February 14th, 2001
Bob Marley
About Bob Marley

by Roger Steffens

Music raises the soul of man even higher than the so-called external form of religion…That is why in ancient times the greatest prophets were great musicians. – Hazrat Inayat Khan, “The Mysticism of Sound and Music”

Without doubt, Bob Marley can now be recognized as the most important figure in 20th century music.

It’s not just my opinion, but also, judging by all the mainsteam accolades hurled Bob’s way lately, the feeling of a great many others too. Prediction is the murky province of fools. But in the two decades since Bob Marley has gone, it is clear that he is without question one of the most transcendant figures of the past hundred years. The ripples of his unparalleled achievements radiate outward through the river of his music into an ocean of politics, ethics, fashion, philosophy and religion. His story is a timeless myth made manifest in this iwah, right before our disbelieving eyes.

There will come a day when music and its philosophy will become the religion of humanity…If there remains any magic it is music.

Unlike mere pop stars, Bob was a moral and religious figure as well as a major record seller internationally. To whom does one compare him? In a recent Sunday New York Times Arts and Leisure lead story, Stanley Crouch makes a compelling case for Louis Armstrong as the century’s “unequaled performer,” excelling not just in his instrumental inventiveness but in his vocal style as well, transforming the way music was made and listened to, and influencing performers of all stripes right down to this very day. But you don’t see thousands of Maori and Tongans and Fijians gathering annually to pay honor to Louis Armstrong; you don’t witness phalanxes of youth wandering the world sporting Louis Armstrong t-shirts. In fact, big as the Beatles were, you hardly see any Beatle shirts around anymore, except for those few featuring John Lennon’s sorrow-inducing visage. Can you imagine an image of Elvis sewn onto the sleeve of an armed guerilla? When was the last time you saw a Michael Jackson flag or a Bob Dylan sarong or Madonna rolling papers? All of these exist in Marleyite forms, his iconography well nigh a new universal language, the symbol, as Jack Healey of Amnesty International continues to tell people, of freedom throughout the world.

That music alone can be called real which comes from the harmony of the soul, its true source, and when it comes from there it must appeal to all souls…Music alone can be the means by which the souls of races, nations and families, which are today so apart, may one day be united…The more the musician is conscious of his mission in life, the greater service he can render to humanity.

Most of the pop stars thrown up over the past hundred years had entertainment as their first and foremost goal. Not so Marley. He was conscious of his role as the bringer of the message of Rastafari to the consciousness of the outside world. He cared nothing for earthly trappings, and loved nothing better than lying on Jah’s cool earth at night watching the heavens revolve above him, rock stone as his pillow. He was here to call people to God.

So we can’t compare Marley to other well-known musical figures. As for politics, he eschewed them, although his actions caused him to be perceived (and sometimes feared) as a profoundly radical political leader too. But his were the anti-politics of salvation through love and love alone, an unshakeable knowledge of the oneness of all humankind.

Music is behind the working of the whole universe. Music is not only life’s greatest object, but music is life itself…Music being the most exalted of the arts, the work of the composer is no less than the work of a saint.

As for innovation, Marley was a multi-talented synthesizer of new ideas and rhythms, beginning with his precocious “Judge Not” solo debut at the dawn of the ska era, right up through his ongoing experiments with gospel, r&b, rock, folk, jazz, Latin, punk, scat, disco, and even (in unpublished form) bossa nova. Bob understood that reggae had the magnificent capaciousness to absorb all other influences and anchor them solidly to the drum and bass underpining that is its essential element, the sweet seductive secret of its success.

Actually the real secret is that Marley’s music is about something. It has value. Bob’s art is life transforming, answering our highest needs. It answers in a positive way, the question that Carlos Santana says we must always ask before we begin any activity in life: how is this going to make the world a better place? Although Bob became a commercial artist, he was not making commercial art. His art transcended pop fluffery. Many are there who swear that his music literally saved their lives.

The use of music for spiritual attainment and healing of the soul, which was prevelent in ancient times, is not found to the same extent now. Music has been made a pastime, the means of forgetting God instead of realizing God. It is the use one makes of things which constitutes their fault or their virtue.

