Damian CostelloMay 07, 2021
Bob Marley and the Wailers in concert in the 1970s. Image by alamy

On May 11, 1981, the world lost one of the greatest preachers it had ever seen

“Preacher” is probably not the first word that most would use to describe Robert “Nesta” Marley, the Jamaican reggae singer and leader of Bob Marley & The Wailers. For me, though, listening to him had the feel of attending a revival, a call gathering all nations in the harmony of one sound.

Rural Jamaica and its deep, multifaceted spirituality gave birth to Marley’s vocation as a preacher. By day, the communal rhythms of bush agriculture, stories of Africa and the Bible and the sounds of hymns governed the small village of Nine Mile, where he was born. At night, the “duppies”—spirits of the dead—swirled in the darkness. This is a world where you may be called at any time, for, as Timothy White quotes Thaddeus Livingston in his biography of Marley, Catch a Fire, the “spirits tek action even when yuh nuh summon dem.”

Callings were in Marley’s lineage. Omeriah, Marley’s maternal grandfather and the closest thing he had to a father figure, was a myalman, or medicine man. His healing practice was a gift of the Lord Most High, a calling to do the “upful” work of restoring what others had broken in the spiritual realm. Marley’s mother, Cedella, “caught religion” with the Pentecostal church, where the power of the Holy Spirit descended on devotees and in harvest season produce was tied to the altar to give thanks.

Marley's music was like a revival, a call gathering the nations.

Cedella saw something in her son; he had “a preachar’s fire in him eye,” she said when Marley was about 5. “It mek me lickle ’fraid sometime.” Her son’s skill at palm reading and seeing the future shocked villagers, including a local police chief. According to Dean MacNeil’s The Bible and Bob Marley, one of his teachers noted that Marley, who had not yet been baptized—only adults were baptized in that world—was interested in reading “as long as it was linked to his copious knowledge of the Bible.” As a young musician, he and the Wailers performed in a cemetery at night to overcome their stage fright. The ceremonial concert for the “duppies” became an early song. “Through the powers of the Most High, they’ve got to turn me loose,” the self-proclaimed “Duppy Conqueror” announced. “I’ve got to reach Mount Zion.”

At the age of 12, Marley moved with his mother to Trenchtown, the toughest neighborhood in the crumbling colonial edifice that was the metropolitan area of Kingston. Seething racial stratification, a broken economy largely controlled by 21 families and manipulation by multinational companies hoping to squeeze out every last possible drop of wealth had left the area destitute. It was like a growing pile of bagasse, the pulpy sugarcane residue that remained after all the sugar had been extracted, that could be burned for fuel. Marley more than held his own amid the escalating chaos and earned the name Tuff Gong, adding a new tenacity to his preacher’s fire. He began to live out more and more the rudeboy proverb: “If a fire, mek it burn.”

As a boy, Marley was interested in reading “as long as it was linked to his copious knowledge of the Bible.”

Marley channeled that fire into music. As his prominence grew, so did Jamaica’s sociopolitical conflict, fueling his evolution from pop crooner to preacher. His early songs offered ghetto authenticity, religious overtones and communal celebration.

Two experiences in the 1960s transformed his artistic vision. In 1966, Marley stayed in Wilmington, Del., to which his mother emigrated in 1962. There he honed a Dylan-esque intimacy and vulnerability, weaving the edge of the evangelical call into his message. The second experience, when he went back to Nine Mile in 1967 to cultivate the land, allowed him to incorporate a new apocalyptic arc. Bob Marley embraced the Rastafari movement, which renarrated the colonial system as “Babylon” and enveloped it in messianic upheaval that would exalt the oppressed. Marley now spoke not just to contemporary issues but to all times and places, making him bigger than history.

“Chant Down Babylon,” both the song from the album Confrontation and the idea itself, promised emancipation from all destructive and oppressive forces, yet remained intensely personal. It was something that the world had never quite seen before. Marley exploded onto the global scene in the mid-70s, becoming the voice of the seismic changes in the postcolonial world. In the words of Timothy White, Marley was “quoted like a poet, heralded as the Mick Jagger of reggae, the West Indian Bob Dylan, even the Jamaican Jomo Kenyatta.”

Bob Marley embraced the Rastafari movement, which renarrated the colonial system as “Babylon” and enveloped it in messianic upheaval that would exalt the oppressed.

I had never seen anything like it either. At the small, rural Catholic college I attended in the 1990s, Marley appeared like an unsummoned spirit that gave me what I didn’t know I needed. Until the internet transformed music forever in the 21st century, there were only a few ways to learn about Marley or get most of his music. One day he was just there, a wild-maned sage gazing at us from the cover of “Legend,” a compilation album of his most universal songs that was released in 1984.

