Who Was Bob Marley?, by Katie Ellison
Bob Marley has always been a fascinating and complicated character to me, even though I have seldom felt the need to study him in any particular great depth. A large portion of his musical discography has long been accessible and frequently played on the alternative radio stations I listen to. Marley’s own life history is clouded by relationship drama and by his own ambivalent status when it came to politics as well as identity. If Marley’s own instincts were to bring people together, his immense success and wealth prompted a large degree of envy, and his own bi-racial heritage made him an object of ridicule as someone who did not quite fit in among the blacks of Trench Town, where he spent a great time growing up. And while he sought to encourage peace in the face of political warfare between Jamaica’s two political parties in the late 1970’s, his own wealth made him a target for violence as well and forced him into exile. And sadly he was unable to return to his homeland because illness got in the way, leaving him to return to his native land only as a corpse to be beloved and well-thought of in death as he was not quite thought of in life, sadly.
This book does a good job at presenting the rough overview of Marley’s life and it is a complex life, full of twists and turns, including being abandoned by his British father and raised by his young Jamaican mother, who eventually took up with another man who did not always appreciate Marley around. Marley’s time in the United States was somewhat ambivalent, and while he had recorded some music and started the Wailers before going to America, his time there apparently to make money did not lead to a desire to remain and he returned to become a reggae superstar in the musical genre that he had helped to create through the blend of his own poetic skill with the music of Jamaica and the Caribbean as a whole. And with superstardom came arguments and disagreements with his bandmates over money and credit and power, as well as the lure of political power and his own inability to be faithful to his wife or, ultimately, for her to be faithful with him, all of which has led to a complex family situation involving his numerous offspring. The author also does a good job in this short book of about 100 pages to discuss the life as well as the career ups and downs of this most notable Jamaican musician.
Also of interest, besides the musical career of Marley, was his relationship with religion. Raised as a devout Christian, Marley became known during much of his career as a patriotic rastafarian with a noted fondness for ganja, and died as a member of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. One wonders how he thought of his own religious journey over the course of his life. It appears that he had a consistency in his desire for peace and harmony, a desire that has has been helped and spread as well by his children and former bandmates and those who have been influenced by his approach to music. Given his success it is not surprising that so many people during his lifetime wanted him on their team in Jamaica and abroad, nor is it surprising that he would struggle to find his own voice and seek his own path, even if that made it hard to find people to collaborate with who had their own thoughts and ideas and their own desire to be respected as creative people. And it is all too sad that the wealth that Marley enjoyed made him a target for envy and hatred during his life, as much as it led him to be lionized after his death, as so often happens.