A pandemic certainly wasn’t part of the plan for Bob Marley’s 75th birthday year. But amid a crisis, the reggae icon’s streams are up more than 23%, and his family is expanding their thriving business — at a time when their visionary patriarch’s music and message feel more essential than ever.
Most of the time, when Cedella Marley’s son Skip begins to sing, she closes her eyes. Not out of any parental apprehension or superstition, but so she can listen for pitch and sharpness — a remnant of the time she spent singing with her siblings Ziggy, Stephen and Sharon as part of The Melody Makers in the 1980s and ’90s.
These days, she has been hearing Skip sing a lot more often. While half of the world is confined at home due to the coronavirus pandemic, the 23-year-old songwriter-musician is livestreaming pop-up concerts and interacting with his fans online. Cedella and Skip are themselves isolating in their home in Miami — all of the Marley offspring but Ziggy and Karen, who are in Los Angeles, live near each other in Miami — where a home studio allows Skip to continue working on his debut EP, due out this summer on Island Records.
One song that Skip keeps coming back to in his livestreams is “So Much Trouble in the World,” an album cut from his grandfather Bob Marley’s 1979 album, Survival. “It’s not one of daddy’s most popular songs, but I think going through this pandemic, it has become one of those songs that people are kind of singing to themselves, you know?” muses Cedella, 52, over the phone in early April. “And then if you listen to the lyrics — ‘All we have to do is give a little’ — that’s what we really have to do as we go through this.”
This is a big year for the Marley family. Feb. 6 marked what would have been patriarch Bob Marley’s 75th birthday. And Cedella — as CEO of both the family’s record label/distributor Tuff Gong International and the Bob Marley Museum, and, alongside Ziggy and Stephen, managing partner of Marley Holdings, which conducts most of the family’s business — has helped plan a series of events and projects intended to turn the entirety of 2020 into a celebration of her father. That includes new reissues from a newly reopened pressing plant; EPs of new covers; new music videos for the iconic songs from his greatest-hits collection Legend; a photo book; a multipart documentary series that began airing on YouTube in February; and what was supposed to be a slew of live shows and exhibitions in both Jamaica and the United States. In conjunction with Bob’s longtime label Island Records and Universal Music Enterprises (UMe) — the catalog wing of Island’s parent company, which manages his Island catalog — as well as with publisher Primary Wave, the family began the yearlong celebration with a series of events leading up to the Grammys in January, with a slate of new announcements still to come.
But that was before the coronavirus pandemic swept across the globe, bringing national economies to a standstill and halting daily life. Several of the Marley events, performances and exhibitions have been postponed, and even the operation of the pressing plant is in question, although there are plans to reopen it in the summer (for now, it’s open for tours). Instead of headlining the BeachLife Festival in May, several Marley family members performed on the virtual Telethon Jamaica on Easter Sunday (April 12) to raise money for equipment and tests to help fight COVID-19 in Jamaica. The family also made its own donation through the Bob Marley Foundation and helped deliver thousands of protective masks through its partnership with the Alacran Foundation. Plus, on April 20, Marley-branded face masks went on sale at the BobMarley.com digital store for $15, with all proceeds going to MusiCares.
“The situation in the world kind of put a stop to some of the stuff we were doing in terms of live events,” says Ziggy Marley, 51, hinting at the possibility of livestreamed tribute shows or other potential replacement events. Ultimately, though, that depends on how fast things get back to normal. “We’re trying to figure that out now.”
It’s late morning at the beginning of February, and Rohan Marley is early. Pulling up to Tuff Gong recording studios, set on an industrial stretch of Marcus Garvey Drive in west Kingston, Jamaica, in a white Range Rover, he’s here to show off the compound’s newly refurbished vinyl pressing plant. Housed in one of the gated property’s handful of buildings, the plant fell out of use over the years as vinyl’s prevalence dwindled. The relentless Jamaican sun means the temperature is already into the mid-80s, but Rohan, spliff in hand, doesn’t seem fazed. “This,” he says, laughing as he walks through the big warehouse doors, “is where the magic begins.”
