Full name, Robert Nesta Marley; born February 6, 1945, in Nine Miles, Saint Ann, Jamaica; died of cancer May 11, 1981, in Miami, Fla., buried in Nine Miles, Saint Ann, Jamaica; son of Norval Sinclair Marley (a British army captain) and Cedella Marley Booker (formerly a shopkeeper, now a singer; maiden name Malcolm); married Alpharita Constantia Anderson (a singer), on February 10, 1966; children: David, Cedella, Stephen, and Stephanie; he also had seven other legally recognized children with seven different women: daughters Karen and Makeda Jahnesta, and sons Rowan, Robbie, Kimani, Julian, and Damian. Religion: Rastafarian.

In his brief life, Bob Marley rose from poverty and obscurity to international stardom, becoming the first Third World artist to be acclaimed to that degree. It was largely through him that the world became familiar with reggae music and Rastafarianism, the religion embraced by much of Jamaica's black underclass. According to New York Times Magazine contributor Jon Bradshaw, Marley became an influential political force in his native country by articulating "the plight of the Jamaican ghettos--urging change and preaching revolution should change not come." Because "exact and obvious" analogies to the situation in Jamaica were applicable in so many parts of the world, Marley eventually became a heroic figure to poor and oppressed people everywhere.

Robert Nesta Marley was born to Cedella Malcolm Marley when she was barely nineteen years old. The child was the result of her clandestine affair with the local overseer of crown lands in the rural parish where she lived. Captain Marley, a white man more than twice Cedella's age, married the girl to make the birth legitimate, but he left the countryside the day after his impromptu wedding in order to accept a post in the city of Kingston and had almost no contact with his wife and son for several years. As the infant grew, he became the pet of his grandfather's large clan. He was known as a serious child and had a reputation for clairvoyance.

When Bob was about five years old, Cedella received a letter from her estranged husband asking that his son be sent to Kingston in order to attend school. Bob's mother reluctantly agreed and put her young son on the bus to Jamaica's largest city. Captain Marley met the child, but, for reasons unknown, he took him to the home of an elderly, invalid woman and abandoned him there. Bob was left to fend almost entirely for himself in Kingston's ghettos, which are generally considered some of the world's worst. Months passed before Cedella Marley was able to track down her child and bring him back to his country home. Before long, however, mother and child had returned to Kingston, where Cedella believed she had a greater chance of improving her lot. With them were Bob's closest friend, Bunny Livingston, and Bunny's father Thaddeus.

Jamaican society held few opportunities for blacks. Bob and Bunny grew up in an environment where violent crime was glorified by many young people as one of the few ways of getting ahead. Music was seen as another means of escape. Like most of their contemporaries, the two boys dreamed of becoming recording stars and spent their days coming up with songs and practicing them to the accompaniment of makeshift guitars they fashioned from bamboo, sardine cans, and electrical wire. By 1963, Marley's dream had come true--he'd released his first single, "Judge Not." Soon he and Bunny had teamed with another singer, Peter Tosh, to form a group known as the Wailers. Through talent shows, gigs at small clubs, and recordings, the Wailers became one of the most popular groups in Jamaica.

Their early success was based on popular dance hits in the "ska" music style, but as time passed, they added social commentary to their lyrics, and were instrumental in transforming the light, quick ska beat into the slower, bass-heavy reggae sound. The three men also came under the influence of Rastafarianism. This complex set of mystical beliefs holds that Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia (whose given name was Ras Tafari) is the living God who will lead blacks out of oppression and into an African homeland. It was once considered the religion of outcasts and lunatics in Jamaica, but in the 1960s it came to represent an alternative to violence for many ghetto dwellers. Rastafarianism lent dignity to their suffering and offered them the hope of eventual relief. Rejecting the standards of the white world that led many blacks to straighten their hair, Rastas let theirs mat up into long, ropy "dreadlocks." They follow strict dietary rules: abhor alcohol and drugs, but revere "ganja" (marijuana) as a holy herb that brings enlightenment to users. The Wailers soothed ghetto tensions with lyrical messages of peace, love, and racial reconciliation but, at the same time, they warned the ruling class of "imminent dread judgement on the downpressors."

