Cedella Marley Booker: Keeper of the Marley flame

Twenty-seven years after his death, Bob Marley remains an iconic figure in popular music, his songs blaring out of radios and his smile beaming from millions of T-shirts and posters the world over. Various members of his extended family have carried on the musical legacy of reggae's number one star. These include his widow Rita (once a member of the I-Threes, backing vocalists to the Wailers), his son Ziggy and Ziggy's own group the Melody Makers (which features three more of Bob Marley's children) and the Grammy-winning reggae star Damian Marley, his son from a liaison with Cindy Breakspeare (Miss World 1976).

Cedella Marley Booker, Bob's mother, was a central figure in the convoluted Marley family tree, which she took great delight in untangling and explaining to interviewers who called at her homes in Miami and Jamaica. A fiercely independent woman with a warm smile and a generous disposition, she overcame the hardships of bringing up Bob as a single parent and was very close to her son, later declaring: "I didn't know he was going to be a reggae king, but I knew he was a king from birth."

After the singer's death in May 1981, she became a keeper of the flame and wrote two books about her son, Bob Marley: an intimate portrait by his mother (1997), and Bob Marley, My Son (2003). She also recorded two albums, Awake Zion!, produced by the Wailers bassist Aston "Family Man" Barrett, in 1990, and Smilin' Island of Song, a collection of Caribbean folk songs for children, in 1992.

Having adopted Rohan, Marley's son by Janet Dunn, she fought for a share of the considerable Marley estate, claiming with some justification that she should be first in line, despite the singer having died intestate. A colourful dresser who sported dreadlocks she had been growing since 1978, she occasionally performed with Bob's sons Ky-Mani, Ziggy, Stephen, Damian and Julian, and appeared at a concert celebrating the 60th birthday of Marley in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in 2005. Bob named his eldest daughter – his first child by Rita – Cedella after his mother.

Born Cedella Malcolm in 1926 in Rhoden Hall, in the St Ann area of Jamaica, she was only 18 when she was seduced by Captain Norval Marley, a white Jamaican of British ancestry, who worked as a plantation overseer and was 32 years her senior. When she became pregnant, they married but her husband soon left and subsequently married again.

Norval Marley provided little financial support for his wife and son and rarely visited them, and died in 1955, when Bob was 10 years old. Cedella mostly relied on her extended family for support and ran a small grocery shop before moving to Trenchtown, a slum area of Kingston. The hardships they suffered at the time informed Bob Marley's music, most notably the lyrics and sentiment of his signature song "No Woman No Cry". Cedella was always singing around the house and undoubtedly passed her musical talent on to her son.

While living in the Jamaican capital, she had a daughter called Pearl, by Taddeus Livingston, the father of Bunny Livingston – aka Bunny Wailer – who joined Bob Marley and Peter Tosh in the original incarnation of the Wailers in 1963. By then, Cedella had moved to the United States at the behest of relatives in Delaware but couldn't persuade her son to join her and Pearl on a permanent basis.

In 1963 she married Edward Booker, a civil servant. Bob Marley visited them and spent most of 1966 working, doing odd jobs in the United States to provide for his own family in Jamaica but he went back to Kingston to avoid the draft and rejoin the Wailers. After the death of her second husband in 1976, Cedella Marley Booker moved to Miami and was at her son's side when he died at the Cedars of Lebanon hospital, after visiting her in 1981. His last words to her were: "Maddah, don't cry."

She maintained a firm belief that Bob Marley didn't have cancer. "I think it was injected in him in some way," she stated.

They did something with him. But that is left to be seen, you know. Because whatever good a man have done in this world, he will get paid. If you do good, you go and get paid in return. If you do bad, you go and get paid in return.

Her belief in karma was reinforced by the fact that the Miami policeman who shot dead Anthony, the second son she had with Booker, when he was 19, was himself gunned down by an 18-year-old seven years later.

I leave all vengeance to God. I will not try to fight them. Because I know I can't. But I know Jah fight for me. Me just leave everything in the hands of Jah Rastafari, the Most High. He's the one that is guiding and directing and protecting me at the same time.

Cedella Marley Booker told interviewers that her desire was to see reggae music "grow on and on and spread wider stringer and bigger. I'm hoping and praying that reggae will reach many hearts because reggae music, the message that Bob has brought to the world, has changed so many people." When pressed to pick a favourite from her son's rich catalogue of songs, she usually went for "No Woman No Cry". "That means so much to me," she said. "Because it gives me assurance, you know, and a kind of strength in my faith. Don't cry! Everything is going to be all right."

Pierre Perrone

Cedella Malcolm, singer and writer: born Rhoden Hall, Jamaica 23 July 1926; married 1944 Norval Marley (died 1955; one son deceased), (one daughter by Taddeus Livingston), 1963 Edward Booker (died 1976; one son, and one son deceased); died Miami, Florida 8 April 2008.

Comments