For many fans, Tuff Gong is the embodiment of Bob Marley’s spirit, a physical representation of his ambition to give his fellow Jamaican artists a place to record, mix, master, press and sell records, all independently. “Tuff Gong” was Bob’s nickname, earned as a teen scrapping his way through Trenchtown, then became the name of his record label (he retained the rights to his music in the Caribbean, with Island controlling it internationally) and the umbrella under which all of his enterprises still fall, nearly 40 years after his death.
“The importance of a pressing plant and a studio was having a full, sustainable movement, full circle,” says Rohan, 47. “He wanted his independence and to be self-sufficient.”
The original pressing machines from the 1970s are here, though Marcus Garvey Drive is not where Bob’s record operation first stood; that was at 56 Hope Road, the family’s old home in Kingston that now houses the Bob Marley Museum. The family moved the recording studio and pressing plant to Marcus Garvey Drive in 1983 — two years after Bob’s death from cancer at age 36 — and converted the former Federal Studios into the new Tuff Gong, with the largest recording studio in the Caribbean.
Still, there are touches of Bob everywhere. Murals adorn the warehouse walls outside, while framed album covers and photographs hang on every available wall inside; there’s an office for his wife, Rita, who turns 74 this year, and her foundation, outside of which is a pop-up clothing drive; dozens of license plates collectively spell out the lyrics to “One Love.” Deep in a back room of the studio lives Chio, the eccentric yet sprightly Asian-Jamaican philosopher-caretaker who has been running Bob’s studio since the ’70s and now lives somewhere in its recesses, with the blessing of the family. (“I’m just a survivor, you know?” says Chio, when asked about his role in the operation. “Eat the food, do the thing, tomorrow’s another day, right?”)
The studio itself, with its expansive live room, has been the main one for several records by Bob’s children — Ziggy Marley & The Melody Makers, Damian Marley, Julian Marley, Stephen Marley — as well as Gentleman’s Journey to Jah and Lauryn Hill’s remix of Bob’s “Turn Your Lights Down Low.” (Hill and Rohan have five children together.) When JAY-Z included the song “Bam” (featuring Damian) on his 2017 album, 4:44, the family cranked up the old machines to produce 15 copies of the record for Jay, all stamped with the iconic red-and-yellow Tuff Gong label.
Amid a resurgence in the popularity of vinyl — in December, sales topped 1 million in a single week in the United States for the first time since Nielsen Music began tracking them in 1991, contributing to the highest yearly sales total ever — and with an eye toward helping local Jamaican artists produce and press their own work, Tuff Gong plans to begin pressing records once again this summer. The plant will have an annual capacity of 250,000 units, and a series of limited-edition pressings of Marley classics — with that coveted Tuff Gong stamp — will be formally announced later this year. Since imported records can cost $35 in Jamaica, the only way for local artists to make vinyl a business is to press it locally, and Tuff Gong wants to give them a way to do it.
“We know the vision that our father had with opening Tuff Gong was a way to give the less fortunate an opportunity to be heard,” says Ky-Mani Marley, 44. “It’s important that we continue to build on that legacy and message.”
The next day — as they do every year on Feb. 6 — thousands congregate at 56 Hope Road for a special concert to celebrate that legacy on what would have been Bob’s birthday; and every year Donisha Prendergast is on hand to officially welcome the community on the family’s behalf. An activist, filmmaker, writer and the eldest of Bob and Rita’s grandchildren — her mother, Sharon Marley Prendergast, was Rita’s daughter from a previous relationship, who was adopted by Bob after their marriage — she always finds time to make it down for the event, even as she finishes her film studies at Ryerson University in Toronto.
