exterior, but on the inside he was tender like a lamb. He was so soft. You could always reach him, no matter what.”
Play it again, Bob.