Make Robert Nesta Marley our 8th national hero

Bob Marley and woman
Bob Marley being greeted on arrival in Parnell, Auckland New Zealand, 1979 (Photo credit: Bill Fairs)

The Honorable Robert Nesta Marley, OM, is proclaimed and accepted worldwide as the “King of Reggae,” having charted his own course in the music industry with passion and creativity as a songwriter, singer, and performer. Marley successfully transcended three Jamaican musical genres from the 1960s through to the early 1980s – ska, rock steady and reggae – his most influential musical forms, and, almost four decades since his death, his music remains relevant to millions of people across the globe. The consequence of this is that no matter where in the world one travels, people will undoubtedly know of Bob Marley. His legacy is loved and respected by many, and his music is practically a religion on its own. It is intriguing that while many are familiar with his music, they may not know who he was and what his impact was on Jamaican culture. Yet, we in Jamaica who are aware of his impact on the island’s culture, are unwilling to give him his due.

Author Timothy White, in his book Catch A Fire: The Life of Bob Marley, hailed him as the “most charismatic emissary of modern Pan-Africanism” and regards Marley as one of the greatest musical legends of our time. At 33 years of age, the philosophy that guided his existence was omnipresent in his music; a philosophy which primarily emphasized peace, love, equality, and his spirituality. His commitment to his Rastafarian faith and his views on social issues were the cornerstone of his music. It was this passion which, to this day, has served to influence the acceptance of reggae music by people worldwide, particularly in Europe, North America, Africa, and the Caribbean.

Marley’s own life experiences led him to championing the fight against oppression and inequality and to support the cause of the underprivileged. He joined that group of youths in the bowels of Kingston’s inner-city communities in the second half of the 1960s, around the time that Jamaica’s music was birthing in those ghettos and was largely scorned and rejected by mainstream Jamaica. It could hardly gain airplay on the island’s local radio stations but a decade later, Marley had three albums in rotation and several entries from each had slipped into both the RJR and JBC record charts.

Over the next five years, Robert Nesta Marley would be principally responsible for reggae’s acceptance as a major music-form not only in Jamaica but across the entire globe. This fact was underscored by the 2019 declaration by the United Nations that reggae, the Jamaican music that spread across the world with its calls for social justice, peace, and love, be declared a global treasure that must be safeguarded. According to the citation published by the Paris-based UNESCO, “Its contribution to international discourse on issues of injustice, resistance, love and humanity underscores the dynamics of the element as being at once cerebral, socio-political, sensual and spiritual.” In the circumstances, it was no surprise that he was invited to play on the 17 April 1980, Zimbabwe Independence festivities, a concert for which he personally paid all the costs of attending. Marley, in playing the Zimbabwe concert gave Jamaica its loudest voice and a permanent and prominent face in the culminating struggle against oppression and racial discrimination in this southern African State.

Jamaica’s reggae music and Rastafarianism combine as integral components of the island’s cultural exports and are, together, responsible for pulling hundreds of thousands of tourists the world over into the island. Admittedly, the unmistakable and most recognizable face of that export is Robert Nesta Marley’s. Marley’s contribution to music and to reggae has been internationally and locally recognized with his song, “One Love”, voted the best song of the twentieth century. His album Exodus which was released in 1977, stayed on the UK’s music chart for 56 consecutive weeks, and was voted the greatest album of the twentieth century by Time magazine.

Marley, despite living in Jamaica in a period marked by harsh violence-driven political divisions, did his best to remain apolitical, a decision for which he almost paid with his life. He suffered gunshot injuries in an attack at his home at 56 Hope Road, in Kingston on 3 December 1976, a warning against a decision that he had made to perform at a concert dubbed “Smile Jamaica” and slated for 5 December 1976. The attack had the effect of elevating Marley in the eyes of a majority of ‘salt-of-the-earth Jamaicans’ as bigger than the island’s divisive politics and as a local hero who had triumphed above the adverse intent of his attackers.

In 1981, Marley was awarded Jamaica’s third highest honor, the Order of Merit, for his outstanding contribution to Jamaican culture. Forty years later, his contribution to the country has multiplied exponentially. Across the world, Marley is celebrated as a prophet, while Jamaicans revere his work but criticize his Rastafarian lifestyle, replete with his ganja smoking and the multiple women with whom he had sired children. Ironically, ganja today is legalized (as it should always have been), and in respect of his womanizing, none of his children (his seeds) have been allowed to sit on a sidewalk and beg bread.

Robert Nesta Marley is one of us, warts and all. No other Jamaican (alive or dead) comes remotely close in terms of their local or global reach and impact and of the seven current national heroes, none has the current and lasting social and economic impact. Robert Nesta Marley provides the ethos of the Jamaican “can-do” spirit. He exemplifies the realizable potential of every single Jamaican who is willing to put in the necessary work.

As we celebrate the 77th year of his birth, and observe our 60th year of independence, the time has come to make Robert Nesta Marley the country’s eighth national hero. This would also provide a significant unifier among a Jamaican population desperately needing an inspirational figure whose identification is within the current period and who symbolizes the ethos of being Jamaican.

Richard Hugh Blackford is a Jamaican creative artist residing in the United States.


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