“Bob Marley doesn’t stand alone — he represents many souls and spirits who have been trying to find their way to a safe space,” she says, sitting in the front room of the Bob Marley Museum as the walls shudder and shake from the sound system outside. “With his success, I think humanity has been able to find a way to see themselves beyond color. And that’s very important in this time. I think we need to look at Bob Marley’s music in a more academic perspective. There needs to be more intellectualization of his words, his thoughts, and application of that from the levels of government, not just entertainment. He shouldn’t be seen as just a cultural icon.”
In Jamaica, of course, Bob Marley is much more than a cultural icon — he’s everywhere. Landing at Norman Manley International Airport in Kingston means being able to pick up a cup of Marley Coffee from Cafe Blue while checking out T-shirts, hats and bracelets emblazoned with Bob’s face and name at a Tuff Gong Trading booth in the terminal. And the grounds of 56 Hope Road are peppered with quotes and murals, some based on lyrics from his songs, others snippets from interviews he gave. In the back of the house, behind a small wall, is the one-room shack where Georgie — famous for making the fire light in “No Woman, No Cry” — still lives, though his health is on the decline.
Today, throngs of people cover the grounds for a concert headlined by Julian, Damian and Ky-Mani Marley. Children with their parents are everywhere, as are reggae fanatics, Kingston dreads, a slew of Rastafarians and an elderly man wearing a crown of thorns. Booths that line the driveway on the side and back of the house are set up for the Bob Marley Foundation; One Love Youth Camp; local designers selling clothing, jewelry, photo prints, books, wristbands, dolls, baskets, hot sauces and amulets; ital chefs by the back gate; and, for a time, a man with a parrot, a rabbit and a turtle in a small pen. It feels like a carnival, with Red Stripe beer sold by the bucket and marijuana by the branch — at once chaotic and impossibly laid-back.
“This shows us that our father’s work was loved by a whole universe of people, and his message,” says Julian Marley, 44, a few hours before he and his brothers take the stage. “It’s more than words can explain.”
Getting all the Marleys in one place can feel similarly overwhelming. At one point, over a dozen family members were set to attend the tribute concert on Feb. 6; ultimately, several dropped out due to illness in the days, and even hours, before the main event. The flu had been particularly bad this year, everyone reasoned, resigning themselves with disappointed sighs. There were well wishes, though no one was too worried — these things happen. Right?
It’s a Tuesday afternoon in mid-March, and Skip Marley should be headlining a show at SOB’s in Manhattan. Instead he’s in Miami, livestreaming a four-song set on Billboard’s Facebook page, playing his grandfather’s songs “So Much Trouble in the World” and “Redemption Song,” as well as his own singles “Slow Down” and “Cry to Me.” Over 20 minutes, he raises $2,000 for Meals on Wheels, while some 5,500 people tune in from places as far-flung as Brazil, Spain, Trinidad, Ireland, Morocco, Canada, Italy and New Zealand.
Skip is part of the third generation of Marleys now coming of age — and with his long dreads, thick patois and soulful voice, he’s the one most frequently connected with his grandfather. He’s also the one who has taken the most concrete steps into the traditional music industry: His deal with Island continues the family lineage on the label that his grandfather helped make famous; he performed at the Grammys with Katy Perry in 2017 to sing their collaboration “Chained to the Rhythm”; and his song “Lions” soundtracked Kendall Jenner’s infamous Pepsi ad later that year.
But he’s just one of dozens of his cousins who are carrying on the family tradition — through music, activism, charity work, film, law and more. “I mean, we’re next, so we’re learning as we go,” says Skip over the phone from Miami. “I’m always around my mother and my uncles, so we’re always taking steps forward, and eventually coming into our own. But as the third generation, I think we have a lot to offer. All of us are a piece of the puzzle.”
And as Mystic Marley, 22, a singer-songwriter who is one of Stephen’s daughters, puts it, being a Marley doesn’t mean simply resting on those laurels, either. “Our parents pushed us,” she says. “You have to get up and be a part of something.”