It is in the vast amount of adherents that Bob’s work continues to lure, that we begin to sense his obvious immortality, even from this early point of focus. Elvis Presley may have been the biggest single rock icon of all time, but are his songs (none, incidentally, penned by him) really saying anything beyond mere pop cliche? Bob Dylan may be the most respected poet of his generation, but his often deliberately obfuscatory lyrics stand in the way of clear translation, and limit his appeal to the non-English speaking audience. Marley, on the other hand, refined his lyric art to a steely perfection, using the language of the streets to attain the stars. His words were so perfectly simple that they achieved eloquence. Today, his elemental stories can be related to and understood by people anywhere who suffer and love and long for salvation. In other words, just about every one of us.

Marley’s ready embrace of herb, and the flaunting of his startling mane of locks that grew more ferocious as the ’70s wound down, contributed to his image as a rebel for all seasons, treated like a deity among defiant youth and seasoned revolutionaries alike, who recognized him as one of their own, embracing him in Harare during Zimbabwe’s independence, and sending him messages of solidarity from Peruvian jungles to Himalayan hideaways.

So it appears, at least to this writer, that Bob Marley has the clearest shot at being recognized as the Artist of the 20th Century, at least as far as music is concerned, and probably a lot more. I hereby predict with reckless confidence that hundreds of years into the future, Marley’s melodies will be as prevalent as those of any songwriter who has ever lived. “No Woman No Cry” will still wipe away the tears from a widow’s face; “Exodus” will still arouse the warrior; “Redemption Song” will still be a rallying cry for emancipation from all tyrannies, physical and spiritual; “Waiting in Vain” will still seduce; and “One Love” will be the international anthem of a coffee-colored humanity living in unity, in a world beyond borders, beyond beliefs, where everyone has learned at last to get together and feel all right.

(Man) loves music more than anything else. Music is his nature; it has come from vibrations, and he himself is vibration…There is nothing in this world that can help one spiritually more than music.

In his true heart of hearts, Bob Marley heard the harmony of the heavens, and shared that celestial sound with the god-seeker in each of us. Thus it is not surprising that the N.Y. Times, seeking one video to epitomize the past century, preserved in a time capsule to be opened a thousand years hence, chose “Bob Marley Live at the Rainbow, London, 1977.” Or that the same “newspaper of record” called Marley “the most influential artist of the second half of the 20th century.”

We are all ennobled by our proximity to Marley and his art, his eternal songs of freedom.

This essay was previously published in The Beat Magazine, vol.19#3, 2000.

Roger Steffens is an actor, author, reggae historian and curator of the current exhibition at the Queen Mary in Long Beach, California called “The World of Reggae featuring Bob Marley/Treasures from Roger Steffens’ Reggae Archives,” on view through Sept. 30.

For information about the Queen Mary exhibition: theworldofreggae.com

  • David Shumate

    I only disagree with you on one thing. The Beatles is as popular or more than Bob Marley. Their iconography is probably equal to Marley’s. I see it EVERYWHERE, and besides I have my own Beatles shirt. I see tons of Lennon glasses.

  • Carl “Fiyah” Thompson

    In response to David Shumate’s comment, Marley is revered in virtually every corner of the planet, including Africa. I don’t believe the Beatles, nor their music, nor their tee-shirts, with due respect, are loved and revered on the African continent as Marley music is. Marley, my friend, was inspired by God — and the music gods.

  • jumpygrouch

    inspired by the gods and then overdubbed by white non-reggae musicians in order to sell the albums to the public. they were marketed the same way Britney and Jessica et al. are made palatable and marketed. in the end we find they were just like everyone else in the business. except that his entourage was violently threatening to people who didn’t want to help them get on the air.

  • Zebulun Wolde Selassie

    Bob Marley and the Wailers were the only mainstream musical ensemble in the 70s that swam against the currents of disco and rock hedonism to create an art that subsumed those currents within their work, thus reducing the resistance of said currents. For this reason they were considered dangerous by the New World Order politicians in Jamaica and elsewhere, which is why they had to threaten DJs in Jamaica to do the right thing. Sometimes Jah is a breeze, sometimes a hurricane, but the wind is what keeps us ALIVE.

