Next Friday marks the 31st anniversary of Bob Marley's death. The worldwide ambassador of Jamaican music, and chronicler of that country's rampant economic, social and political strife, died from cancer at the age of 36 in 1981. When he passed, he was poised to become an international star of massive proportions.
As a new film is released telling Marley's story in vibrant detail -- Kevin McDonald's "Marley," which opens today at the Dipson Eastern Hills Mall theater -- the hour is ripe for some reflection on the late reggae progenitor's continued resonance, both in the world of popular music and in the broader, multicultural sense.
Marley was a game-changer, there can be no question.
He was at the forefront of Jamaican music's ascendancy, and helped to stir the pot that married American R&B, soul, doo-wop and pop to Caribbean influences like ska, in the process birthing reggae. In the 1960s, with fellow Wailers Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, Marley brought fine-tuned vocal harmony to the island. But it was later, when his latent talents as a poet began to flourish, and he grew to be a decidedly vibrant bandleader, that Marley's genius rose to the surface.
There's a reason we are still talking about him today.
There's a reason that, as a montage closing McDonald's film makes plain, his music is an international concern, one that has rather handily transcended the perceived borders of language, economics and culture.
There's a reason that teens and preteens walk around the suburbs with Marley's picture adorning their T-shirts, backpacks and hoodies.
There's a reason that no self-respecting jam band can avoid dealing with the influence of Marley's music.
And there's a reason that Marley is more popular today than he was when he died.
We might narrow it down to the fact that tough times demand tough talk, that when the river gets rough and the waters swell threateningly, you need a good, trustworthy and brave companion. Marley's music, born of struggle, bathed in dignified resistance, hits deepest whenever the world outlook is most grim. His deeply held conviction in the righteousness of Rastafarianism was transformed, by the power of his poetic vision, into a universal concern. People clung to it at the time of its conception, and people still cling to it today.
Marley wrote of the struggles of his brethren in the ghettos of Trenchtown, in Kingston, Jamaica. He also detailed the quest of Rastafarianism, a complex set of beliefs centered on close readings of the Bible that suggested that the Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, was the embodiment of the second coming.
Africa was both the spiritual and longed-for physical home to Marley and his fellow Rastas. Driven to the margins of society by unjust political rule, racism and economic segregationism, the Rastas felt physically exiled as well -- the train "bound for glory" was to take them to Africa.
Marley made all of this very specific information feel personal to listeners around the world. This was no small miracle. One could read their own situation into a song like "Get Up Stand Up" or "Exodus," both of which are song-texts with Rastafarian-specific imagery. The former song posits "the mighty God (as) a living man," and equates religious conviction with political activism; the latter details the spiritual and physical quest of the Rastafarians for Africa. This is not light material. No matter how commercialized and commodified Marley's image and likeness may have become in the years since his death, the raw, living and breathing power of his actualized musical vision can not be brushed beneath the rug.
With songs like "Guiltiness," "The Heathen," "Them Belly Full (But We Hungry)," "Burnin' and Lootin'," Natural Mystic," and "Redemption Song," Marley crafted an impeccable body of what, for lack of a better descriptive, might be called "protest music."
Like the mythical Tom Joad himself, this music appears and speaks whenever and wherever injustice is perpetrated on the weak, to bear witness. Its musical complexity -- belied by what might be mistaken by the uninitiated for repetitiveness in rhythm and stasis in harmony -- places Marley and the Wailers' music in its own class. The Book of Revelations speaks of a music that will emerge to unite, to speak to people spread throughout the world in a language beyond language, that all will understand. A cynic might deny it, a hipster scoff at the suggestion, but Marley's music fits this bill.
"Marley," the film, is a brilliant piece of documentary filmmaking. McDonald -- whose previous credits include "The Last King of Scotland" and "Touching the Void" -- is clearly a fan, and Marley's son Ziggy is one of the film's executive producers. This could spell trouble of the "glossing over the tough bits in service of the myth" variety.
But it doesn't.
Marley emerges from the film as a conflicted man, not an omnipotent god. Which makes him much more useful to the rest of us. Still.