Manufacturing Bob Marley


Hua Hsu (The New Yorker, 24 July 2017) writes that “A new oral history shows just how much of [Bob Marley’s] story is up for grabs.”  Here are excerpts from this fascinating review of So Much Things to Say: The Oral History of Bob Marley:

[. . .] No one metric captures the scale of Bob Marley’s legend except, perhaps, the impressive range of items adorned with his likeness. There are T-shirts, hats, posters, tapestries, skateboard decks, headphones, speakers, turntables, bags, watches, pipes, lighters, ashtrays, key chains, backpacks, scented candles, room mist, soap, hand cream, lip balm, body wash, coffee, dietary-supplement drinks, and cannabis (whole flower, as well as oil) that bear some official relationship with the Marley estate. There are also lava lamps, iPhone cases, mouse pads, and fragrances that do not. In 2016, Forbes calculated that Marley’s estate brought in twenty-one million dollars, making him the year’s sixth-highest-earning “dead celebrity,” and unauthorized sales of Marley music and merchandise have been estimated to generate more than half a billion dollars a year, though the estate disputes this.

Inevitably, the contention over the estate mirrors the larger struggle over the legacy—over the meanings of Marley. The accounting of merchandise and money might feel like a distortion of Marley’s legacy, of his capacity to take the lives of those who suffered and struggled and turn them into poetry. But the range of Marley paraphernalia also illustrates the nature of his appeal. He became a way of seeing the world. Although he adhered to an ordered, religious belief system for most of his life, praising Jah, the Rastafarian name for God, whenever he could, he came to embody an alternative to orthodoxy. His lyrics lent themselves to a kind of universalist reading of exodus and liberation. He was one of the first pop stars who could be converted into a life style. Bob left that open, too.

In “So Much Things to Say: The Oral History of Bob Marley” (Norton), the reggae historian and collector Roger Steffens estimates that at least five hundred books have been written about Marley. There are books interpreting his lyrics and collecting his favorite Bible passages, parsing his relationship to the Rastafarian religion and his status as a “postcolonial idol,” reconstructing his childhood in Jamaica and investigating the theory that his death was the result of a C.I.A. assassination effort. His mother and his wife have written memoirs about living with him, as have touring musicians who were only briefly proximate to his genius. He has inspired countless works of fiction and poetry, and his later years provided the basic outline for parts of Marlon James’s prize-winning 2014 novel, “A Brief History of Seven Killings.” Steffens’s “So Much Things to Say” isn’t even the first book about Marley to borrow its title from the 1977 song; Don Taylor, one of his former managers, published a book with the same title, in 1995.

[. . .] One of the reasons Marley’s life requires the complication Steffens’s book attempts is that the singer became a model for how artistic legacy has turned into an industry of its own. He has become a myth capacious enough to absorb every new revelation. What happened with Marley is what often happens nowadays to charismatic artists who die young: core beliefs are trimmed and edited for accessibility, and a new, simplified consensus forms. A belief system is reduced to a single, strident pose; rebelliousness becomes an untamed essence that travels everywhere, imbuing things, like lighters or headphones, with mystical vibes. Even as the music business shrivels, an artist’s legacy—especially one that is defiant and uplifting—will continue to be a reliable, ever-renewable asset. At least it’s Marley’s family that benefits. [. . .]

For full article (and photograph above, by David Burnett), see

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