The Music and Marketing Genius of Bob Marley, 34 Years After His Passing

Bob Marley
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Bob Marley on May 27, 1978 in Chicago.  

"Have you heard Uprising Live?" asks Cedella Marley, the oldest child of Bob and Rita Marley, during a conversation with Billboard on Feb. 6, in a recently remodeled second-floor room at the Bob Marley Museum in Kingston, Jamaica. Outside, on the museum grounds, several thousand locals as well as visitors from around the world were congregated to celebrate the life of Cedella's famous father (and attend a free commemorative concert) on what would have been his 70 birthday. Cedella is the CEO of the Marley family's music conglomerate Tuff Gong International, director of the Bob Marley Foundation and oversees most of Marley family's business, in addition to being an accomplished fashion designer, children's book author and singer who toured the world with her siblings Sharon, Ziggy and Stephen between mid-'80s through the early aughts.

"Uprising Live! is the first time I have heard 'Redemption Song' live," Cedella continued, "and, because it was recorded in daddy's later years, there was a certain kind of desperation in his voice, or more like, he wanted to be heard, and it was kind of urgent."?

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Released on November 24, 2014 via Eagle Rock Entertainment on DVD, as a DVD/CD set, and on digital video, Uprising Live! captures the mesmeric power and heartwrenching urgency of Bob Marley and the Wailers (with the I-Threes, Rita Marley, Marcia Griffiths and Judy Mowatt) in a June, 1980 performance in Dortmund, Germany, originally filmed for the German TV concert series Rockpalast. Marley and The Wailers, anchored in the drum and bass of brothers Carlton and Aston Barrett, played 33 dates that summer supporting Uprising, Bob Marley's final studio album. Peaking at no. 41 on the Black Albums chart and no. 45 on the Pop Albums chart, Uprising featured the acoustic oft-covered "Redemption Song" and the disco-tinged hit "Could You Be Loved." As an opening act for Lionel Richie and The Commodores, Bob and the Wailers performed two consecutive sold-out nights at New York City's Madison Square Garden (Sept. 19, 20), the third and fourth dates of Uprising's US tour leg. The day following the band's second MSG show, Marley collapsed while jogging in Central Park. Advised to immediately stop the tour, Marley continued through to Pittsburgh, Pa., where he delivered the last set of his career on Sept. 23, 1980 at the Stanley Theater. On May 11, 1981, Bob Marley succumbed to complications from cancer at just 36 years old.

In the 34 years since his passing, Bob Marley has become arguably the planet's most-recognized musician, his image used to sell a range of products from t-shirts to shoes to headphones to coffee. In Jamaica you will find Marley/Tuff Gong Trading Stores in Montego Bay's Sangster International Airport and Kingston's Norman Manley International Airport. Local reggae stars, international artists and several of Marley's sons utilize Kingston's Tuff Gong Recording Studios. "Tuff Gong is one of the Caribbean's largest recording studios. It has great sound, and people want to come here for the connection to Bob," explains Lorna Wainwright, Facility Manager for Tuff Gong Studios and The Bob Marley Museum, who was first hired by Rita Marley in 1980.

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One of Kingston's most popular tourist attractions, The Bob Marley Museum is Bob's former home, which he purchased from Island Records founder Chris Blackwell in 1975. About a year later, on Dec. 3, 1976 gunmen attempted to assassinate Marley -- his manager Don Taylor, his friend Lewis Griffiths and wife Rita Marley were shot during the attack. Besides the house, the museum boasts murals depicting several significant periods in Bob's life, an exhibition hall, a movie theater, gift shop and the One Love Café. The museum received international media coverage recently when President Barack Obama made an after-hours visit there on Apr. 8. The President told museum tour guide Natasha Clark that he started listening to Marley in high school, still has all of his albums and, on the flight to Jamaica aboard Air Force One, was listening to Marley's 1977 album Exodus, named Album of the Century by Time magazine in December 1999. "Since the President's visit, we have had a surge in interest in the museum; people want to find out about his experience there and tour guide Natasha Clark has become quite popular among visitors as they ask her to share the experience she had touring him," comments Debbie Bissoon, brand manager for the Bob Marley Group of Companies, Jamaica.

According to Forbes' Top Earning Dead Celebrity list for 2014, Bob Marley ranked at number five, generating $20 million dollars, an increase of $2 million from the previous year and more than double the $9 million earnings of 2002-2003. "Basically, our approach to branding is to take the Marley image and just be ourselves as business people, so we can let daddy be the musician," commented Cedella, who would not provide any figures related to the Marley estate's overall earnings. A forthcoming strain of Marley-branded marijuana and related accessories is being developed by the family, in partnership with the Seattle-based equity firm Privateer Holdings. The venture is projected to generate billions over time as marijuana laws become more relaxed throughout the U.S.