“We try to instill in them that this is something you need to take seriously,” explains Damian Marley, 41. “It’s not to be taken for granted just because you’re coming from such a successful family within music.”
For the Marleys, business has always been a family affair. After Bob’s death, Rita took over the management of Tuff Gong and the promotion of the Marley brand and image, while Ziggy and The Melody Makers took up the mantle on the music side. Later, Julian and Damian began to put out records as well, while Cedella assumed running Tuff Gong and Rohan launched Marley Coffee. And now, a new generation of Marleys is figuring out how to make its mark. “There’s a huge opportunity for us to be individuals and interpret [the legacy] individually,” says Ziggy’s daughter Zuri Marley, 24, a singer-songwriter who has collaborated with Dev Hynes, among others. “Everyone has their goals and it’s something to strive toward, being that great.”
Each grandchild’s parents drill certain core Marley principles into their heads — hard work, and the importance of keeping Bob and Rita’s message consistent. The business sense can sometimes take a little longer to absorb. “Most of them are still in their 20s. I’m figuring maybe when they get to 30 I’ll grab some of them and sit them down and say, ‘Listen, this is how it goes, this is what you have to do,’ ” says Cedella. “I’m going to let them enjoy their 20s, because if I could have done it all over again I would be enjoying it. But that time soon come.”
The Marley brand, as Prendergast puts it, “means the commercialization, the globalization effort, to keep it spreading across other borders. But we still need to keep certain things in context. We’re trying to do something greater than ourselves. In basic terms, there are certain things you just can’t sell out.”
In 1984, three years after Bob Marley’s death, Island Records released Legend, which took Marley’s music to commercial heights he never experienced during his lifetime. It’s the second-longest-charting album on the Billboard 200, currently sitting at No. 57 in its 622nd week; on the Reggae Albums chart it’s comfortably No. 1, while another greatest-hits set of his, Gold, sits at No. 6. It’s No. 7 on the Vinyl Albums chart (252 weeks) and No. 2 on the Catalog Albums chart, where it has been for 1,409 weeks — or over 27 years.
“If you went to the deepest Peru and showed a picture of Bob Marley, Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson or The Beatles, they would know who Bob Marley was,” says Darcus Beese, Island’s current president. “Bob is medicine. His lyrics still resonate — he never goes out of fashion.”
But set aside the songs on Legend — many of his most well-known, of course, but also his most saccharine and smooth — and what’s left is a canon that speaks frankly and unflinchingly of the chaos, troubles, war and poverty that enveloped the world in his era, and that feels crucial right now. The first two songs on Catch a Fire, his first album for Island — “Concrete Jungle” and “Slave Driver” — tackle poverty, slavery and the hope for youth to overcome oppression. Look deeper, and Marley’s intentions become even clearer. His masterpiece, 1977’s Exodus — which Time named the best album of the 20th century — opens with “Natural Mystic,” with the lyric, “Many more will have to suffer/Many more will have to die/Don’t ask me why.” These are words for pandemics, for global conflicts, for uncertainty in the face of adversity — in short, for today.
And that has been borne out by listening data, too. As overall streaming in the United States declined after the coronavirus began to keep people home in mid-March, on-demand audio and video streams of Marley’s catalog actually grew by 7.1% in the four weeks between March 13 and April 9, compared with the prior four-week period, according to Nielsen Music/MRC Data. Globally, streams of his catalog have ballooned even more, up 23.2% in the three weeks through April 2 over the prior four weeks. All told, Marley’s catalog has amassed 1.1 billion streams around the world in the first three months of the year. While catalog overall has grown in streams during the pandemic, as listeners revisit songs they know well for comfort, its growth has been in the 2.5% range.
“As an artist he was spot on in combining a very mordant and cynical perspective with very jolly music — sometimes very heavy music, but often he uses this contrast of textures to incredible effect,” says Vivien Goldman, a journalist, author, professor and former publicist for Island Records who now teaches a class on Marley at New York University. “It’s reassuring when you listen to Bob Marley, because nothing evil happens that Bob Marley hasn’t anticipated and lived through.”
