Robert Nesta Marley was born on February 6, 1945. He grew up poor in the rural community of Nine Miles, Jamaica. Going from bad to worse, while barely a teenager, Marley moved with his mother to the Kingston neighborhood of Trenchtown, which was a poverty-stricken ghetto.
Though his mother encouraged him to pursue a trade, Marley knew early on that he wanted a musical career. By the early 1960s, Jamaica’s music industry was beginning to take shape, and Marley decided to focus all his attention on establishing himself within the island’s music scene. However, Marley’s first 3 songs didn’t sell well, and he was paid a mere $20 for them by his producer, Leslie Kong, who clearly exploited the young artist. In 1963, Marley joined childhood friend Neville Livingston (known later as Bunny Wailer) as well as Peter Tosh and 3 others to form the ska band that would eventually be called the Wailers. In 1964, their single Simmer Down sold over 80,000 copies and several more hits followed.
In 1966, Marley’s mother relocated to the US. Marley married Rita Anderson and moved to Delaware for a few months, where he worked on an assembly line for Chrysler. He returned to Jamaica shortly thereafter. Haile Selassie (the Rastafarian Imperial Majesty Emperor) visited Jamaica that same year and had an effect on Marley, leading to his adoption of the Rastafarian lifestyle and the wearing of his signature dreadlocks. As a Rastafarian, Marley didn’t believe in birth control. He had at least 13 children. Eleven were his biological children, 3 with Rita and 8 with other women. He also adopted 2 of Rita’s children as his own.
“My music will go on forever. Maybe it’s a fool say that, but when me know facts me can say facts. My music will go on forever.”
In the 1970s, the Jamaican economy suffered greatly. There were high rates of unemployment, food rationing, and political violence. The Jamaican people formed a kinship around Marley’s lyrics, which advocated for social change. In 1973, with the release of the Wailers’ Catch a Fire album, the band gained international recognition. There were tours of the UK and the US, and Marley’s life changed significantly. In 1974, Eric Clapton covered Marley’s I Shot the Sheriff, which solidified his international fame.
Marley lyrics were revolutionary and the political rioting in Jamaica continued to increase. In November 1976, there was an assassination attempt on his life. Most theorize this was due to his political beliefs. Several gunmen entered Marley’s home in Kingston and gunfire erupted, with windows shattering throughout the home. Rita Marley tried to escape with her children and was shot in the head while fleeing across her front yard. Don Taylor, Marley’s agent, took several shots, and one shot hit Marley’s chest below his heart and imbedded itself in his arm. Miraculously, no one was killed and everyone recovered from their injuries. Bob Marley and the Wailers went on to perform a week after the assault at the Smile Jamaica concert, performing War. Marley then hired armed security guards to protect his home and family. In 1978, Marley received the United Nations Medal of Peace for his efforts in trying to bridge the Jamaican political divide.
While playing soccer with friends in 1977, Marley injured his toe, but the wound would not heal. He sought medical advice and was diagnosed with melanoma, which is a rare condition for people of African descent. An amputation of the toe was recommended but Marley declined. As a practicing Rastafarian, the amputation could have been considered sinful. He continued to work and create music.
In 1980, Marley realized that the cancer had metastasized and spread throughout his body. He fought the cancer for 8 months. Seeking treatment, he traveled to Germany under the care of Dr. Josef Issels, and there realized that death was imminent. He tried to return home to Jamaica, to receive one of the country’s highest awards, the Order of Merit, but died in transit in Miami on May 11, 1981. He was 36 years old.
As with many famous deaths, Bob Marley’s comes with an assassination theory. The rumor persists that the cancer was inflicted by the CIA in 1976 through a pair of boots that were gifted to Marley with a radioactive wire hidden inside, and that Dr. Issels was on the payroll of the CIA and a former Nazi. In this scenario, the CIA was trying to wreck the Jamaican economy through destabilization politics. The story goes that after the assassination attempt, fully armed guards were providing security for Marley and his group in Kingston. However, these guards allowed Carl Colby, the son of the late CIA director William Colby, access to the compound with a gift: a pair of boots for Bob Marley. Reportedly, Marley put on the boots and was pricked by a length of copper wire. Theorists believe the wire was chemically treated with a carcinogenic toxin.
Marley’s funeral was as large as his legacy. Hundreds of thousands of fans lined the streets from Kingston to Nine Miles, Marley’s birth and final resting place. Marley never created a will, because Rastafarians believe that death is not a certainty, and that acknowledging its possibility will bring it about quickly. Subsequently, Rita Marley had to sue the estate for the rights to Marley’s image and name.
- Bob Marley website. http://www.bobmarley.com/.
- Constantine A. Chanting down Babylon: the CIA & the death of Bob Marley. High Times website. February 4, 2011. http://worldmusic.about.com/gi/o.htm?zi=1/XJ&zTi=1&sdn=worldmusic&cdn=entertainment&tm=505&f=10&su=p284.13.342.ip_&tt=12& bt=7&bts=7&zu=http%3A//hightimes.com/lounge/ht_admin/6951.
- Romer M. How and why did Bob Marley die? About World Music website. http://worldmusic.about.com/od/genres/f/BobMarleyDeath.htm.
- Thomas J. With pride and music, Jamaicans bury Bob Marley. New York Times website. May 22, 1981. http://www.nytimes.com/1981/05/22/world/with-pride-and-music-jamaicans-bury-bob-marley.html.
- Tomlinson P. The many children of Bob Marley. Beyond Entertainment Blog website. March 1, 2014. http://beyondentertainmentblogdotcom.wordpress.com/2014/03/01/the-many-children-of-bob-marley/.
- Women in Rastafari. BBC website. Updated October 9, 2009. http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/rastafari/beliefs/women.shtml.