Even at the time, Bob Marley was an apparition that spoke to my soul and made me want to investigate further. The African and Asian students whom I first noticed playing Marley’s music at our school told me that, where they came from Marley was all but a part of their culture. Countercultural whites and stoners began discovering “Legend” on their own. My sense was it provided a more holistic alternative to the nihilism of postmodern calls to rebellion. For West Indians and African-Americans, Marley, it seemed, was sort of an oldie but a goodie, an undeniable source of power. Those impressions help explain what was a certain fact: Marley was acceptable to almost everyone and his music was often played by default.

"He was heralded as the Mick Jagger of reggae, the West Indian Bob Dylan, even the Jamaican Jomo Kenyatta.”

It would be a mistake to see Marley’s universal acceptance as a lowest common denominator truce. No, he enacted something within us as we listened. For my classmates and me, the upbeat, justice-focused lyrics didn’t just match college idealism but encouraged it. Marley sparked conversations about global poverty, environmental destruction and racism, especially after the release of a second compilation in 1995, “Natural Mystic: the Legend Lives On,” which better captured his revolutionary message than “Legend”did. When Marley sang, our conversation often drifted to the issues he preached about. These conversations led to justice-focused school projects, Marley further honing our thoughts as we worked under the harmonizing care of his voice.

The growing scope and intractability of global problems were outside the answers provided by the church community I grew up in, leaving me increasingly unmoored from traditional Christian faith. I saw this in others, particularly those less spiritually inclined. How could God—if there is a God, some of my friends added—allow such destruction and injustice? Marley’s global messianic faith filled in that gap; No, God has not forgotten you or anyone else, he said, and taught us that there was a way to take on these problems in a spiritual way, that we too could “Chant Down Babylon.”

When Marley sang, our conversation often drifted to the issues he preached about, leading to justice-focused school projects.

The “open” way his songs functioned was key. The Rastafari faith was mysterious enough to outsiders that listeners across the globe, even when learning the details of the tradition, could still read a Christian ontology into it. It is probably not what Marley originally intended for most of his songs, but listeners easily heard “God” for “Jah,” the shortened form of Jehovah that stood for Ethiopian Emperor Selassie’s alleged divinity. At least I and those I talked to did, reflecting on what Marley was telling us about God. Biblical allusions and narratives made this natural. 

When Marley sang “Send us another brother Moses,” we joined with the Israelites and all the slaves who prayed this prayer through the centuries, and gained new faith that God would hear us too. I saw lines like “read it in Revelation, you’ll find your redemption” enable people to engage with more personal spiritual yearnings. Marley, a trusted voice, reopened a conversation that culture wars and church scandal often made difficult to take seriously.

Visits to Africa shook him free of the Rastafari teaching that Ethiopia was heaven on earth.

Perhaps the most powerful characteristic of Marley’s preaching was that, despite the obvious spiritual focus and the global scope of the suffering he addressed, he conjured in his audience a counterintuitive, laid-back ease with the world as it is. This was something not very common in the church settings I knew. He exuded comfort in his own skin and bestowed that ability on his listeners. They left feeling elevated, more connected to both themselves and those around them, sent on a mission.

Marley’s spiritual journey as a preacher continued until the end of his life. Visits to Africa shook him free of the Rastafari teaching that Ethiopia was heaven on earth. Selassie, who publicly recognized Rastafari leaders during his visit to Jamaica in 1966 (one of the first-ever public recognitions of the Rastafari in Jamaica), sent Archbishop Abuna Yesehaq to the country to bring the Rastafari into the Ethiopian Orthodox fold. Marley’s wife Rita and their children were baptized in 1973. As a result, Marley was inside Orthodox circles for close to a decade, undergoing not a radical conversion but a return—a return to his mother’s Christology and a new reckoning with his morals, particularly his main fault, sexual infidelity.

As the public face of the Rastafari movement, Marley held back from acting publicly on his spiritual evolution for a number of years. Some Rastafari considered Christian baptism to be a betrayal of the movement. Marley’s cancer diagnosis shattered those impediments. When Marley accepted baptism on Nov. 4, 1980, taking the name Berhane Selassie (“Light of the Trinity”), pent-up pain from a life of intense struggle burst forth, and he cried for half an hour. He had made it home: the full flowering of his rural Jamaican spiritual roots in Africa’s ancient Christian faith.

Marley died young, at the age of 36, depriving the world of decades of potential spiritual evolution. But he lives on, in some ways more powerful. Through his early death, the Spirit raised Marley up, keeping him forever young, unencumbered by the ambiguity of daily life and what comes from continuing public exposure.

Marley is now part of that great spiritual exchange, a myalman whose call for justice and harmony circulates, free-floating. He is carrying on his grandfather’s “upful” work on a global scale, riding through the storm until the end of time.

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