Much of his enduring popularity also owes to the continual branding, marketing and global expansion of his name and likeness that the family has endeavored for the past 40 years. These days, Cedella runs point on most of the businesses for the family, which include Tuff Gong’s record label, recording and music operations; Marley Natural, a sustainable marijuana-accessories company; Marley Coffee, which Rohan founded in 2009 and oversees; House of Marley, a music-tech company that sells headphones, speakers and turntables, many of which are scattered around Tuff Gong headquarters; and Marley Kitchen and Marley Beverage, which make food and drink. (Each has been affected in different ways by the pandemic. House of Marley, for example, has seen a downturn in sales due to retail closures, though its partner HoMedics has begun using its supply chain to develop N95 masks for health care workers.) Forbes estimated that the Marley estate generated $20 million in 2019, third among posthumous musicians.
“My father was an entrepreneur, so his legacy is also one of entrepreneurship,” says Ziggy. “But entrepreneurship with morality, and also charity. Because he would always give back. It’s not about becoming the richest, or whatever. It’s about doing good business and helping people. The money is never the driving force. It is a side effect of our entrepreneurship, but entrepreneurship is more about being independent of control of others, not being under the control of anyone but yourself.”
It hasn’t always been easy for the family as it has attempted to protect and promote Bob’s brand. He famously died without a will in 1981 — apparently because of Rastafarian beliefs — which led to a protracted legal battle over his estate that left control of the Marley image contested for over a decade. In the early ’90s, the Jamaican Supreme Court ruled that Marley’s widow and 11 heirs should control his name and image, and Cedella eventually took over the operation. Through the years the family has battled piracy, fraudulent merchandise, unlawful uses of Bob’s name and more.
“I’ve been doing it for so long that it’s not tough anymore,” says Cedella, laughing. “I like to work with people who I genuinely like — it’s a small list of people. And that’s really by choice. We keep it tight, and a lot of the partners we have we see more like family. We’re very selective, and that’s been good to us so far.”
Yet it’s not just the popularity of his music and what he stood for — Bob Marley’s music is worth more, too. In 2018, Primary Wave Music Publishing acquired an 80% stake in Island founder Chris Blackwell's stake in Marley’s publishing catalog, in a deal worth $50 million, and now also works with the estate and family on branding and marketing deals. The specifics vary widely, but a synch for a Marley song could go for $25,000 for a TV placement or anywhere from $250,000 to $1 million for ad campaigns, says a representative. Another brand marketing executive says his song catalog is one of the most valuable there is.
“When we had the opportunity to work with the songs of Bob Marley, I mean, it’s like, you got to pinch me,” says Primary Wave chief marketing officer Adam Lowenberg. “The challenges are for us to always keep ourselves in check: not to go for something that is not in line with what Bob sung about or represents, and not to come to the family with quote-unquote ‘cheesy’ ideas. We’re not going to call them and say, ‘Hey, let’s do a line of lunchboxes with Bob Marley’s face on them.’ ”
For Bob’s 75th birthday year, Primary Wave has kicked into high gear. “Could You Be Loved” is featured in a long-running ad for the Jamaica Tourism Board, which debuted late last year and is still running. “Three Little Birds” has had four TV placements, including in The Handmaid’s Tale and For All Mankind, while “One Love” landed on Hawaii Five-O and will be used in a major brand’s ad campaign later this summer. The Grammy Week events with Island Records included sponsorships with Mastercard and Amazon, plus the premiere of the new “Redemption Song” music video produced by YouTube and UMe. Still to come are a series of covers from a Primary Wave-backed songwriting camp, plans for an all-star tribute concert and a possible immersive experience in Las Vegas that’s now on hold due to the coronavirus.
