Why Bob Marley can't rest in peace

As musicians gather in Ethiopia to celebrate what would have been the 60th birthday of Jamaica's biggest music star, Ian Burrell reports on how a new controversy has erupted over his remains

To borrow a phrase from Shakespeare, the 200,000 people expected to gather for a historic concert in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, on Sunday will come to praise Bob Marley but not to bury him. The Africa Unite concert on 6 February was dreamt up as the culmination of a week of celebrations, which begin today, in memory of the 60th anniversary of the birth of the late reggae superstar. Tonight, the life of one of the most iconic musical figures of the late 20th century will be celebrated at a spectacular opening ceremony at Addis Ababa city hall.

But the festivities have been almost overshadowed by an almighty row over Marley's final resting place. As plans for the week were being enthusiastically finalised, a thunderbolt came from nowhere: Ethiopia was briefly set to be not just the venue for a music festival but a mausoleum for the remains of a man who has become a symbol of the culture of his native country, Jamaica.

The suggestion was made by Marley's wife, Rita, who was in Addis to organise the concert and its related events. According to the Associated Press news agency reporter Anthony Mitchell, Ms Marley told him: "We are working on bringing his remains to Ethiopia. It is part of Bob's own mission." In what was promptly taken as a slight on the Caribbean nation with whom Marley's name is synonymous, Rita allegedly added: "Bob's whole life is about Africa, it is not about Jamaica. How can you give up a continent for an island? He has a right for his remains to be where he would love them to be. This was his mission. Ethiopia is his spiritual resting place. With the 60th anniversary this year, the impact is there and the time is right."

The story was instantly picked up by media outlets around the world. Jamaica reacted with indignation. Diana Ginter wrote to The Jamaica Observer to complain: "What about his spiritual ties to Jamaica? Wasn't Bob born and raised in Jamaica and didn't he call Jamaica home?" "Has Rita lost her mind?" wrote P Chin to the Jamaica Gleaner. "Bob loved Jamaica. He wouldn't have made it his home if it were otherwise."

Possibly taken aback by the response, Rita Marley went to ground, refusing to return calls. A representative of the Rita Marley Foundation told the Gleaner: "There's absolutely no truth to the story, and I'm quoting Mrs Marley to you. I spoke with her this morning as it relates to the story, because we have been getting calls, and she said that there were no such plans."

Desta Meghoo-Peddie, of the Bob Marley Foundation, weighed in to say that Rita's words had been "twisted". AP said that the interview had been taped and that other reporters had been present.

What is certain is that the issue had touched a raw nerve. For some observers the row was, more than anything, about the terse relationship between the Cuba-born Ms Marley and the people of Jamaica, who she feels have not always given her the respect she deserves.

Tony Sewell, Jamaican author of Garvey's Children: the Legacy of Marcus Garvey, says: "What's interesting about this is Rita's position. This goes back to the whole situation around the will and how the Marley property was divided up. She has been marginalised in the story and part of this is that she wants to reinvent herself within the Marley context."

Rita Marley has already caused outrage in Jamaica by claiming that her husband raped her. Speaking from the Caribbean island, Michael Edwards, features writer on The Jamaica Observer, says: "There's a fair amount of lingering malcontent against Rita stemming from the previous controversy over her book, in which she initially claimed he had forcible sex with her, and later rescinded. That started some bad feeling among the general public who still hold Bob Marley in a very, very high regard." That book - Rita's autobiography, No Woman No Cry - was published in May last year and is being "released" again at the Africa Unite festival, the day after the big concert.

If Marley's widow had hired a publicist they could have achieved no greater interest than the worldwide story that has reignited interest in her book and in the Africa Unite concert (VIP tickets: US$100), which had until the furore attracted surprisingly little interest. But out of the acrimony has come a positive in the form of the recognition by Jamaicans of just how highly they regard the island's most famous son.

Bob Marley, who died of cancer in 1981 at the age of 36, has through his musical legacy come to epitomise the Jamaican spirit of triumph through adversity. As a Rastafarian he was a follower of the former Ethiopian leader Haile Selassie. He believed in the doctrine of the repatriation to Africa of the descendants of slaves who were shipped to the West. He wrote mighty anthems of African liberation, including "War", "Zimbabwe" and "Africa Unite". But he was also the artist who more than any before or since has epitomised the Jamaican heartbeat sound of reggae. It was not for nothing that the island's tourist board adopted his "Smile Jamaica" to lure foreign visitors with its uplifting message of a people determined to enjoy themselves.

