Happy Birthday, Bob Marley

Marley in concert in 1980, Zürich, Switzerland

Happy Birthday, Bob Marley Feb. 6, 1945

I discovered Bob Marley late in life. Last year, in fact, I’m sad to say—sad because it didn’t take long before his music became an intimate part of my life and I wish I’d discovered him as a teenager. My boyfriend, on the other hand, discovered Bob Marley when he was twelve and he credits Marley with saving his life. “Reggae,” I’ve often heard him say, “is my heart and soul.”

Chris has a friend who discovered Bob Marley around the time her mother died, when she was fourteen. She, too, credits Marley’s music with giving her the hope she needed to hang on at a time when the person she needed most in life was gone. She will passionately defend Bob Marley from all detractors.

My boyfriend and his friend are not alone in the reverence they hold for Robert Nesta Marley. Around the world, people think of Bob not just as a musician but as a prophet, a hero, and a freedom fighter. His belief that all people of all colors should unite to dispel oppression—“one world, one love”—resounds still today, in 2005. His struggle for justice unites people around the globe while his arguments against war and for peace, formed during the turbulent 1960s, are messages still needed today.

Bob Marley spent the first half of his life in Jamaica. As a youngster, he lived with his mother and maternal grandfather, a farmer in St. Ann, the same part of Jamaica which Marcus Garvey called home (Davis, 1-2). His father was Norval Marley, a white Jamaican who met Cedalla Malcolm, Marley’s mother, when he was positioned as overseer of Crown British West Indian Regiment in the districts near Cedalla’s home. Though Norval married Cedalla when he learned she was pregnant, his family never accepted the marriage, since Cedalla was black. Norval named his son Nesta Robert Marley. “Nesta” has never been explained and remains a mystery to the family, but Robert was the name of Norval’s brother (Davis, 12).

For a few years after Bob’s birth, his father visited. Then his visits stopped altogether. When Bob was six, his father took him to Kingston, explaining to his mother that he should be “educated.” Instead, he left Bob with an old woman, hoping she would adopt him and give him the money that Norval could not give his son, since his family had disinherited him after his marriage to Cedalla.

Bob explained his conception like this: “My father was a guy yunno, form England here, yunno? Him was like….like you can read it yunno, it’s one o’ dem slave stories: white guy get the black woman and reed her. He’s a English guy…I t’ink. Cos me see him one time yunno. My mother? My mother African” (Davis, 21). In another, earlier interview, he called his conception “pure Babylon” (Davis, 21).

Babylon is a reference to corruption and sin but more specifically is a reference to slavery. In the Bible, the Israelites were captured and led into slavery in Babylon. They longed for Jerusalem. Likewise, Africans were captured from their homelands and taken to places like Jamaica, “Babylon.” This anger at his father is natural. Not only did he abandon his son, but he abandoned his son apparently because he did not have the strength to resist his family’s racism.

When Bob was thirteen, he joined his mother in Kingston, in the slum called Trenchtown, made famous in many of Marley’s songs. It was here that he met Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh, who formed the group The Wailers. It was here that he struggled to become a musician.

Many people have written about Bob’s life and I don’t wish to re-create his biography here, especially since I am no expert. Rather, I want to talk about the connections between Bob Marley and Africa.

The first most important connection is his own anger and despair at the continuing slavery of the African diaspora, despite the abolishment of slavery a century before he was born. As he sings in “Slavedriver”:

Ev’ry time I hear the crack of the whip My blood runs cold I remember on the slave ship How they brutalised our very souls Today they say that we are free Only to be chained in poverty Good god, I think it’s all illiteracy It’s only a machine that make money

Slave driver the table is turned

In this song, he recognizes that physical freedom had not produced freedom—that the African diaspora was still chained by bondages such as poverty and illiteracy. Slavery was alive and well—it had just acquired a new face.

He explores the concept of freeing the mind in such songs as Exodus, which is of course a reference to the biblical Israelites’ escape from slavery in Egypt. He sings, “We’re leaving Babylon, we’re going to our fatherland.” Unlike Marcus Garvey, Bob Marley did not exactly advocate literal, physical movement to Africa. His demand for his people to move out of Babylon was to be released from mental and emotional bondage. He sings:

Open your eyes and look within Are you satisfied with the life you’re living? We know where we’re going; we know where we’re from We’re leaving Babylon, we’re going to the fatherland.

This freeing of the mind from the bondages of slavery and colonialism is an important first step for freedom, something that many African and African-American writers have also recognized. The problem with neo-colonialism in many African countries is a result, in part, of the fact that despite Liberation, many African leaders have mindsets imbued with the taint of colonialism. Further, they have allowed western nations to continue to control their countries through economic enslavement. This, according to Marley, must be solved through emancipation of the mind.