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Bob Marley was born to a poor teenaged black mother and a well-to-do white middle-aged father who abandoned him months after his birth -- a world far apart from corporate branding, tourist attractions and Presidential visits. Along with Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh, he formed the Wailers in the economically impoverished but musically rich Trench Town community of western Kingston, defiantly championing marijuana usage and Rastafari beliefs through their music, long before either had widespread acceptance in Jamaica. (Between 1963-66, the group also included Beverley Kelso, Cherry Smith and Junior Braithwaite). Tosh and Wailer developed thriving solo careers, but Marley emerged as reggae's most charismatic and successful artist, with The Wailers, since 1974, as his backing band. Over the ensuing decades, Bob's music has been hastily summarized for the masses by his feel alright anthem "One Love", named Song of the Millennium by the BBC. However, his significance to reggae and popular music overall also encompasses the echoes of despair heard on "Concrete Jungle," his warning of the vampiric "Babylon System," and his brilliantly complex response to those who attempted in 1975 to take his life on "Ambush In The Night," a song which also addresses colonialism, oppression and salvation through Rastafari.

Bob's music has inspired and been incorporated into numerous global freedom struggles including the crumbling of the Berlin wall in 1989 and the dismantling of Apartheid in 1994, a struggle referenced in his 1976 song "War", with lyrics adapted from a speech by Ethiopian emperor and Rastafarian Deity Haile Selassie. Considered a career-defining gesture amidst rapidly escalating politically partisan killings in Jamaica in the '70s, Bob united Jamaica's Prime Minister Michael Manley and opposition leader Edward Seaga in a solidarity handshake during an improvised performance of "Jammin" at Kingston's One Love Peace Concert in 1978.

"After everything I have learned since I was 13, when I found out about Bob Marley, he is still my favorite singer, songwriter and my favorite role model," acknowledged Jacob Hemphill, lead singer/songwriter/guitarist of the American reggae band SOJA, whose 2012 album Strength to Survive (ATO Records) was a tribute to the most political album of Bob's career, 1979's Survival. "Everywhere we tour, Bob is the symbol of freedom. He did what he did like no one has ever done it. Like the Dalai Lama or Mahatma Ghandi, we will hear about him forever," assesses Hemphill.

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Marley's legions of fans, from children to seniors, represent a United Nations-like array of ethnicities, creeds and national origins. He has sold more than 75 million records, with the greatest hits collection Legend from 1984 now certified 15 times platinum, averaging annual sales of 250,000 units. Legend's success stimulated sales of Marley's catalog, with five of his albums released for Island Records in the 1970s -- BurninLive!, Rastaman VibrationExodusKaya and Uprising, released in 1980 -- all certified gold by the following decade.

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Thirty-four years on, Bob remains the standard by which every (Jamaican) reggae act continues to be measured. "Some say Bob's stature eclipses all of Jamaica's musical heroes, but he is the light that draws people in and allows everybody to shine," says Charles Campbell, director of JaRIA, an umbrella organization that furthers the common objectives of the island's music industry bodies. Each February, annually observed in Jamaica as Reggae Month since 2008, JaRIA coordinates a series of reggae concerts, lectures, and panel discussions culminating in an awards ceremony. February was chosen as Reggae Month, says Campbell, because it is the birth month of Marley and the late Dennis Brown (born Feb. 1 and said to be Bob's favorite singer) who passed away on Jul. 1, 1999 at 42 years old. Birthday celebrations for Marley and Brown are two of Reggae Month's biggest activities.

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For Marley's 70th birthday, two celebratory concerts were held in Jamaica, the February 6 museum event and on the following evening at the downtown Kingston waterfront. Both concerts featured several young Jamaican Rastafarian acts, many born after Bob's passing including sing-jay's Iba Mahr, Kabaka Pyramid, I-Octane and Chronixx, avant-garde band/dub poetry collective No-Maddz as well as The Voice season five winner Tessanne Chin, veteran singer Cocoa Tea, contemporary reggae star Tarrus Riley, two-thirds of the I-Threes, Marcia Griffiths and Judy Mowatt and Bob's sons Damian, Julian and Ky-mani Marley, billed collectively as Sons of Marley.

Like many of Marley's lyrics expressing profound universal truths in simple Jamaican parlance, Kabaka Pyramid's -- a musical descendent of Marley which played one of two Marley memorial concerts in February -- barbed shot at politicians selling out his country's assets on his current hit "Well Done" (produced by Bob's youngest son Damian and released on the Marley's Ghetto Youths imprint) has global resonance. Introduced to Bob's music as a child by his father, Kabaka has come to fully understand Bob's contributions as an adult, embarking on his own career.

"As I got older and became Rastafari, I learned about Bob's willingness to sometimes play for free to get his message out," explains the 30-year old. "Many artists nowadays don't have Bob's work ethic to get their music across so many borders or they are not making quality songs that people from different backgrounds can appreciate. Bob's legacy does overshadow other reggae artists but I am not condemning that: he continues to be most people's introduction to reggae and there can only be one first."