  • Antonio Beatrice

    Wow….it never ceases to amaze me the influence one black man had on the world…years after his untimely death, his legacy, as well as his music, lives on in the hearts of many.
    He gave Jamaica, and Africa in extension, international awareness and concern…he was one of the few people in HISTORY who stood up for he was, and represented himself, as well as his people proudly…

  • dmoney

    right Antoino

  • Mason

    Bob Marley rules

  • hunter

    bob marley beats the beatles

  • kuuhatelyn

    yuuh, bob marley’s amazing.

  • Keli

    I’m doing a report on Bob Marley, and personally, He RULes

  • Bratney

    he does rule Keli! and maybe you should get back to work in tech ed(:

  • Kacey

    alright. weeel he is way more popular than the stupid beattles? i mean who are they? hahaha jk. i know who they are but no one cares about them anymore. im working on a project about him too and he is wayy Cool! (:

    i love Bob Marley(:

  • justjo

    Great article!
    The man was not only a poet, but someone who believed that love was the answer.
    RIP, Mr. Marley. =(

  • Annie D.

    i am doin a ditrict assesment on bob marley and he is AWESOME!!!

  • Annie D.

    im doing bob marley for a district assesment and he is AWESOME!!!

  • Joao Jesus

    Nice article.

    Lets not forget though the great musicians that played with Bob, mostly, without lessen the others, the drummer and the bass player – The heartbeat of reggae.

  • ben

    RIP, BOB

  • Kevin Ego

    Hi, from Africa.
    I just wanted to add that among superstars, two were known in most the villages in Africa, namely Bob Marley and Michael Jackson. Michael is being forgotten, not Bob Marley whose music of Bob Marley still lives in all our countries. The Beatles, Elvis and the others are popular in western countries, it’s not the same here. Thx.

  • mike hawk

    damn man bob marley is the truth… one love

  • mike

    bob is the truth…one love yall

  • Alex the Great

    I love bob marley so much i have everything from him clothes, cd’s notebooks, keychains, pens and pencils! its great

    -im also in prison haha

  • Alex and Carolyn

    were in prison and we love BOB!!!!!

  • 35 year Wailer fan

    I had never heard of them before but the first time I saw Bob Marley and the Wailers was on TV around 1976. I’m not sure what program but believe it was American Bandstand. I was blown away.

    Immediately I purchased every BMW album I could find and played only those for along time afterwards. Then came the parties where my wife and I had all our friends listening exclusively to the Rasta Man for the duration and they all became fans.

    This was in Portland Oregon which had a rundown, smallish concert hall called the Paramount Theater (since renovated and much improved). My friends and I were fortunate to see Bob Marley perform there for the 1978 Kaya tour and the 1979 Survival tour. As might be expected both concerts were spectacular and it’s a memory I’ll always cherish. It was a natural mystic experience for sure.

  • dada

    Hello 35 year Wailer fan, you have a great chance to see bob in live

  • Kelli

    Bob Marley is a legend. There is not and never will be another like him.

  • amy

    he was a really good singer the beetles arent as good as him

  • tryl soja

    bob marley is amazing. his music is the best out there

  • krissy ;)

    im doing a report on bob marley,, he has an amaizing person his personality’s great and he is loved by many,, he also had some pretyy cool hair (: im addicted to my bob marley bag also (:

    RIP bob marley,, hes great =]
    -love always,
    krissy:]

  • Earthcrisis

    im from the philippines, and just like others in the country Bob marley was a man who influence the lives of many! from the ghetto to the luxurious lifestyle living but we are all united when it comes to BMW. his music lives through our nation! salute to Bob marley.

  • Nicki

    Bob Marley’s a beast.
    nuff said.
    i just hate how all stoners love him cause he smoked. Even though i do accasionally, i love him cause of his music and his views on peace and love in this world.\
    Let his music, wisdom, peace, and love live on and prosper in this world. Honor him. R.I.P. Mr. Marley<3

  • scotty

    bob marley knew the secret!!! thats what the message is in all his music!!! emancipate yourself from mental slavery! you are god! jah! it lives in you. The only way you find joy is through great positivity! jah bless! thank you rasta man!