“Up until five years ago, we were doing a lot of release-oriented celebrations,” says Bruce Resnikoff, president/CEO of UMe, which has been behind the new music videos for “Redemption Song” and “Three Little Birds,” as part of Universal’s wide-ranging content deal with YouTube that was announced last June. That deal came with a pledge to upgrade 1,000 music videos for Universal Music Group artists to high-definition in order to maximize exposure of (and pull in more revenue from) that catalog, while some artists, like Marley, have seen their songs get brand-new music videos where they hadn’t existed before. “What really happened was a change in the industry with the development of new platforms in the digital space,” continues Resnikoff. “We decided we could approach the anniversary in a way that dealt with multiple genres of music and a much broader demographic. With the way the business has evolved with audio and video streaming services, we’re now able to become storytellers as opposed to just distributors and marketers of music.”
That has also included the multipart Legacy documentary series, which began rolling out on YouTube in February. Ziggy is heavily involved in it and has reconnected with some of his father’s old running mates, learning some new facts about his dad along the way. “Speaking to some of his friends, [I discovered] Bob loved comic books,” he says with a laugh. “Simple stuff like that — with the idea that we have about Bob Marley today, you wouldn’t think that he loved comic books, would you?”
All of that has also allowed UMe to think in more global terms. “We’re now able to reach a much younger audience around the world who spends more time on YouTube than anyone ever spent in a record store,” says Resnikoff. “We’ve been selling records for years and years, but I view artists like Bob Marley to be brands unto themselves. And it’s our job as a music company and a media company to try to make sure that we extend that brand to another generation of fans and leave it larger than it was when we inherited it.”
Trenchtown is a vibrant patchwork of buildings, with people scattered everywhere and music blasting at chest-vibrating levels in the afternoon. Bob Marley was raised in the neighborhood from the age of 12, and some of his older kids still remember living here before their father’s career took off internationally. Today, Julian and Rohan Marley are here for the grand opening of the Cornerstone Learning Center, funded by Julian, Stephen and Damian’s Ghetto Youths Foundation, which will provide kids in the neighborhood with laptops, reading materials, classes and academic support. A mural of Bob reading to a group of children adorns the side wall. At a short ceremony, a 7-year-old girl named Ariana sings “One Love” to the few dozen people assembled in the courtyard.
“My father’s songs can all give you some kind of inspiration for something in your life,” says Julian. “And that’s giving. So if we can give what we can give physically — whether that’s food, knowledge, education, Cornerstone — things like that mean a great deal.”
Each of Bob’s children has kept some connection to the wide-ranging charitable efforts that the family is involved in, stemming first from the Bob Marley Foundation and extending into the Ghetto Youths Foundation and Ziggy Marley’s U.R.G.E. Foundation, both of which are dedicated to schooling and youth-focused projects in Jamaica, and the Rita Marley Foundation, which aims to help the poor and underserved communities there.
They’ve also tried to keep Bob’s message current even beyond his songs, tailoring his social media to showcase quotes from old interviews and archival videos — putting new emphasis on Marley as revolutionary, as political and social critic, as more than simply the man who wrote “One Love” and preached peace. “That was the main thing, to explore more of him on that level. But also to get his message out more, in a way,” says Ziggy. “It’s a powerful tool; if you use it the right way, it can do some good. And that’s a dilemma that I’ve been thinking about, too — how do we use this not just to sell stuff or whatever, but to really impact people’s life and the world?”
Of course, the family knows Bob’s music is always the bedrock, and they, like the rest of the world, are leaning on it more than ever now, plumbing it still for new meaning. Back in February, well before the coronavirus irrevocably changed life in this hemisphere, Rohan sat in the dim recording studios at Tuff Gong, reflecting on what his father left behind. “There’s a reason why that music exists. There’s a reason why it’s current today,” he said. “Especially now, in this time with all the dissension, segregation and the conversation happening. People haven’t changed. It’s the same people. And people need the good vibration.”