Director Kevin Macdonald’s (Touching The Void, The Last King Of Scotland) documentary ‘Marley’ is centred on the considerable iconic frame of Bob Marley. According to the Scottish director, the film, is “an intimate, human portrait of the legendary singer. The main purpose has to be to send the listener back to the music with a renewed appreciation for its beauty and significance.”
But this a rather complicated task, since Bob Marley means much more than music. Like Che Guevara, Bob Marley has become a concept, an object, a T-shirt. He is now a brand, something that transcends the music and the human being behind it all.
Bob Marley followers from all around the world go on holidays to Jamaica just because of him which is, of course, something that highly benefits the island’s tourism industry. But there were times when Jamaica wasn’t so grateful to be viewed as the home of the artist, and there were several incidents surrounding his private life that add complexities to is legacy.
As a mixed race guy in a black ghetto (his mother was black and his father white), Robert Nesta Marley didn’t have a smooth upbringing. Bunny Wailer, ex-band mate of Bob Marley’s, explains the rejection in Macdonald’s film. After all, a caste system ruled Jamaica at the time and white people were seen as reminders of the history of slavery and colonialism.
Marley’s youth was difficult in Trenchtown, the Kingston ghetto where he grew up. The only way to survive was being tough, hence his nickname (and his own record label name): Tuff Gong.
The deaths of three members of the Wailers reveal the threat of violence among some of Marley’s contemporaries. Peter Tosh, core member of the Wailers, was killed on 11 September 1987, just after he had returned to his home in Jamaica. A three-man gang asked him for money and after Tosh refused, he was tortured and shot. The leader of the gang, Dennis “Leppo” Lobban, was a man whom Tosh had previously befriended and tried to help find work after a long jail sentence.
Also in 1987, drummer Carlton Barrett, who remained with the Wailers until Marley’s death in 1981, was shot by a gunman outside his home. Another singer in the Wailers, Junior Braithwaite, was murdered on 2 June 1999 in the home of a fellow musician in Kingston.
Bob Marley himself was the victim of a murder attempt. Vivien Goldman remembers the incident in her 2006 The Book of Exodus: The Making and Meaning of Bob Marley and the Wailers’ Album of the Century. Her chilling narrative tells how a group of gunmen attacked Marley and his entourage at his home on Hope Road in late 1976.
There was a shot aimed at his heart, but manager Don Taylor was quick in pushing him down, and the bullet finally hit his arm. Some time after the ambush, Marley was told that an operation to remove the bullet could end up with him losing sensitivity in his fingers, so he carried it inside his body until he died.
But, why would anyone want to kill Marley? It was the time of the presidential elections in Jamaica, and Marley had always backed Michael Manley’s People’s National Party (PNP), affiliated to Cuba and Russia, instead of the Jamaican Labour Party (JLP), led by Edward Seaga, and allegedly supported by the CIA. However, with an atmosphere of rising tensions on the island, Marley, as the most prominent public figure, didn’t want to take part in the political circus and distanced himself from both candidates. Despite his best intentions, the massive concert Smile Jamaica headlined by Bob Marley and The Wailers was finally labelled as a collaboration between the band and the PNP’s cultural office in the eve of the elections. Being positioned on a political side could only mean being placed in the eye of the storm.
No woman, no cry
Being a global pop icon, Marley wasn’t short of female attention is alleged to have fathered numerous extra marital children. Perhaps not the most shocking thing for the stereotypical rock star to be accused of, but his wife Rita Marley’s accusations in 2004 were beyond a jealous outburst.
A confusing political message
Marley’s attempt to create a coherent message of peace and freedom with his music and public appearances, his conversion to Rastafarianism and his advocacy for equal rights were all very commendable. But another of his political messages painted a different picture.
In 1980 Bob Marley visited Gabon, ruled by the ruthless Omar Bongo, a dictator whose 42 years in power were plagued with accusations of corruption and murder. This controversy didn’t stop Bob Marley and the Wailers from playing a concert there, however.
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