  • Aaron Valentine Quest

    Greetings to Jah People

    ONE LOVE ONE HEART.

    R.I.P. Cousin Bob Marley.

    Jah Army stands firm in Babylon.

  • jhmo kenyatta

    i think the mesage of the oneness of mankind will be passed down to someone who is chosen to carry the mantle of restoration . the consciness of man has many stages to go through before it is fully activated but thank Jah for this servant who willingly and beautifuly expressed a sentiment which tapped the primordial instincts of many many people and will continue to do so throughout eternity and beyond!

  • Ivan

    Bob Marley you could not see it from the outside,but from the inside bob marley truly had the love for human in his hart, he also put a lot of that out,you can talk about tbe beetles, comming from the UK where hatred flurish you have to give them credit,they came out of the UK with a statement,that they wore diffrent from the rest they wore in the world to give love and their music was inspired by blacks including Bob marley,they say this them selves,and the world give them love back so you cannot take any thing from them you have to give them credit,Bob was lil diffrent he wont the world to be a peaceful place,and this was his message,in this regards we still have a long way to go,think about it.

  • NoeZ

    This much is true… No matter where you go in the world, someone there will know a Bob Marley tune! Being raised listening to the Wailers, Mr. Marley has been & always will be the greatest music icon in my life! From songs of peace & unity to songs of love, his music resonates in the hearts of the people of the world!!! Jah Bless one & ALL

  • alyza

    bob marley is awsome im ln love with his music one love rocks

  • Sean meek

    Bob’s music is spiritual,righteousness, Love, peace, harmony , timeless, You cant compare Bob to any other artist period.

  • Brandt Hardin

    Bob Marley has influenced the entire world with his music, which will live on to be rediscovered by more and more generations to come. His work has affected my life and my art so much. I paid tribute to him with a surreal and psychedelic portrait inspired by his words. You can see it on my artist’s blog at http://dregstudiosart.blogspot.com/2011/05/in-memoriam-bob-marley.html

  • David

    To Antonio and others–Bob,like Barack Obama,was born to parents of mixed races,one parent was black,the other was white.

  • Gerry

    The simplicity of his lyrics, the repitition, the use of well known sayings in his music echo the ancient oral traditions of humanity’s history. He calls us to pay attention..
    I recently “discovered” his music through some of those “over dubbed” commercially packaged CD’s but still when I first listened I was astounded. I am a white women 60 years old – where was I? How did I miss this?
    I’ve been listening to Bob Marley almost exclusively for months now. He makes me smile, he makes me ache – I wish I had seen him live. I am a Beatles fan, but Bob Marley is like no other.

  • king solomon

    bob marley is the best musician the world has produced. by king solomon.

  • Joan

    Get these…”56 Thoughts From 56 Hope Road, the sayings and psalms of Bob Marley” – and “60 Visions a book of prophecy” – by Bob Marley. :)

  • JessJess

    Bob Marley is an insipration to all age groups, he has the most amazing voice and shared it with the world, with out Bob Marley, i would die <3 love Bob Marley

  • antonie

    Bob is the greatest!!. In 2000, his album Exodus was named album of the century and his single “one love” single of the century by TIME magazine. What more is needed to see that this man is the greatest ever. the Beatles were great but not as great as Marley.

  • Big Daddy

    Me and Bob Marley while we were drinking Red Stripes and eaten key lime pie over at kutchie’s key west island of kutcharitaville. Bob always said that kutchie’s place is his favorate place to play and party. i couldn’t agree more.

    Big Daddy

  • noel

    If bob was alive today with the internet around ,i think bobs words would be ,”music don”t come from the tube ,must come from da heart”,,,,,,,,slan anios mo charra{goodbye for now my friends}

  • colin robinson

    Who was the Beatles a white band that copy other black artist Bob got his inspiration from Jah Rasta, Bob was for downtrodden people of the world –These are some of Bob music that he gave the World One love -Could you be love-Get up stand up-Until the coloure of a man skin–Exodus–One LO vvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvv

  • Conrad Sabatier

    > Who was the Beatles a white band that copy other black artist

    This statement is just so wrong on so many levels, I can hardly even bring myself to respond to it.

