Bob Marley: Rastaman vibration

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Thirty years after his death, Bob Marley's legend lives on. But no other artist has matched his enduring influence on music and culture. Why? By Ian Burrell

Neasden, north London. 1971. The man who would become the first musical superstar to emerge from the developing world is cooped up in a freezing house in one of the capital's greyest and least fashionable suburbs. He has no money, no passport and no work permit. This was Bob Marley at 26, standing on the verge of greatness. His drab, monochrome surroundings belied the fact that he would soon be painting the planet red, gold and green, electrifying audiences on all continents with an original sound that carried a lyrical message of rare power. But less than a decade after Marley left that house in Neasden to make the journey to the Island Records office in Basing Street where he would secure a career-defining deal for the Wailers – the band he formed with childhood friends Bunny Livingston and Peter Tosh – he would be dead.

It is 30 years since we lost Bob Marley. You can't believe it? Just a moment's consideration of music culture now should be enough to tell you how long he has been gone. The flame that, for most of his international audience, began with the albums Catch A Fire and Burnin', shining a new light on injustices and inequalities that had previously been widely ignored, blazed intensely but only briefly. Now it feels like the candle lit in his memory is all but extinguished.

It's not just that the current charts are almost bereft of serious thought or spiritual feeling. Pop music flourished when Marley was alive – when he was in that house in Neasden the British No 1 was "Ernie", a ditty about a milkman by Benny Hill (and still an all-time favourite track of the current Prime Minister). The sad thing is that, in an era when the tourist stalls have replaced the once ubiquitous T-shirts of Bob or John Lennon with football tops branded with Rooney or Ronaldo, there's almost no one singing about anything of importance. When aspiring artists are encouraged by reality television shows merely to replicate the hits of the past, it's tough being a singer-songwriter, let alone one that wants to change the world.

Marley encouraged musicians to think differently. He was an inspiration to British punk bands in the late 1970s and acknowledged their spirit in his own song "Punky Reggae Party". His success encouraged the explosion of World Music in the 1980s with South Africa's Lucky Dube and Ivory Coast's Alpha Blondy among the artists who sought to emulate his songs of protest.

His influence extended well beyond the parameters of music. The message in songs such as "Get Up, Stand Up", "So Much Trouble in the World" and "War" would surely resonate with demonstrators in Cairo's Tahrir Square and Libyan rebels in Benghazi. "Bob Marley lives on as an icon – not just in the world of music, but in the social sphere, at the political grassroots, and in the field of human rights," noted the British photographer Dennis Morris, a friend of the musician. Since Morris wrote those words, in 1998, Marley's influence seems to have waned, especially in career-conscious 21st-century Britain.

Even in Jamaica, where Bob led the way in breaking the stigmatisation of Rastafarian culture and making dreadlocks acceptable, there is diminishing evidence of his influence in popular music, with lewd and violent lyrics often holding sway in modern dancehalls. "If Bob Marley was to hear the songs of certain individuals in Jamaica right now he would be horrified," says the reggae DJ David Rodigan.

Perhaps, 30 years after his death, it's a good time to reconsider what Bob Marley left us. His relevance should be particularly strong in Britain, and not just because his father was an English army officer, Captain Norval Marley. He signed that crucial Island Records deal with the label's Anglo-Jamaican founder Chris Blackwell, after coming to Europe with the America singer Johnny Nash and getting stuck in Britain. For a time he lived in London, playing his beloved football with the locals. He made his most famous live recording at the Lyceum Theatre in London in July 1975, filmed the video for "Is This Love" in a north London community centre and helped to inspire the British reggae scene, opening doors for bands such as Steel Pulse and Aswad.

The quality of Marley's work is rooted in the depth of his early life experiences and his long musical education. Separated from his father, he departed the rural parish of St Ann's to live with his mother in the Kingston slums. "After battering around from this dwelling to that one, we finally ended up in a government house in Trench Town," recalled his mother, Cedella Booker, in her biography of her son. He soon began associating with local musicians. "Sometimes Desmond Dekker would come over and the two of them would start jamming together in the bedroom."

In Trench Town he learnt about racial prejudice. "Bob was different from everybody else because he was racially mixed," said Morris in his pictorial biography Bob Marley: A Rebel Life. "He never really saw himself as a black man or a white man: he was Bob Marley. He always said that he had a hard time when he was growing up in Jamaica, coming from a mixed culture. Everybody in Trench Town was very definitely black, so he was an outcast in some ways."

By the time, Bob, Bunny and Peter reached England in 1971, they had been working for eight years. Their earliest recordings for the great Jamaican producer Coxsone Dodd were inspired by the vocal harmonies of American soul groups such as the Impressions and powered by the new rhythms of ska. Songs such as "Simmer Down" and "Jailhouse" reflected the inner city tensions that Marley had experienced and were imbued with the rebel spirit that became his trademark. In 1969, the Wailers joined up with the eccentric Lee Perry, who produced some of the finest compositions of Bob's career, including "Small Axe" and "Duppy Conqueror".

Everyone who met Bob Marley seems to have been touched by his sheer presence, his lion-like visage, majestic air and disarming smile. "He was extremely charismatic and visually, a beautiful man," says Kim Gottlieb-Walker, who photographed Marley at his home in Kingston at the height of his career. She also pictured several of his famously energetic live performances. "He was very dedicated to his music and his message, very serious and conscientious and he demanded the same discipline of his band members. But there was no denying the pure joy and intensity of the performances."

