"Bob Marley would have been a hero to billions whether he was Irish or Jamaican or Japanese. And he happened to be from Jamaica, so reggae music was the conduit for his genius. But there is no musical artist in the history of the world that is as important globally as Bob Marley," Rage Against The Machine guitarist Tom Morello once astutely told me.
This Thursday, February 6, Marley, who died May 11, 1981 from Melanoma, would have turned 75. So it's an obvious time to look back at Marley and his incredible legacy, which, in its own way, is unrivaled in the annals of music. More than any other artist I can think of, Marley is a rite of passage in the same way as J.D. Salinger's Cather In The Rye or Jack Kerouac's On The Road.
Every kid, at some point, regardless of race, age or gender, from Iowa to Jamaica, goes through a period of discovering the music of Marley. The Marley posters, tapestries, shirts, and of course the timeless greatest hits collection, Legend, which in 2017 celebrated its five hundredth week, or basically a decade, on the Billboard Top 200, are a staple of youth.
From "Exodus" and "Buffalo Solider" to "Get Up, Stand Up," "Jamming," "Is This Love," "Three Little Birds," "Stir It Up" and of course the profound, poetic and inspiring "No Woman, No Cry," with its refrain of "Everything's gonna be alright," Marley crafted some of the most enduring anthems of all time. And he did so while mixing simplicity of music and depth of lyrics that only a true prophet could have achieved.
Talk to artists of all walks of life, from Outkast's Big Boi to Shepard Fairey, and they have stories of listening to Marley's music. And the number of artists who have enjoyed their musical awakening from Marley is massive.
Recalling when he first discovered the power of music, Ben Harper says, " It was either Bob Marley, Stevie Wonder, or Jimi Hendrix, but it was definitely one of those cats who my parents had in their collection and they spun constantly, where I just knew there was something coming out of those speakers that was a musical form of a revolution, all the while a revelation. I knew it. I couldn’t put it into words then, but I knew there was something going on."
The Black Eyed Peas' Will.I.Am enjoyed a similar experience from Marley. "What got me into activism through music was Public Enemy and Bob Marley, that’s who I owe that to," he told me.
Serj Tankian, frontman from System Of A Down, once described Bob Marley to me this way: "Bob Marley was genius too, making people dance to socially conscious music is like doing two things simultaneously because the motion of dance is a positive spiritual existence. And getting the messages through at the same time is incredible."
That ability to enlighten and entertain at the same time makes it easy to see why Marley transcends all differences to become a universal music figure. It's the easy vibe of the music, kids learning to play it on guitar, the "ganga," the dreads. As an artist, Marley represents
freedom, rebellion and being yourself.
As Bruce Resnikoff, President and CEO of UMe, who have a year-long celebration of Marley planned in 2020, says, "Because he sadly passed away at such a young age, every new generation sees him as a peer and a spokesperson for their generation."
That year-long celebration kicks off this Wednesday, February 5, with the unveiling on Bob Marley's YouTube channel of a stunning new animated video for arguably Marley's greatest song, "Redemption Song."
Among other highlights will be a joint performance between Ziggy Marley and Stephen Marley, two of the descendents who carry their father's music on in the live setting, celebrating their dad's legacy at the BeachLife Festival in Redondo Beach May 1 - 3. Throughout the year Marley's immense global impact will be celebrated, according to reps, in music, fashion, film, art, photography, sport and more.
"While we have always marketed Bob Marley’s music and message to his fans through traditional channels, given the new opportunities presented by technological advances, we are now actively exploring new demographics, non-traditional outlets and emerging platforms so more people, particularly the younger demographic, can discover Bob Marley for the first time," Resnikoff says. "Then as always, we let his artistry speak for itself."
Morello says of "Redemption Song," "From frat parties at Stanford to teens in Kenya, ‘Redemption Song’ is sung and it is certainly the spiritual content of the lyrics, the uplifting message, and…whatever that guy was channeling it’s just true and it’s just beautiful. That guy is number one and his number one jam is ‘Redemption Song.'"
That's why, as Resnikoff says, it all begins, as it should, with the music. While "Redemption Song," in which Marley sings, "Emancipate yourself from mental slavery/None but our self can free our minds/Have no fear for atomic energy/'Cause none of them can stop the time/How long shall they kill our prophets/While we stand aside and look?/" might be the greatest protest song of all time, it speaks volumes to the depth and power of Marley's catalog that many don't even consider it his greatest protest song.
The great Carlos Santana, in choosing his favorite protest song of all time, told me, "I would say 'Imagine' [John Lennon], 'A Love Supreme' ]John Coltrane] and 'One Love,' by Bob Marley."
As much as Marley represents an image, once you get past the sense of freedom and rebellion he conveys to younger generations, you realize he is an all-time great songwriter, both a masterful storyteller and a chronicler of change.
I spoke with Seth Avett last year about his influences in writing about social change and he eloquently explained what made Marley special.
"I love Bob Marley's approach because he wouldn't take a side during election and I think that's brilliant. I think that's the right way," Avett told me. "He was big on, 'We've gotta come together, it's no good to take a side and make an enemy of half the people.' And I really believe that you have to speak the truth. And there are plenty of times where you have to pick your battles and stand for a certain thing. But I do believe on the whole Bob Marley is a great example of someone who made great music, beautiful music, but also didn't make needless enemies."
Aloe Blacc is another big fan of Marley's songwriting prowess. "Yes, music is supposed to be fun and entertaining, it can be fun, entertaining and educational," Blacc told me. "The pinnacle is Bob Marley, right? I don’t think he wasted a word or a moment on fluff, superfluous and empty words. So you have to have great music, great vibes, a great artist profile people believe in and then you have to have words that are entertaining, but also fulfilling.”
There are artists that have been able to master that mix of entertainment and enlightenment, but few, if any, did it with the style and global impact of Marley, who did it entirely on his terms.
As Billy Corgan once said to me of Bob Marley, "The greatest artists that ever walked the face of this earth are game changers, they change the rules just by their presence. Bob Marley comes to mind, they just change the f**king rules."