An almost unanswerable question is: if it were not for Bob Marley’s popularity, would reggae have remained a mainly local Jamaican genre? The only external/foreign people “into it” then would be restricted to very unusual and radically alternative “niche” seekers, cultural anthropologists, or those connected through social or familial bonds with locals (somewhat similar to the Surinamese genre ‘kaseko’, or Indonesian ‘gamelan’).
This question, while intriguing, is nonetheless useless. For several reasons: not only did Bob pave the way for reggae’s international spread, he was also the first “third world musical super star” paving the way, in a sense, for the World Music genre as such. It’s hard to overstate this importance: an importance which is not absolute or singular, but certainly definite and proven.
Photo left: “Government Yard” (means state-provided housing) where Bob Marley used to live in Trench Town, Kingston. When he had become famous, he went to live in wealthier uptown (see below)
I myself heard some reggae “before Bob”, but really got into reggae in my teens beginning with a Bob Marley album. Bob was by then deceased, but his music lived on, and helped me make me the reggae fan I am now. Not just Bob, however: another album soon following Bob Marley and the Wailers albums I really got into was, for instance, by the Wailing Souls, a band then certainly qualifiable as “authentic” roots reggae (“ghetto sufferers sound”).
In Jamaica there is a Bob Marley Museum (in Kingston) and a Mausoleum (with his Ethiopian-style grave) in his also birth village Nine Miles, parish of St Ann, as well as several other referents, which of course are mostly - but not always – tourism-driven.
I’ve been to the museum and mausoleum, as well as to Bob’s once place of residence in the West Kingston ghetto of Trench Town (where the line “inna government yard in Trench Town” in Bob’s song No Woman No Cry refers to).
Jamaicans recognize Bob’s importance, as do reggae musicians, evident in many tribute songs and cover versions.
Entrance to the Bob Marley museum in uptown Kingston
View of the Bob Marley museum. Bob lived here later. It also was the home of the Tuff Gong recording studio
Still, despite Bob’s undeniable importance I have an ambivalence about this superior status attributed to Bob within reggae.
This is also evident in Jamaica itself where there is a Bob Marley museum, but as yet no broader ”reggae museum” or “reggae centre”, despite the, for a small island, many reggae recording studios (some say about 200!) and many – past, recording, or aspiring - reggae artists, in Jamaica. My ambivalence thus also relates to the fact that I in time got to know a lot of other, earlier, and later reggae artists besides Bob Marley. I got to locate Bob within reggae, rather than above it.
Secondly, because of what I got to know about Bob’s career. Particularly emblematic is a documentary I saw under the title: ‘Classic albums : Catch A Fire’ (it is in parts on YouTube). This was on the crossover/breakthrough album of Bob Marley ‘Catch A Fire’ (1973), with which Bob Marley and the Wailers first reached an international audience, such as in the US and Europe. Specifically, it is stated, it reached “rock” fans (however that can be defined…heavy electric guitars come to my mind).
White producers, including Chris Blackwell, and white musicians, even active in genres as country, were trying to make the translation to the broader, non-Jamaican “rock” audience, and reach other markets. “Making radio friendly” (outside of Jamaica) was another typical expression made by producers in this documentary.
For some reason I felt irritated by this. Maybe it’s because of the obvious, in essence commercial, “crossover” attempt which can only violate authenticity. Maybe it’s, relatedly, because of the “fooling the public” element in it.
As I thought about it I concluded that another reason for my irritation – about an otherwise interesting documentary – was the self-congratulation the producers only barely occulted.
Possibly, in addition, I was annoyed because it seemed to tell something I did not want to hear: all the time I considered myself rebellious and open-minded for becoming a true reggae fan, now it turns out that (white) Island producers “prepared” my white man’s/European ears for this exotic sound. That’s too much honour for these Island producers, and I don’t think that this is the case. Even though I must admit that the first Bob Marley album I heard was post-Catch A Fire.
Besides this the documentary showed another important thing about Bob’s career: Bob did not really have the intent to adapt his work to “cross over”, they more or less made him/convinced him to do this. That further convinced me of Bob’s authenticity: this shined through in his work, even if adaptations for other markets were partly audible.
Moreover, another interesting aspect of Bob’s career is the fact that he (himself, not producers) expressed his hope to cross over not just to whites, but also to African Americans in the US. “For obvious reasons” one can say. This effort was overall limitedly successful. Some of his albums seemed to be more popular among (US) African Americans than others, but all in all white liberal university students – not seldom with an affinity for marijuana – seemed a relatively more secure fan base in the US.
Bob’s other aim – spreading his music to his motherland Africa – for even more “obvious reasons” (seeing his Rastafari beliefs) was more successful. This was stimulated by concerts in Zimbabwe, Ethiopia and elsewhere in Africa in the latter years of his life, and that certainly helped in making reggae popular in Africa, which it continues to be in the present.
In the very nice and interesting written biography ‘Bob Marley. A life’ (2008) by Gary Steckles Bob’s authenticity was evident, even though he knew he “adapted” to reach a non-Jamaican market. In this biography it is related how Bob Marley played another type of reggae in Jamaica than outside it. Also, it is related how Bob had an interesting life and personality, showed perseverance, and certainly did not have a privileged background, despite having a white father and a lighter skin, which in Jamaica usually was and is associated with higher-class status and more wealth.
All in all, my respect for Bob remained intact.
I have objections, however, toward his altered status of “best reggae musician”. This “best” is all too often conflated with “best selling/commercially and internationally successful”, which says little about musicianship or artistry per se. It says – maybe – something about appeal, and much more about marketing. Also those who don’t know much about reggae thus tend to opine this: he was the best reggae artist.
My personal opinion is this: he was a very talented (above average) songwriter, with a charismatic and strong personality, who remained connected to the poorer Jamaicans. His strongest musical quality was inventing good melodies, as reggae producer Lee “Scratch” Perry once said about Bob. Besides strong melodies, he further had good, intelligent and appealing lyrics, combined with strong backing music (made with other musicians and the Wailers of course). He had timeless music, such as for the song ‘Heathen’ or other songs, music which I still find to have a magic appeal. The Heathen “riddim” (instrumental), for example, has been recently reused (read: sung/chatted over) by current deejay/singer reggae artists, often to good effect. Also a way to live on..
To my taste, Bob didn’t have the best singing voice in reggae, though it was good enough. Better singers to my opinion in reggae? Donald “Tabby” Shaw of the Mighty Diamonds,
Ijahman Levi, Little Roy, Dennis Brown (R.I.P.),
Don Carlos, Michael Rose, Bushman and several others.
These, and others, like Bob have a talent for writing several good songs.
In addition, as online reggae reviewer Mark H. Harris once wrote, Bob "didn’t put out golden material all of the time”: he had more mediocre songs between them, as well as (some, not all) albums with a too “slick” or polished production and sound, possibly reflecting the tension between “crossing over” and authentic roots.
A strong point is Bob’s productivity. Unfortunately, he lived only 36 years, but released, since young, a song book of about two hundred songs. Most of these were good. But also that is not so uncommon in reggae.
However, despite this, I can live with the epithet of “king of reggae” for Bob: due to the unusual combination of talent, charismatic personality, and (international) influence.