Bob Marley's greatest-hits album, Legend, came out in 1984, three years after his death, at 36, of a cancer that spread from his big toe. It's one of the best-selling albums of all time, in the company of Michael Jackson's Thriller and Bruce Springsteen's Born in the U.S.A. During his lifetime, Marley's following outside Jamaica was mostly cultish and underground until his last years, when he acquired a modest international stardom. But Marley didn't really become a mainstream fixture—a singer instantly recognizable to anyone who's lingered over a fajita at Chili's or wandered through a freshman quad in the springtime—until after his death, and after Legend. Greatest-hits collections are notoriously bad showcases, but Legend was a doozy—a defanged and overproduced selection of Marley's music. Listening to Legend to understand Marley is like reading Bridget Jones's Diary to get Jane Austen.
Marley has had an astonishingly successful commercial afterlife—the booming sales of his catalog virtually created the world-beat music category, paving the way for countless Buena Vista Social Clubs and Gipsy Kings—but his artistic reputation may never recover from it. His musical legacy has been hijacked and simplified by his cheesier fans (all those trustafarians toking in his memory). In turn, the music cognoscenti and hipsters seem to hold his mainstream appeal and lame followers against him. The fact that Marley is known by his weaker recordings like Legend or Exodus (which Time magazine—bizarrely to anyone familiar with the Marley canon—named "album of the century") doesn't help his cause.
Bob Marley's golden period was the three albums he cut with the original Wailers and the brilliant, certifiably insane, Jamaican producer Lee "Scratch" Perry: Soul Rebels, African Herbsman, and Rasta Revolution. These records are more satisfyingly complex, both lyrically and instrumentally, than much of Marley's later work. The Perry recordings are steeped in R & B and soul harmonies, but also tough. (Marley's earliest British fans were punk rockers.) The albums' layered rhythms—trancelike and jolting, like reggae by gunfighters—anticipated dub music and later stars like King Tubby and Augustus Pablo. When the English producer Chris Blackwell took over in 1973, intent on making Marley a star, the music, despite a couple of great albums, notably Catch a Fire! and Natty Dread, became steadily more mellow and digestible. (To hear the difference, listen to "Mr. Brown from 1970 and "Natural Mystic" from 1977.)
Perhaps Marley can't be taken seriously in a self-conscious age—unlike Dylan, or even Lennon, Marley didn't cloak himself in protective irony—but that risks overlooking how sly the man was. (Once, when asked how he handled fame, Marley responded, "I handle fame by not being famous … I'm not famous to me.") Since Marley would have been 61 this month, it's a fitting time to ask: Can Marley's legacy emancipate itself from an American following that wants a multiculti teddy bear?
Rachel Saurer, in a smart piece on the 20th anniversary of Legend, sketched out the loose set of values that Marley has come to embody: "In the realm of musical-taste-as-statement-of-personal-identity, Legend says this: I generally care about world events. I favor cotton clothing. I think stress is bad. I want to stop injustice. I'm all for love. I wouldn't say no to the herb, if you get my drift."
But if Marley's fans are cheesy and annoying, at least in this country, so are Pablo Neruda's, and no one holds that against him. How can we grudge Bob the feel-good party boys and mountain-biking philosophy majors who cling to his memory?
After all, Marley is an international star with a strong following in the Third World, especially in Africa. There, Marley fandom has a different dimension. Say you're a middle-class American white kid. It's spring term freshman year, and you've just discovered pot, Bob Marley, and ultimate frisbee. You really want to drop that organic chemistry course, but you know your parents will be pissed. In such a scenario, Bob Marley's songs, with lines like "Emancipate yourself from mental slavery" and "No chains are on my feet/ but I am not free," seem to be talking to you in a way that's deeply profound. Sure, that's laughable. But let's take a different scenario altogether. What if you're black? Or from the Third World? Then the lyrics take on a lot more historical force and contemporary urgency.
The problem with Bob Marley in white America is one of perspective. Many of Marley's songs are about resistance and violent revolution. The threat implicit in the lines "Them belly full but we hungry/ A hungry mob is an angry mob" or the song "Burnin' and Lootin' " isn't too far from the surface. But lyrics about armed resistance make America's secular-progressive middle classes—those most responsible for the cult of Marley as a cuddly "One Love" Rastafarian—uneasy. And so does Bible-beating. Marley's music is steeped in the Old Testament, especially the Song of Solomon. Marley sings in "Small Axe":
Why boasteth thyself, O evil men;
Playing smart and not being clever?
I said, you're working iniquity
To achieve vanity …
And whosoever diggeth a pit
Shall fall in it; bury in it
And whosoever diggeth a pit
Shall bury in it; bury in it.
Here, he's plundering from at least four books of the Bible: Psalms 52:1 and 94:4; Proverbs22:8; Isaiah59:4; and Jeremiah2:5.