Today is 30th Anniversary of Bob Marley’s Death

Bob Marley died of cancer on May 11, 1981, at the age of 36. To mark the 30th anniversary of the death of the reggae legend, the Wall Street Journal asked Jamaican-born novelist Colin Channer to share his thoughts. This is what he wrote.

The first time I saw Bob Marley perform I was eight years old. It was 1971. A Saturday afternoon. I was sitting in a Danish couch with beige cushions and maple arms in a new development of pre-fab homes in Kingston. He was a glowing presence on a 13-inch black and white Sanyo.

His bandmates Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh were on either side of him, I guess. They must have been; but memory hasn’t saved their bodies, only their sound–their falsettos whinnying as Bob cantered through “Duppy Conqueror,” voice rearing wildly at the end of some lines.

I knew the song. Had heard it in trickling from the doors of rum shops; had heard the postman hum it as he sat on his red bicycle by the wrought-iron gate, half hidden by the crotons, waiting for the helper to come outside for a slack-mouth chat up. I’d also heard it chuffing from the wooden Grundig stereogram owned by my mother’s friends Owen and Alma Dixon, the party couple. They lived in a modest home with a shingled roof and wooden floors on Mountain View Avenue, about two miles away from Harry J’s recording studio, where Bob would go on to record “Natty Dread,” his first album without Peter and Bunny. Island Records released “Natty Dread” in 1974.

So, yes, I knew the song. In fact, I knew it very well. But before this moment in 1971, I’d never thought about who sung it. I wasn’t into music yet. Music was something that washed over me. And in those days in Jamaica one couldn’t depend on the island’s two radio stations for much information about local singers. Like the media in many former colonies, the Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation and Radio Jamaica Redifusion Limited rationed how much local music they played. Standards, man. Standards. Standards must be maintained. When the JBC and RJR did play local music, well, they played it down the middle. Girl, I love you. Boy, I love you. Girl, I miss you. Boy, you’re gonna miss me. Off brand Motown. A genre called rock steady. Good kids singing clean music.

In 1971, reggae the fat-bottomed outside child of rock steady and Rastafarianism, was already three years old, It was race music. Bass music. The music of the common people whose feet traced deep lines into the dirt lanes that flowed into the dark heart of the shanty clumps in West Kingston. Reggae was not clean music. It was dutty (dirty) people music. The very essence of funk.

So imagine my surprise then, on this Saturday evening. Life was going along as I’d known it. I was watching Top Ten Tunes on JBC TV. There was a bowl of beef soup in my lap, the enamel warm on my thighs, the broth orange-red from melted pumpkins. I took my eyes off the set to forage for meat under chunks of yam; found mostly bone and gristle; looked up again and saw three dutty people boasting in a song about death and prison, that “their bars could not hold me.”

It was a simple set. Three men in their twenties fronting a cyclorama. No mikes. No band. That the set unexciting didn’t strike me. I didn’t expect much in the way of excitement from the JBC. What struck me was Bob Marley’s style.

He was wearing a leather motorcycle jacket as if he’d been an extra in “Blackboard Jungle” or “The Wild One.” His hair was worn in a style I found curious … a bit unsettling. I found it unsettling because I was at an age where my sense of what it meant to be intelligent was defining itself in terms of my ability to name things. For didn’t everything have a name?

Marley had an afro. Certainly. But he also did not. His hair was an afro in approximate scale and shape. It was voluminous and round,But the edges were frayed and fringed. Was it an afro, this black halo? Or was it something else?

From where I sit today at my desk in a Boston suburb, a 47 year-old novelist, professor and occasional critic, I can describe Bob’s hair as looking like something mysterious had reached from somewhere unseen to grab and twist the ends. I can say that his hair in its raggedness reminded me of what happened to the edges of neat colonial towns when slums appear on their rims, that I was unsettled by what unsettles most of us-being in a present that portends a future of fundamental change, being unsure if that feeling of excitement coupled in our hearts with fear has given fear its full consent.

Yes, I felt afraid that day. Yes, I felt afraid. I felt afraid because I knew I was looking at something I didn’t understand, and wanted to understand, but which I knew by instinct, and rough deduction, would not be considered worthy of consideration by decent people.

And what kind of trouble was going to be caused now, I could hear them thinking, that indecent, dutty hair was on gov’ment TV, getting exposure? Lord, what a calamity and crosses! Since independence, Jamaica gone to the dogs.

In later years, I would come to understand Bob Marley as an artist of substance, however, what made him iconic to me at first sighting was his sense of style.

Icons project. That is what they do. They radiate the capacities we’d like to have inside ourselves. Better yet, they reflect what we radiate in their direction, allowing us to envision the supernatural in ourselves.

There was no sense that Bob had been styled, that someone had chosen that jacket for him, or that he was any kind of copy cat, or in Jamaican parlance a “follow-fashion monkey.” Yes, there was the grammar of American fashion in his look, but he’d disrupted that language, reshaped it, creating a sty-ialect.

Bob was natural. Super natural. Natural to the extreme. Thirty years after his death he lives. It’s as if in singing “Duppy Conqueror” he’d bragged his way into a cosmic truth, had in fact conquered the duppy, that shape-shifter from the afterlife otherwise known as Death, who captured him as he tried to catch his breath in a cancer ward in Florida on May 11, 1981.

The first time I saw Bob Marley perform I was eight years old. But the last time I see him will always be tomorrow.

Jamaican-born novelist Colin Channer is the father of Addis and Makonnen. He’s also a professor of English and the founder, artistic director of a literary trust, and the author of such books as “Waiting in Vain.

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