Bob Marley may have died in 1981, but decades later he is one of the world’s most revered icons. February 6th marked what would have been his 75th birthday, and his music and image are now far more widespread than during his life.
As a historian of cultural icons, my research shows Marley’s phenomenal popularity isn’t just because we continue to listen to his music. It also reveals a secret of enduring celebrity: Marley remains relevant because the ways in which he resonates—what audiences see in his music and image—have changed.
Dubbed the King of Reggae, Marley was a gifted songwriter and charismatic performer who delivered a unique sound, Rastafari beliefs, and a new cultural style to a global audience. And while he enjoyed a substantial international fan base in his latter years, his popularity grew exponentially after his untimely death as different dimensions of his musical canon attracted new audiences.
He possessed an extraordinary ability to join melody and the voice of suffering, and his articulation of the struggles of the Jamaican underclass made him a national hero. His lyrics, rich with allegory and allusion, also allowed listeners to graft multiple meanings onto them. Because of this, in the 1970s reggae fans beyond the Caribbean saw Marley’s message as universal and embraced his passionate call for liberation and self-determination.
For instance, audiences often repeated Marley’s powerful social justice anthem, ‘Get Up, Stand Up,’ co-written with bandmate Peter Tosh. Through such evocative refrains, Marley became a bridge that connected not just reggae enthusiasts, but actual struggles of the late Cold War era. Political and social movements from Zimbabwe to Nicaragua and New Zealand found Marley’s ability to articulate shared experiences of injustice both liberating and empowering.
Accordingly, many in and beyond Jamaica feared Marley’s influence. Many people today don’t know that he narrowly escaped an assassination attempt and his music was censored in many countries. Media outlets frequently disparaged his beliefs, and prejudice against Marley, reggae, and Rastafarianism persisted after his death.
In the ’80s and ’90s, Marley remained a politically charged icon, particularly in the postcolonial world. Yet a subtle shift in how audiences perceived him was underway. In 1989 when young East and West Berliners dismantled the wall that had come to symbolize the divisions of the Cold War era, both sides repeated Marley’s more conciliatory lyrics.
For a new generation of listeners, themes in Marley’s music such as such as love, coexistence and world peace struck a resounding chord. This fueled greater interest in his music, evident in the popularity of his 1977 track ‘One Love.’ Though the song received less attention during Marley’s life, in an era of globalization after the Cold War, it appealed to people of diverse faiths and ideologies.
In recognition of just how important his hopeful message had become for a new generation of listeners, in 1999—more than 20 years after its initial release—the BBC dubbed ‘One Love’ the Song of the Century.
Marketing both responded to changing popular interpretations and played a role in reanimating Marley as a prophet of planetary concordance. The posthumous compilation ‘Legend,’ which includes ‘One Love,’ featured many of Marley’s lighter tracks and so repackaged his music for a wider audience. The anthology, released several years after his death, would sell far more copies than any other Marley album.
Marley’s increasing popularity likewise led to much unlicensed merchandise, from T-shirts to bobblehead dolls, making his image ubiquitous but showing little regard for Marley’s legacy. His estate challenged this rampant, unauthorized commercialization and also licensed a range of official Marley products that hew to his personal ethics and so may further shape popular memory.
Marley’s celebrity suggests that public figures can encapsulate popular sentiments in evocative but flexible ways. Indeed, figures such as Marley become legends because they appeal to large audiences, and those audiences project meanings onto them. In this way, Marley’s global resonance demonstrates that the most dynamic and irrepressible dimension of the icon is actually our memory of them.
Bob Marley delivered reggae to the world and gave us a shared language for social uplift and critique. Decades later, his passionate call for social justice continues to inspire, while many fans celebrate him as a universal sage, and others simply enjoy his music.
Will Bob Marley resonate as strongly on his 100th birthday? The answer depends on what he comes to symbolize in the future—and that’s up to the next generation of listeners to decide, collectively.
Icons of Dissent: The Global Resonance of Che, Marley, Tupac and Bin Laden |Hardback | June 2019 | £17.99 | 9781849046657 | 328pp
Jeremy Prestholdt is Professor of History at the University of California, San Diego and author of Domesticating the World: African Consumerism and the Genealogies of Globalization.