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Why Bob Marley is more than a junk shop weed ashtray

The commodification of the musician’s image reduces the complex history and culture of Jamaican reggae to the colours of the Ethiopian flag, a rasta hat and a blunt

On my first ever trip to Jamaica a few weeks back, I was struck by how much Bob Marley is truly revered as a national hero in the country. His music is played everywhere, from the resorts in Negril to the dusty streets of Kingston. I wasn’t exactly brought up on Bob Marley’s music, but his songs sound like old friends in their familiarity – my parents, both musicians, played Marley’s music with at least some regularity, and songs like “Jammin’” and “One Love” (as well as slightly more obscure records like “Easy Skanking”) are interwoven with my childhood memories. In my teens, a remix of “Is This Love” made the rounds, becoming the soundtrack to those heady, intense days you can only experience when you’re 14 or 15 and drinking alcohol for the first time. As a sort of preparation for my visit to Jamaica, I listened to more reggae and ska than usual, and I also did a bit of research into Marley, who is now one of my favourite musicians.

The fact that it’s been so easy for me, especially as a millennial with access to a computer, to gain what I believe to be a decent understanding of Marley’s music, history, and ethos, means that there’s little excuse for the overtones that currently surround his image. I don’t claim great agency over the country’s culture, despite my heritage, but my worry is that the continued commodification of Marley’s image by his estate is reducing the complex history and culture of Jamaican reggae that I witnessed while in the country to the colours of the Ethiopian flag, a rasta hat, and, of course, a thick, ashy blunt. When Snapchat found themselves under fire for choosing to celebrate ‘marijuana holiday’ 420 by providing a filter of Bob Marley’s face, I was unsurprised. Not only did the filter alter people’s selfies into what was essentially digital blackface, Snapchat’s tech bros didn’t consider the fact that by working with Marley’s estate on the project they were contributing to the continued ‘ashtrayification’ of the reggae star.

“The continued commodification of Marley’s image by his estate is reducing the complex history and culture of Jamaican reggae... to the colours of the Ethiopian flag, a rasta hat, and, of course, a thick, ashy blunt”

After a celebrity’s death, it’s a natural inclination to focus on the controversial or iconic things about them – Elvis’ quiff, for example, is arguably more recognisable than many of his songs despite how foundational they were to rock’n’roll. And there’s no denying that Marley was an advocate of ‘the herb’. His religion, Rastafarianism, sees that the plant is revered and smoked in a spiritual context, and his 1978 album Kaya revolved around marijuana. In its title track, Marley sings gently, “I'm so high, I even touch the sky / Above the falling rain / I feel so good in my neighbourhood, so / Here I come again”. It’s more than likely that he, along with fellow Wailer Peter Tosh (songwriter of weed anthem “Legalise Marijuana”), would have been ecstatic to see the herb decriminalised in Jamaica last year on what would have been Marley’s 70th birthday.

Yet it wasn’t the thing that defined him. Bob Marley died in 1981 aged 36. When he was still alive, his music was surely what made him stand out; music which he slaved over, continuing to tour the world up until a few months before his death. Music which landed him hit single after hit single beginning in the 1960s, when he began his career in a band reminiscent to the clean-cut American quintuplet, The Temptations. Likewise, his songs are deeper than many give them credit for. Hits like “Buffalo Soldier” (which speaks of a man “stolen from Africa, fighting for survival”), and “Redemption Song” (where Marley quotes Marcus Garvey: “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds”) reveal his Pan-Africanism thought and reflect the struggles he had with managing his identity in the shade of slavery – struggles that so many black people have been through, myself included.

He also held anti-capitalist beliefs, once telling an interviewer “my richness is life, forever”, and according to one Jamaican Rasta I met, would give poor strangers who came to his house “enough money to start a small business”. This makes the calculated monetisation of his estate even more troublesome. In 2015 he was the fourth highest-earning deceased celebrity, above Marilyn Monroe and John Lennon. A year earlier, Bob Marley-branded marijuana Marley Natural was launched. “My dad would be so happy to see people understanding the healing power of the herb,” said Cedella Marley, Bob’s daughter at the time, calling it an “authentic way to honour his legacy by adding his voice to the conversation about cannabis and helping end the social harms caused by prohibition.” But, as Dotun Adebayo said, writing in The Guardian, “there are millions of other people around the world who have enjoyed a good puff who do not suffer the ignominy of having their name and achievements reduced to standard-bearer for dopeheads worldwide – Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger to name but two.” Former bandmate Bunny Wailer also told the Jamaican Gleaner at the time that “the Marley Natural deal must be publicly opposed”, adding that Marley wasn’t as committed to legalisation as other members of the Wailers.

“In 2015 (Bob Marley) was the fourth highest-earning deceased celebrity, above Marilyn Monroe and John Lennon. A year earlier, Bob Marley-branded marijuana Marley Natural was launched”

Settling down to watch 2012 documentary Marley (which is supposedly a definitive work, though it has been criticised for lacking depth and nuance), I learn that he grew up in St. Annes before moving to Trench Town in Kingston. That he went to bed hungry often, and that his three loves were music, cricket, and football. That later in life, despite his shyness, he was a serial womaniser. When I visit the Bob Marley Museum in Kingston, Jamaica, our guide – a young Rasta named Leon who is a reggae musician himself – tells us proudly that, similarly to Bob, he already has five children, more on the way. The walls of the museum are plastered with silver, gold, and platinum records and awards from all over the world – some for Marley’s records, some for the efforts of his sons, Damian, Ziggy, and Stephen.

At the museum I also learn that Marley was mixed race white and Jamaican like me, and “more than teased, he was rejected” for it, as Bunny Wailer puts it in Marley. My tour guide Leon explains that Marley only met his white father, Norval, once or twice before he died in the 1950s, and that the framed picture of him shown in the museum is the only one known to have been taken. I empathise with his plight, and his difficulty in finding a place for himself. Marley is quoted as having said “My father is a white, and my mother is a black, dem call me a half caste or whatever. Meh no dip on the black man’s side, me no dip on the white side.”

The documentary suggests that he found himself as a Rastafarian, and also, despite his words, identified far more with his blackness than he ever did his ‘white side’. A well-worn dashiki and bruised-looking map of Africa are also proudly displayed in the museum. Though, funnily enough, Marley seemingly spent some of his happiest years in the UK, where he moved ‘in exile’ after he was nearly killed in a shootout. However, it was also in the UK that he realised he was ill with melanoma, a type of skin cancer that was first identified after he injured his toe playing football. (Next to the dashiki in the museum hangs a pair of his ‘football shorts’ – some frayed cut-off jeans.)

“For me... far more than weed, what shaped Marley’s life was his mixed-heritage identity”

“They test it and they find out that it was more like a white person sort of sickness, it wasn’t from a black source. It was the whiteness in him that allow it to get this bad,” says his wife Rita Marley in the film. I could be projecting, but if anything, what the documentary cements for me is that, far more than weed, what shaped Marley’s life was his mixed-heritage identity – it bled into his music and could possibly be held accountable for his head-first fall into Rastafarianism.

Regardless, it would be such a shame if all this were lost – the debates to be had around his music. My intention when I got to the island-nation was to find out more about Marley, his life and his music and I certainly achieved that. As well as going to the museum, once the address where the Wailers set up their record label, Tuff Gong, I also partied in Trench Town and learned more about Rastafarianism. But I didn’t smoke any joints in his honour.