For sale: Bob Marley

Bootleggers have made a fortune out of the reggae star's image since his death. Now his family are planning to cash in with their own merchandising deal. David Usborne reports
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The Independent Culture

Nirvana may be just around the corner for the Bob Marley fans among us – and apparently we are still many. We are promised a future when just about everything we wear, read, ride, eat and drink could be born of the loins of the late reggae lion of Jamaica. Do you fancy a mug of Marley Coffee? Meet you at the One Love Cafe.

A new Marley Mania is set to be unleashed by a sweeping merchandising deal concluded this week between the children of Mr Marley and a Chicago-based private equity firm, Hilco Consumer Capital. It may seem an unlikely alliance of mellow and mercantile but together they are launching a joint venture called House of Marley. And joint has nothing to do with spliffs and reefers.

It is not as if we don't already see the usual tat featuring the famous man's face and dreadlocks – the T-shirts, posters and baseball caps.

But for the most part, they are bootleg goods, manufactured without the family's permission and with none of the proceeds going to the Marley estate. Hence the partnership with Hilco.

"As one of the world's most popular brands and images that is regularly counterfeited, the formalisation of approved and official Bob Marley merchandise will be supported with strong brand guidelines, managed by an internal Bob Marley brand team," explained Reyaz A Kassamali, managing director of Hilco. Hilco specialises in acquiring and rehabilitating distressed brand names.

Tackling the counterfeiters will be one of the venture's first priorities, but not the only one. Sales of bootlegged Marley products are estimated to be worth roughly $600m (£418m) a year worldwide. Hilco hopes that it can build a legitimate Marley licensing operation that will be capable of generating $1bn annually.

The timing of the new venture is no accident. Mr Marley, who died aged 36 of brain cancer in 1981, was a devoted follower of the Rastafarian religion and would have turned 65 early next year. The family and its new partners are hoping to capitalise on the anniversary with a series of new products and events.

And this marketing scheme won't just be about repromoting the singer's hits, the most famous of which were "One Love", "Jammin'" and "No Woman, No Cry".

Some of the work will be focused on expanding existing Marley brands. Mostly clothing lines, they include One Love, Bob Marley, Catch A Fire, Three Little Birds and Tuff Gong – the name of the record label launched by Mr Marley and his group, The Wailers.

"We want our legacy and our name to be firm in the world," said Rohan Marley, 36, who designs clothing under the Tuff Gong label and whose long-term partner is the singer Lauryn Hill.

But the family has big ideas for lending the singer's voice, image and lyrics to a range of new products and services largely by way of a network of licensing agreements with the newly-formed venture, taking 5 to 10 per cent royalties on sales. Get ready for Marley-themed video games, snowboards, headphones, stationery, beer, computer equipment and, one day maybe, even hotels.

"We're open to licensing just about anything," Cedella Marley, the singer's daughter who now lives in Miami, told the BBC. Ms Marley designs clothes, although her latest departure was a children's book called Three Little Birds – the name of the Marley song that features the lines, "Don't worry about a thing, 'cause every little thing's going to be alright", said to have been written for his mistress. She adds, however: "If it is not right, we will not do it."

A line of children's story books and videos could be in the offing. And she is serious also about a chain of One Love coffee shops, with London as one city where they could be opened.

"That's something that we've always wanted to explore," Ms Marley explained. "We're talking all over the world – one in London, one in Asia, one in Amsterdam." The cafes she said would be the sort of place where customers could "come, eat good Jamaican food, talk about the music, and listen to the music and live bands".

From cafes it may not be too large a leap to Marley hotels – the House of Blues franchise quickly extended itself from its themed restaurants and bars to hotels in the US. In fact, visitors to the Bahamas may already be familiar with the Bob Marley Resort and Spa that could provide the model for a global chain.

Two new products are already close to being introduced to the market. The family has been developing an organic coffee farm in Jamaica and expects the first beans to be on sale before the end of February. It is also close to introducing a new brand of Jamaica light beer to be called, simply, Marley Lager.

It is arguable whether Bob Marley remains as magnetic today as he once was. It has been almost three decades since his death, after all. But Hilco CEO James Salter seems to be in no doubt that his name – and his music – still reverberates around the globe. "The Marleys stand for something," he said. "Peace and love."

"Dad's legacy continues to grow," concurs Ms Marley in Miami. "The things that dad spoke about are still the things that we all need to fix and work on. The message is still about hope and peace and all of us coming together. That's what makes him special. All of us can relate to him."

A valuable name: The Marley clan

Bob Marley officially had 13 children: three with wife Rita, two adopted from her previous relationships, and eight with other partners. However, only nine are listed on his website.

Ziggy Marley: Formed the band the Melody Makers which blended R&B, rock and reggae.

Stephen Marley: Grammy-winning producer, singer, songwriter and instrumentalist who also played in the Melody Makers.

Damian Marley: Began his music career in 1996 and won a Grammy in 2002 for his album Halfway Tree.

Julian Marley: Since cutting his first demo tape at the age of five, he has released two solo albums.

Cedella Marley: Toured the world as part of the Melody Makers.

Ky-Mani Marley: Musician; the only child Bob had with table tennis champion Anita Belnavis.

Stephanie Marley: Currently overseeing the construction and development of the family's first resort project, Marley Resort and Spa, in the Bahamas.

Rohan Marley: Runs the clothing arm of the Marley family's business.

Karen Marley: Bob's second daughter, born in England in 1973. Now a designer in Los Angeles.

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