For all their acclaim in Jamaica, the Wailers saw few profits from their early recording careers, as unscrupulous producers repeatedly cheated them out of royalties and even the rights to their own songs. In the early 1970s, Marley sought an alliance with Chris Blackwell, a wealthy white Jamaican whose record company, Island, was the label of many major rock stars. At the time, reggae was still considered unsophisticated slum music that could never be appreciated by non-Jamaican audiences. Blackwell had a deep interest in the music, however, and because he felt that the Wailers were the one group who could popularize reggae internationally, he offered them a contract and marketed their first Island album, Catch a Fire, just as he would any rock band. Tours of Britain and the United States helped the Wailers' sound to catch on, but perhaps the most important catalyst to their popularity at this time was Eric Clapton's cover of Marley's composition, "I Shot the Sheriff," from the Wailers' 1973 album Burnin'. Clapton's version became a worldwide hit and led many of his fans to discover the Wailers' music.

As their popularity increased, the original Wailers drew closer to a parting of the ways. Bunny Livingston (who had taken the name Bunny Wailer) disliked leaving Jamaica for extended tours, and Peter Tosh resented Chris Blackwell's efforts to make Bob the focus of the group. Each launched solo careers in 1975, while Marley released Natty Dread, hailed by Rolling Stone reviewer Stephen Davis as "the culmination of Marley's political art to this point." The reviewer continued: "With every album he's been rocking a little harder and reaching further out to produce the stunning effect of a successful spell. Natty Dread deals with rebellion and personal liberation....The artist lays his soul so bare that the careful listener is satiated and exhausted in the end." Rastaman Vibration was released the following year to even more enthusiastic reviews. It was full of acid commentary on the worsening political situation in Jamaica, including a denouncement of the CIA's alleged involvement in island politics that brought Marley under surveillance by that and other U.S. intelligence organizations. His prominence in Jamaica reached messianic proportions, causing one Time reporter to exclaim, "He rivals the government as a political force."

Although Marley regarded all politicians with skepticism, considering them to be part of what Rastafarians call "Babylon," or the corrupt Western world, he was known to favor Michael Manley of the People's National Party over Edward Seaga of the right-wing Jamaican Labour Party for the post of Prime Minister of Jamaica. When Manley asked Bob Marley to give a "Smile Jamaica" concert to reduce tensions between the warring gangs associated with the two parties, the singer readily agreed. On December 3, 1976, shortly before the concert was to take place, seven gunmen, suspected to be henchmen of the Jamaican Labour Party, stormed Marley's home. Marley, his wife Rita, and their manager Don Taylor were all injured in the ensuing gunfire. Despite the assassination attempt, the concert went on as scheduled. An audience of 80,000 people was electrified when Marley, bandaged and unable to strum his guitar, climbed to the stage to begin a blistering ninety-minute set. "At the close of his performance, Bob began a ritualistic dance, acting out aspects of the ambush that had almost taken his life," reported Timothy White in Catch a Fire: The Life of Bob Marley. "The last thing [the audience] saw before the reigning King of Reggae disappeared back into the hills was the image of the man mimicking the two-pistoled fast draw of a frontier gunslinger, his locks thrown back in triumphant laughter."

Immediately after the "Smile Jamaica" concert, Marley left the country in self-imposed exile. After a period of recuperation, he toured the United States, Europe, and Africa. Reviewing his 1977 release, Exodus, Ray Coleman wrote in Melody Maker: "This is a mesmerizing album....more accessible, melodically richer, delivered with more directness than ever....After an attempt on his life, Marley has a right to celebrate his existence, and that's how the album sounds: a celebration." But Village Voice reviewer Roger Trilling found that Exodus was "underscored by deep personal melancholy, a musical echo of the rootless wanderings that followed [Marley's] self-exile from Jamaica."