    What does the Beatles’ race have to do with anything? It’s interesting that you felt the need to toss that in there. It seems that you want to raise an issue where none exists. Why is that?

    And to summarily describe one of the greatest bands the world has ever seen in such a dismissive and contemptuous manner is merely an indicator that you are either seriously misinformed or completely ignorant of the enormous contributions the Beatles made not only in the realm of popular music, but popular culture as well.

    Then to go so far as to suggest that they were mere imitators of “other black artist” (there’s that racial thing again), completely discounting all of the incredibly creative innovations they pioneered and which have influenced countless artists since, is so completely inaccurate as to render any other opinions you may have to offer as hardly worthy of serious consideration.

    Here’s a free clue, not only for you, but for everyone: if you wish to praise an artist, you can do so without resorting to denigrating another one.

    Bob Marley was great. The Beatles were great. These two statements are not mutually exclusive of one another. Let’s try to remember that, shall we?

  • king solomon

    bob Marley and the wailers are the best band the world have ever produced.
    the beetles are no march to the wailers.
    bob Marley is the best musician the world has produced. from king Solomon.

  • Steve-o

    Bob Marley rocks

  • seacat

    Both the Beatles and Bob Marley clearly loved music. It is difficult to compare the two. Both did what they did excellently, were astute to the times, proceeding forth with focus, purpose, care, and compassion for their craft. Although the Beatles music continues to sell well and Paul McCartney continues to sell out huge shows, this does not diminish the impact of the Beatles musical ability and importance, especially after World War II. The Beatles, as children of/after World War II, who, by their initially joyous songs, offered a glint of happiness to a down-trodden and dejected world population, who had seen and heard of the mass atrocities in the concentration camps, Bob Marley, while born after World War II, in the so-called “Third World,” also experienced suffering firsthand in Trenchtown, witnessing direct disregard and disrespect for black Jamaicans. The Beatles, no doubt, were well aware of mass turmoil in society, but from a greater distance than Bob Marley. The Beatles and Bob Marley and the Wailers perceived such turmoil in their own way musically. Both visions are valid. Paul McCartney has repeatedly said that the Beatles stayed in tune, so to speak, about the social movements of the times, and that’s where their song “Blackbird” came from – injustices against blacks in America. That said, Bob Marley and his fellow Wailers lived inside turmoil in Trenchtown until they earned enough money to move out. All in all, both are equally valid artists, whose music will continue to endure forever. I am a better music lover and person for both the Beatles and Bob Marley and the Wailers. Blessings to them both forever!

  • David Cupples

    Author of article, Roger Steffens, among other accomplishments the Founding Chair of the Reggae Grammy Committee, read an advance copy of my novel Stir It Up: The CIA Targets Jamaica, Bob Marley and the Progressive Manley Government. Roger gave a hearty two thumbs up! “Magnificent… a lasting gem,” is from Roger’s quote on the back cover of the novel. Print and ebook (minus the subtitle) editions on Amazon, search “Stir it up CIA.” It isn’t just about Bob, but he figures prominently in the narrative.

  • Milton

    This is a very well written article and I am in agreement with it’s author, The Wailers, in particular Bob Marley, are/were the most important musical force of the 20th century. Keep in mind that they introduced an entire genre of music to the world at large which is something no one else can truly claim, including The Beatles. The Wailers, not just Marley’s alone, music touched hundreds of millions of people in a very unique way that had never and will never be duplicated. When you have fans as varied as the Freedom Fighers from both South Africa & Zimbabwe, The Hopi & Havasupai Indians of Southwest U.S.A, The Maoris of New Zealand & even the United Nations, there’s really not much to argue about concerning how broad and vast your influence has become. In India, there are many tributes to Bob Marley including restaurants, hotels, and cultural festivals. There has never been anything like Bob Marley & The Wailers and we won’t ever see their likes again.

  • john

    i miss ya bobby boi

  • bob marley is ok

    honestly the guy seem interesting, but musically nothing to write home about – and saying he is better than beatles makes me laugh – ridiculous. he was symbol for poor jamaicans who actually rejected him for not being pure black . kind of weird.

  • johan

    bob is great ..he understood something that we didn’t see …

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