Gottlieb-Walker is exhibiting some of her pictures at a London gallery to mark the 30th anniversary of Bob's death. "He was most comfortable while enjoying the company of friends, family and children, playing football or ping-pong or making music," she says. "At one point I taped some cardboards to the wall of his house at 56 Hope Road in the colours of the Ethiopian flag and asked him to stand in front of them. The first frame was serious and contained...so I stuck my head out from behind the camera and said, 'You know, a lot of people who see these photos will be people who already love you' and that produced the smiles in the next two frames."

According to the reggae author Lloyd Bradley, writers have always struggled to capture the "essential purity" of Marley, which is more easily defined in photographs than in print. "Bob's face was always as expressive as his words, whether he was laughing, thinking, singing, composing or hopping mad." Women found him irresistible. As well as his three children with wife Rita he had up to eight more with other women, including the former Miss World Cindy Breakspeare. Politicians were also drawn by his aura, in spite of his reluctance to get involved, because of his Rastafarian beliefs. At the One Love Peace Concert in 1978, he brought together the leaders of Jamaica's warring political parties and forced them to join hands during a performance of his party anthem "Jammin'".

Two years later in Harare, at the Zimbabwe Independence Celebrations he performed a set that included the song he had written for that new nation, with its reminder that "Every man got a right to his decide his own destiny" and his advice to Robert Mugabe and colleagues that "Soon we'll find out who is the real revolutionary". Thirty years later, and with the Zimbabwean people suffering under Mugabe's rule, the words are as pertinent as ever.

"The music still resonates today, the people in Libya and Tunisia could be singing the Marley tunes," says Tony Sewell, a former lecturer at Leeds University who is director of Generating Genius, a British and Jamaican charity for boys' education. "You would have to look at the Beatles to see that kind of international currency. It's remarkable that the music has stayed so fresh."

Sewell is another who is depressed by the absence of musicians willing to pick up Marley's baton, particularly in reggae, for which he created a global audience before his death. After an initial explosion of Jamaican talent in the form of singers such as Dennis Brown, Gregory Isaacs, Freddie McGregor and Sugar Minott, the well has dried up. The honey-voiced Garnett Silk was seen as a pretender to the Marley throne (before his death in a gas explosion in 1994), as was Buju Banton, whose 1994 tour accompanying the release of the album 'Til Shiloh drew comparisons with Marley. But Banton's appeal was tainted by accusations of homophobia and his recent conviction for firearm and drugs offences leaves him facing up to 20 years in jail. A huge vacuum remains.

In Sewell's view, Marley's contribution was so vast that it intimidates those who have followed in his wake. "I detect that Jamaica needs to get over Bob Marley in some ways and move on," he says. "I'm wondering if his legacy has left a lot of younger Jamaicans, particularly the artists, feeling, 'Where do we take it to the next stage'. What was refreshing about [the Jamaican Olympic athlete] Usain Bolt coming along was at last we had somebody new."

Jason Hall, deputy director of tourism at the Jamaica Tourist Board, which has used Marley's "One Love" to draw visitors to the island for the past 20 years, says that whenever he travelled as a child he was afforded a special status because of the kudos that Bob's music brought to Jamaicans. "There simply hasn't been any musician like that before or since on a global scale," he says. "Nobody else speaks to freedom, positivity, upliftment and of course love."

In Australia, aboriginal people keep a memorial flame for Marley in Sydney. Among the Hopi tribe of Native Americans he is revered as the fulfilment of an ancient prophecy. But Marley's importance is perhaps felt most keenly of all in Africa. In 2005 I travelled to Ethiopia, the spiritual home of Rastafarianism, when 200,000 people thronged Meskel Square for the Africa Unite concert at which Rita Marley and several of Bob's children, including Damian, Ziggy and Julian, performed to celebrate what would have been his 60th birthday. "Bob Marley for me was a teacher, an academic," a member of the vast crowd, Abel Demsew, an 18-year-old student, told me. "He changed the world smoothly and attractively."

That resonates with Jeff Walker, Gottlieb-Walker's husband and a press officer for Island when Marley made the albums Natty Dread, Rastaman Vibration and Exodus (named by Time magazine as the greatest album of the 20th century). "Bob's primary message was peace and love," he says. "Even in the angrier songs they were talking about situations which would really be best addressed by actions of love as opposed to violence."

It's not that we have forgotten the words to those songs. Those who have grown up with iPods probably have a deeper knowledge of the history of popular music than their parents or grandparents. And Bob Marley's work, particularly his greatest hits album Legend, is on a lot of iPods. When Rodigan recently performed for a student audience in Manchester, the crowd sang along to "Is This Love". "Everyone in that house– average age 23, tops – knew every single world of that song and that speaks volumes, does it not, for the power of this man's music," he says.

"He has left such a phenomenal legacy, such an imprint upon our conscience."

A similar enthusiasm is engendered by the militant "Buffalo Soldier" and its battle-cry "Woy-oy-oy-oy", by "Sun Is Shining" the Perry-produced classic that has been remixed as a modern dance record, and the stirring "Iron Lion Zion", a track that was discovered only after Marley's death.

On one occasion at Island Records, Bob played Rodigan a recording of "Could You Be Loved" before its release, anxious to know whether it would have a wide appeal. Obviously, he need not have worried. "Bob's music is universal," says the DJ. "You can cue up and play almost any of his records and you are going to have the audience singing along, clapping hands and smiles beaming back up at you."

It might be that no one will ever again scale the musical heights reached by Bob Marley, with his influence not just on the charts but on politics, international relations and human rights. But it would be nice if more modern artists felt inspired enough to at least give it a try.

Bob Marley & The Golden Age of Reggae is on at Proud Camden and runs from 7 April until 15 May. A book of the same name is published by Titan and priced £24.99. For more information go to www.proud.co.uk

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