Another connection Bob Marley had with the African continent was his commitment to the religion of Rastafarianism. To understand Rastafarianism, one has to understand the spiritual importance of Marcus Garvey, especially to Jamaica. This black prophet preached repatriation to Africa for black peoples, believing that they could never achieve equality as long as they were a minority (Davis, 5). During one sermon in Kingston in 1927, Garvey uttered the statement that would become the foundation for Rastafarianism: “Look to Africa, where a black king will be crowned. For the day of deliverance is here” (Davis, 6.)

When the Ethiopian warlord Ras Tafari Makonnen was crowned emperor of Ethiopia in 1930, he took the title Haile Selassie I (“Power of the Trinity”), King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah. He was recognized immediately by many Jamaicans as the black king of Marcus Garvey’s prophecy and hailed as the black Messiah. Thus was born Rastafarianism, a religion that looked to Haile Selassie I as a savior, the second coming of Jesus Christ. The religion had several tenets. For one thing, followers abstained from alcohol, salt, and meat. They refuse to cut or comb their hair, resulting in the recognizable “dreadlocks.” They also see marijuana (ganja) as a path to meditation and spiritual enlightenment.

Bob became a Rastafarian after his wife Rita claimed that she had seen the nail prints of Jesus in Haile Selassie I’s hands during his visit to Jamaica in 1966, a visit that Bob Marley missed because he was living in the United States with his mother. In early 1967, the Wailers committed themselves to the Rasta lifestyle (Davis, 62-68), a fact abundantly obvious in many songs from “Rasta Man Chant” to “Jah Live.”

Fools sayin’ in their heart Rasta your God is dead But I and I know Jah! Jah! Dreaded it shall be dreaded and dread

Bob Marley’s commitment to Rastafarianism was such that there have been rumors that his widow, Rita Marley, hopes to rebury him in Ethiopia someday. Whether those rumors are true or not is one thing; they certainly signify the connection between Bob Marley and Ethiopia. The rumors surfaced during the recent month-long celebration of Bob Marley’s 60th birthday in Ethiopia.

There is one final connection between Bob Marley and Africa and that is Zimbabwe’s Independence Celebration. Zimbabwe was one of the last countries to be freed from colonial domination in Africa. His song, “Zimbabwe,” had been an inspiration to the guerrilla soldiers fighting for independence and thus, he was invited to perform at the Independence Celebration on April 18-19, 1980.

Every man gotta right To decide his own destiny And in this judgment There is no partiality So arm in arms, with arms We will fight this little struggle ‘Cause that’s the only way We can overcome our little trouble

Brother you’re right, you’re right You’re right, you’re right, you’re so right We gonna fight, we’ll have to fight We gonna fight, fight for our rights

Natty dread it ina Zimbabwe Set it up ina Zimbabwe Mash it up ina Zimbabwe Africans a liberate Zimbabwe

Bob Marley died on May 11, 1981. To me, it is tragic that he died just when his message of unity—“one world, one love”—was beginning to resonate around the world. I wonder what he could have done had he lived until he was 60. What would Marley have thought about the fall of communism, the tragedy of one corrupt African leader after another, global terrorism? What songs would he be singing today.

But my boyfriend, Chris, feels differently. “He was a man with a mission,” he says. “He had a calling and he had fulfilled it. It was his time to die.” Further, he argues that Bob Marley knew he was going to die. “Look at the last song on his last album,” he says. That song is “Redemption Song.” “He wrote it in the past tense: ‘All I ever had, redemption songs/These songs of freedom, songs of freedom.’ It was prophetic.”

Old pirates, yes, they rob I
Sold I to the merchant ships
Minutes after they took I
From the bottomless pit
But my hand was made strong
By the hand of the Almighty
We forward in this generation
Won’t you help to sing
These songs of freedom?
‘Cause all I ever have
Redemption songs
Redemption songs
Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery
None but ourselves can free our minds
Have no fear for atomic energy
‘Cause none of them can stop the time
How long shall they kill our prophets
While we stand aside and look? Ooh
Some say it’s just a part of it
We’ve got to fulfill the Book
Won’t you help to sing
These songs of freedom?
‘Cause all I ever have
Redemption songs
Redemption songs
Redemption songs

Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery
None but ourselves can free our minds
Wo! Have no fear for atomic energy
‘Cause none of them-a can-a stop-a the time
How long shall they kill our prophets
While we stand aside and look?
Yes, some say it’s just a part of it
We’ve got to fulfill the book
Won’t you have to sing
These songs of freedom?
‘Cause all I ever had
Redemption songs
All I ever had
Redemption songs
These songs of freedom
Songs of freedom

Songwriter: Bob Marley
Redemption Song lyrics © Kobalt Music Publishing Ltd.



  1. Davis, Stephen. Bob Marley, Rev. Edition. Rochester, Vermont: Schenkman Books, 1990.
  2. www.bobmarley.com
  3. White, Timothy. Catch a Fire: The Life of Bob Marley (Rev. and Enlarged). New York: Henry Holt, 1991.