In 1978, Marley injured his foot during an informal soccer game. The painful wound was slow to heal and finally forced the singer to seek medical help. Doctors informed him that he had an early form of cancer and advised amputation of his damaged toe. He refused, because such treatment was not in keeping with Rasta beliefs. Despite worsening health, Marley continued to perform until September 1980 when he collapsed while jogging in New York's Central Park during the U.S. leg of a world tour. Doctors determined that tumors were spreading throughout his lungs and brain. He underwent radiation therapy and a controversial holistic treatment in the Bavarian Alps, but to no avail. After his death on May 11, 1981, he was given a state funeral in Jamaica, which was attended by more than 100,000 people. Prime minister Edward Seaga remembered Marley as "a native son...a beloved and departed friend." "He was a man with deep religious and political sentiments who rose from destitution to become one of the most influential music figures in the last twenty years," eulogized White in Rolling Stone. He was "an inspiration for black freedom fighters the world over....When his death was announced, the degree of devastation felt beyond our borders was incalculable."

by Joan Goldsworthy

Bob Marley's Career

Worked as a welder, Kingston, Jamaica, briefly in 1961; lab assistant at Du Pont, forklift driver in a warehouse, and assembly-line worker at Chrysler, all in Delaware, 1966; owner of a record store, Wailin' Soul, Kingston, Jamaica, 1966; formed Tuff Gong recording label, 1970; recording artist, 1962-81; founding member, with Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingston, of musical group the Wailers (originally known as the Teenagers, then as the Wailing Rudeboys, then the Wailing Wailers), early 1960s.

Bob Marley's Awards

Special citation on behalf of Third World nations from United Nations, 1979; Jamaica's Order of Merit, 1981.

Famous Works

Recent Updates

January 23, 2004: Previously unreleased recordings made between 1967 and 1972 are to be released as a 3-CD set in March from Universal Music, which has rights to over 200 early Marley recordings never before available. Source: New York Times, www.nytimes.com, January 23, 2004.

November 11, 2004: Marley was inducted into the first U.K. Music Hall of Fame, as an honorary member. Source: USA Today, www.usatoday.com/life/music/news/2004-11-12-brit-music-faves_x.htm, November 15, 2004.

November 15, 2004: It was announced that a musical based on Marley's life will be produced in London's West End in 2006. Source: New York Times, www.nytimes.com, November 15, 2004.

January 13, 2005: On the 60th anniversary of his birth, Marley's widow, Rita, exhumed Marley's body and moved it to Shashemene, Ethiopia, where many Rastafarians have recently settled. Source: New York Times, www.nytimes.com, January 13, 2005.

February 1, 2005: The Ethiopian royal family initiated a month-long celebration to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of Marley's birth. Source: CNN.com, www.cnn.com/2005/SHOWBIZ/Music/02/02/ethiopia.marley.reut/index.html, February 2, 2005.

January 2005: Marley's 1974 hit song, "No Woman No Cry," was entered into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Source: BBC News, news.bbc.co.uk, February 14, 2005.

February 11, 2005: It was announced that contrary to published reports, Marley's widow, Rita, would not be transporting her husband's body from Jamaica to be reburied in Ethiopia, but she would hold open the possibility for the future. Source: Entertainment Weekly (Listen2This section), February 11, 2005, p. 8.

Further Reading


Periodicals Obituaries

Visitor Comments Add a comment…

over 15 years ago

bob marley was a amzing song writer.. and he had change this world with the greatest music ever!

over 16 years ago

I love Bob and think the world is not and will be never the same without him... He changed the world for the world for the best and everybody loved him

over 16 years ago

Bob Marley is the man and cant be ignored when he tried to bring more love into the world! jah mon, we be soul rebels!