Olivier Marbot (The Africa Report) writes about the passionate love affair between reggae star Bob Marley and Pascaline Bongo, daughter of Gabon’s former president Omar Bongo. He bases his article on “Bob Marley and the Dictator’s Daughter,” where French journalist Anne-Sophie Jahn looks back at this relationship, which “helped [Marley] strengthen his African roots.” [Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.]
The story was told by Pascaline Bongo herself in a documentary released in 2012. When the daughter of Gabon’s former president Omar Bongo, then a 23-year-old student in the US, first met the global superstar Bob Marley, the reggae singer was busy smoking a large joint and said only one thing to her: “You’re ugly.”
This comment was in reference to the young woman’s straightened hair, which Marley considered an unacceptable insult to his Africanness. Despite this embarrassing first introduction, the couple enjoyed a passionate love affair that lasted until the idol’s death on 11 May 1981. Passionate but almost impossible, admits Bongo herself in the book written by French journalist Anne-Sophie Jahn, which was published on 7 April.
Because of the two lovers’ personalities and backgrounds, the affair was never made completely official. “It wasn’t hidden, but it wasn’t public either,” says Jamaican guitarist Junior Marvin, who accompanied Marley in The Wailers.
This romance and the obstacles it encountered say a lot about the mentality of a part of newly decolonised Africa and the realities of life in Gabon at the time. Above all, it reveals the relationship that the black populations of Jamaica, the Caribbean and perhaps even the US had with an idealised continent, which was fantasised about but generally very little known.
Between fascination and misunderstanding
It was within this context, between fascination and misunderstanding, that Marley and Bongo’s love story began. Despite their first abrupt exchange, the daughter of Gabon’s President, who had come to attend the Wailers’ concert in Los Angeles, suggested that the group finish off the evening at the luxurious villa she shared with her sister Albertine in Beverly Hills.
Marley and Bongo spent a quiet evening together, with no flirting or excesses. However, the young woman suggested that the singer perform in Libreville in early 1980, an event that would end up setting so much in motion.
Marley and the Wailers were ecstatic. For years they had been singing about pan-Africanism, declaring their love for their ancestors’ continent, calling for unity – the cover of their album Survival, which was released in October 1979, was a patchwork of the continent’s flags – but paradoxically, none of these Jamaicans from the slums of Kingston had ever set foot in Africa.
This trip to Gabon – which was followed by another to Zimbabwe, to celebrate the new independence of what remained known as Rhodesia until 1980 – is at the heart of Jahn’s book, whose title – Bob Marley and the Dictator’s Daughter – clearly sets the tone of the book.
After being invited to play in Gabon, the Wailers did not stop to ask themselves any questions. Even when they learned that they would be performing during the birthday celebrations of Omar Bongo – who they weren’t sure whether he was the “king” or president, and didn’t care – they still didn’t ask any questions. They received a royal welcome, and their hosts were extremely attentive.
Discovery of a sadly unequal country
The reggaemen were surprised to discover a rather modern capital, thanks to the oil money that had been flowing in over the past few years. President Bongo, who was hardly a fan of reggae, didn’t see the point in giving an audience to these ragged, weed-smoking Rastafarians.
Posing alongside these guys with dirty hair and for whom the height of elegance seemed to be wearing tracksuits? He’d rather pass, thanks. But Pascaline was, and would remain, his favourite daughter. So he sent Ali, his son and chosen successor, to retrieve his guests.
As the days went by, the Wailers also discovered a sadly unequal country, in which a large part of the population lived in extreme poverty. They learned that the President had just been re-elected with 99.96% of the vote. “We didn’t know that Omar Bongo was a dictator,” said Marvin bitterly. “We were innocent, so happy to be invited to Africa.” Judy Mowatt, a backup singer, added that “they weren’t colonised but they weren’t free. Gabon was a neocolonial country ruled by a black man.”
In the book, Bongo herself explains how, from her point of view, the “revolutionary” Marley – who the US Central Intelligence Agency viewed at the time as a “subversive” figure to be kept in check – was able to resolve this dilemma. “When we met,” she says, “he told me that my father had been the only one to suggest that Haile Selassie move to Gabon after he was dethroned. And that the Rastafarians felt that this was a strong act that deserved their respect and admiration.”
Very much in love with his “African princess”
It was in Libreville that their love story began. From then on, Bongo was often in Marley’s company, travelling by private jet between Libreville and Los Angeles, where she was studying, as well as Kingston. The singer, although not very affectionate in public, appeared to be very much in love with his “African princess” with whom he dreamt of having a child.
The king of reggae, who died at the age of 36, admitted to having 11 offspring from seven different mothers and about 25 others who claim to be of his blood.
Marley married Rita, who often performed as a backup singer for the Wailers, in 1966. [. . .]
For full article, see https://www.theafricareport.com/79332/bob-marleys-relationship-with-dictator-bongos-daughter-helped-him-strengthen-his-african-roots
Bob Marley et la fille du dictateur
Paris: Grasset, April 2021