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Happy Belated Birthday Bob

Feb 6, 2022Art, Blog

My introduction to Bob Marley came during my freshman year in high school. I had heard songs like “No Woman, No Cry” and “Three Little Birds” on the radio, but I had never really dug into his music. Like most people, that introduction was through the Legend album. I soon found myself singing along to each song, taking in the lyrics and reading up on his life. That led to purchasing three other albums, more reading and watching documentaries on his life. But the kicker was when my wife bought me the rare Bob Marley box set for Valentine’s Day while we were in college. The box set spanned Bob’s career and told his story, in song form, from the seemingly innocent early days, to the powerful and prophetic final days of his life. There were many days where I found myself singing “Redemption Song” or “Zimbabwe” at the top of my lungs with tears streaming down my face. At the time I didn’t always know why, but his music moved me in ways few others could do. 

Bob Marley was born February 6, 1945 in an area of Jamaica called “Nine Mile.” At the age of 18, he began playing and singing with Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh, thus embarking on one of the most recognizable musical careers of all time. Not only is his sound unparalleled, but there is an undeniable power attached to his catalog. Which begs the question: What is it about Bob Marley’s music that is so gravitational? On what would have been his 77th birthday, I want to humbly submit three reasons why I think Bob Marley has had such a lasting impact. These are three things I believe captured my attention and affections from those early days, and to any worship leader, songwriter or musician, I would suggest that there is a wealth of untapped education awaiting in the inimitable Bob Marley.

1. Excellence: The first reason Bob Marley has had a lasting impact in the world is because the music he created was excellent. I don’t mean “excellent” in a preferential way, but in a creative, technical way. What started as copying ska music and R&B acts from America in the mid 1960’s eventually became a new thing altogether. Excellence never stays at the imitation level, it has the courage to explore new possibilities and expand constrained genres. I remember talking with one of the best drummers I had known; he was one of those “musical savant” kind of drummers. The band he was playing in would often cover a few Marley songs and he told me, “Josh, I love the Marley songs, but their one-drop beat is almost impossible to mimic.” It’s true, the percussion of the Reggae that Marley’s bands played does not follow the standard time most genres follow. It’s more of a feel because the drums are not the primary rhythm carrying instrument. This is only one of the characteristics of Marley’s body of work that points to excellence in his craft.

2. Altruistic: What helped protect that sense of excellence was that Bob was not primarily motivated by money. He had embraced a philosophy of life that was skeptical of riches. In fact, money was such a backburner issue with him, he ended up firing several people close to him over the years who blatantly stole from him. Marley was more concerned with preserving the sound of the newly emerging Reggae rather than commercializing it for greater profits. A lasting impact is rarely achieved by taking short cuts on quality and rounding off convictions just to make more money. Which leads to the third reason.

3. Mission: Growing up as a son with mixed heritage (his white father wasn’t around much and died when young Bob was 10), Marley was often teased about his light skin. It was his first experience among countless others where race would factor into his life’s mission. Jamaica, along with several African nations, was politically unstable as the claims of colonialism were (finally) coming to an end. But whenever power is vacated, instability arises as people and parties vie for control. Marley’s music was emerging during this volatile time. He truly believed that race and politics were tearing the world apart and he wanted his music to play a major part in healing it. This led to him playing a political event two days after an assassination attempt on his life was carried out. When asked why he was going on to play, Bob replied, “The people who are trying to make this world worse aren’t taking a day off. How can I?” At his behest, he brought the two political rivals on stage to shake hands, a symbolic gesture that led to some governmental stabilization in the following years, but not only in Jamaica. Bob was invited to play at Zimbabwe’s independence day from Southern Rhodesia (UK) in April of 1980. Bob’s heart for African liberation bled through a song he wrote just for the occasion entitled, Zimbabwe. Bob believed so much in the cause, he paid his own way to get there, continued to play to the 40k in attendance even when police fired tear gas into the crowd and then played a second concert the next day for over 100k people. When you believe in something so much (for Bob, it was particularly the oppressive struggles among race and class in the world), that you are willing to sacrifice deeply to be a part of it, a lasting impact is inevitable.  

Bob Marley was truly a revolutionary musician who affected multiple continents during his short time on earth. Interestingly enough, Marley is among the highest grossing dead celebrities to this day. His name and likeness are attached to all sorts of things now, many of which do not connect to the heart and soul of why he did what he did. This is nothing new, as prophetic voices have a unique place in history. While among us, many attempt to silence them. After they are gone, they are celebrated. Or worse, shamelessly capitalized upon.

Nevertheless, Bob Marley had a massive amount of common grace upon his life. I do not know if he, at some point in his life, recognized Jesus as the incarnation of the One, true God. But for those who do – who have ears to hear – Marley’s life has much to glean from. For anyone who knows the power of music and wants to leverage it for good in the world, Marley would be a good teacher. From his commitment to excellence to a deep convictional “why,” Bob Marley, in many ways, exemplifies how a musician and a multi-ethnic people can unify around a common mission seeking common good for the glory of another.