But Rita Marley does not enjoy a similar relationship with Jamaica. She left the island for Ghana, and the logo for her Rita Marley Foundation is the outline of the continent of Africa, with her face inset.

She met "Robbie" Marley when she was a teenager, living with her aunt in the deprived Trenchtown district of the Jamaican capital, Kingston. He was then a member of the upcoming group the Wailing Wailers. The son of a white British Army captain, Norvel Marley - who in effect abandoned him - and a young black country girl, Cedella, Bob was sent to Kingston at the age of five from the village of Nine Mile, deep in the Jamaican countryside.

When Bob was 21 and Rita was 19 they married. Their relationship endured in spite of Bob's rise to international stardom and his notorious womanising.

The other two Wailers, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, left the band but Bob formed a backing vocal group of three female singers, the I-Threes, including the talented Rita. When an attempt was made on the singer's life in 1976, Rita was also shot. She steadfastly stood by her man, bringing up not only the couple's children but those the singer nicknamed Tuff Gong had with a string of other beautiful women.

Those children have grown up to be important musicians in their own right, and no less than five of Marley's sons (Ziggy, Stephen, Julian, Damian and Kymani) will perform in their father's honour in Addis Ababa.

In spite of much of what is written about modern Jamaican music and its fascination with violence and sex, there has been in recent years an emergence of young singers who have embraced the Marley message of clean living and brotherly love. Rastafarian artists such as Richie Spice, Natty King and I-Wayne uphold the Marley tradition and stand tall on the current Jamaican charts.

On Wednesday, in Brixton, south London, another event will be held in honour of Marley's 60th birthday. The host and veteran British reggae DJ David Rodigan says that even today the Marley anthems attract the most frenzied signals of flaming lighters and waved handkerchiefs from Jamaican music followers. "His music speaks to all generations but particularly to young generations because they have so much hope and feel they can change the world," he says.

Even now, Marley may be the most famous Jamaican in history but he is recognised only by the island's Order of Merit. The row about his body has helped to fuel a fierce debate on whether he should be upgraded to a National Hero, alongside such freedom fighters as Marcus Garvey, Paul Bogle, Sam Sharpe and Nanny, who helped to build the modern Jamaica. Among Jamaica's many churchgoers there is some opposition to Marley enjoying such status, with his famed infidelity and fondness for marijuana.

When Marley died, the island went into prolonged mourning, thronging the streets as his body was taken back to Nine Mile and placed in a white- washed mausoleum. That resting place has remained very much off the beaten track, ignored by most tourists in favour of the beach resorts and the nearby spectacular Dunn's River Falls. Diehard music lovers make the trip, navigating the country roads and primitive signs to the superstar's childhood home. "It's no Graceland," said one American visitor.

Despite Marley's Rastafarian beliefs, he apparently wanted to die in the land of his birth (passing away in a Miami hospital en route to Jamaica). He visited Ethiopia only once, in a private capacity in 1978, and found that the local population did not share his reverence for Selassie, who had just been overthrown in a Marxist coup.

Rita has apparently become convinced that Bob's final resting place should be in Shashemene, the small Rastafarian commune in Ethiopia that Selassie created for his dreadlocked followers after he visited Jamaica in 1966 and was received with adulation.

Speaking several days after the body row erupted, Gerry Lyseight, of the Bob Marley Foundation, suggests that the singer's wife would not be swayed. "Rita said in interviews that this was something that may well happen in the future because it was one of Bob's wishes when he was alive," he says. "It's very, very delicate because he's a huge national hero in Jamaica and Jamaicans would take this as some kind of snub. But as his wife she retains the last say in this."

Dervan Malcolm, executive producer on the Jamaican radio station Power 106, says that even moving Marley's grave will not affect his inextricable relationship with his homeland. "You cannot take Trenchtown out of Jamaica. You cannot take Nine Mile out of Jamaica. Bob Marley is Jamaica and Jamaica is Bob Marley. It doesn't matter where you go with the bones," he says. "The fact of the matter is that Bob Marley is enshrined in the psyche, the culture, the history and music of the country and there is no taking that away. Ethiopia would be getting just that: the remains."

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