February 6 is a special date for millions of Bob Marley fans across the world. It is the date recognised as his birthday, and the Soul Rebel would have turned 75 this year. Interestingly, Marley’s birthday was listed as April 6 on his passport, as his mother, Cedella, was apprehensive about recording his birth with the registrar.
A descendant of the Cromantee tribe, young Cedella became romantically involved with Captain Norval Marley, a white superintendent of lands for the British government which still had colonial rule over Jamaica in the 1940s. When Cedella became pregnant, Marley went MIA, as was often the case with interracial affairs of the colonial era, and Cedella gave birth to Robert Nesta Marley in Nine Miles, St Ann, in 1945.
Life in Trench Town
Much of Marley’s life is centred around his time at Trench Town, a Kingston ghetto where his mother moved to in the 1950s. In the midst of the grittiness and gang culture which pervaded the streets, Marley adopted the nickname ‘Tuff Gong’ and found solace in the rising music scene of Kingston, where sound system operators were setting up recording studios to make Jamaican rhythm and blues.
Alongside childhood friends Neville Livingstone (now known as Bunny Wailer) and Peter McIntosh (who later shortened his surname to Tosh), Marley spent his days soaking up all he could about recording and performing. On First Street in Trench Town, the teens developed a friendship with musician Vincent ‘Tata’ Ford who taught them how to play the guitar. Singer Joe Higgs helped the boys with their vocal harmonies, and by 1963, they had dubbed themselves The Wailing Wailers, and later The Wailers.
After auditioning for ska pioneer Clement ‘Coxsone’ Dodd of Studio One, the group went on to release its eponymous ska project for Studio One in 1965, which featured songs like Simmer Down and One Love. Dodd appointed Marley to coach new groups under his imprint including The Soulettes, of which Rita Anderson formed part. Although Marley’s love interests were bountiful, the Cuban-born single mother became fond of him, and they married in 1966.
Converting to Rastafari
It is not clear when Marley converted to Rastafari, but it rings true that he seemed to fall in line with his purpose in the years to come following Haile Selassie’s 1966 visit to Jamaica. The musical landscape was seeing a transition to reggae, a slower, one-drop sort of production with the heart of Nyahbingi drumming and stories of the oppressed people. It is through this new genre that Marley expressed his Rastafarian beliefs of equality and love, and spoke out against the oppressive culture of the Western system, or Babylon, as he often referenced in his music.
Albums like Natty Dread capture this well. The 1974 Chris Blackwell-produced set was the first album released after Tosh and Bunny had left the Wailers, and Marley adopted the I-Threes with his wife, Marcia Griffiths and Judy Mowatt.
The critically-acclaimed work includes the inner city anthem, No Woman, No Cry, co-written by Marley and Ford and listed as 37 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. It also has the cheerful Lively Up Yourself, sweet-talking Bend Down Low, and political Them Belly Full (But We Hungry) and Revolution.
Marley’s chant for a corrupt-free society and freedom is immortalised in classics like Redemption Song, Get Up, Stand Up, Who the Cap Fit, Buffalo Soldier, Africa Unite and War.
Despite surviving assassination attempts made on his life, Marley’s musical mission ended in the flesh on May 11, 1981, from a form of skin cancer which had spread from under a nail of his toe. His legacy and message are carried on today by his sons, and several local and international artistes who cite the star as inspiration for their work.