Tim Adams reports for The Guardian. He writes, “As a new musical about the life of Bob Marley prepares to celebrate his spirit and classic songs, Marley’s daughter, plus the director and star of Get Up, Stand Up!, discuss his extraordinary legacy.”
Cedella Marley was 13 years old when the man she still calls “Daddy” died in 1981. She has many memories of him, she tells me, but two often stand out for her. The first is a sense of Robert Nesta Marley as a kind of shape-shifting presence in her childhood, always there and not there.
“He was always rehearsing when we were little and living in Jamaica,” she says, speaking on the phone last week from New York. “He would be the one that was always peeping in, peeping in the morning when he went out, and then peeping in at night when he got back. I would cover my head with my blanket in bed and I think he enjoyed scaring me a little bit. For a long time, he was a kind of scary shadow to me.”
And then, she says, there was the time when she finally won the admiration of her schoolmates, whose parents used to tell them not to mix with the Marley kids, because of Bob’s reputation for “bringing the ghetto uptown”. “One of my really cool memories is when Michael Jackson and the Jackson Five came to Jamaica. Daddy was the opening act. That was one time when I was proud to be Bob Marley’s daughter.”
Both those recollections seem to speak to a more complicated relationship with her father than any all-encompassing “One Love” mythology might suggest. But if he was often absent from Cedella’s day-to-day life as she was growing up, he has been ever-present in the 40 years since he died of cancer when he was only 36.
As CEO of the “music, merch, publishing” business Tuff Gong that her father established, Cedella, now 53, is obviously surrounded by the songs. But also in off-duty moments, I imagine hardly an hour goes by without her happening to hear some track (one of the uncanny things about thinking about this story in the past couple of weeks is that every time I have sat down anywhere to work, a Marley track has come on within minutes. This morning, at home, it was from a car with an open window playing Waiting in Vain in the street outside).
“Yeah. You can tell the cool stores from not the cool stores by whether they are playing the music,” she says, with a laugh. When we speak she has just arrived in New York from her home in Miami. The music was there in the airport lounge. “The other day I had to go for an MRI scan and the guy put on these headphones for me and of course Three Little Birds came through.”
[. . .] While the family, consisting of 11 acknowledged kids, Marley’s widow, Rita, and various other claimants, were still in long drawn-out battles over his legacy – he declined to leave a will – Marley’s ghost was ever more active. “I don’t believe in death, neither in flesh nor in spirit,” he used to say and he was as good as his word. [. . .]
At the millennium, Time magazine selected Exodus as the greatest album of the century. The BBC’s millennial celebrations began each hour with local renditions of One Love beamed from every part of the world.
[. . .] “The mission is to spread his music to every corner of the Earth. Daddy wanted his words to be known in every place on Earth. And I think that we are accomplishing that goal.”
The latest expression of that mission, a musical based on Marley’s life, Get Up, Stand Up!, will open at the Lyric theatre in London in October. The book of the show has been written by Lee Hall, whose many credits include Billy Elliot. One way of thinking of this project is as a sort of global version of that earlier hit: the story of the ghetto boy who gave the whole world a new rhythm – that fusion of Jamaican ska and rocksteady and American doo-wop and rock’n’roll that became known as reggae.
Earlier this month, I sat in on rehearsals of Get Up, Stand Up! as the cast welcomed the on-stage band for the first time. Even in a bare rehearsal space in south London those opening guitar chords and drum rhythms, the accent on the off-beat, immediately transported you to the Kingston suburb of Trenchtown circa 1960, where Bob first joined up with his cousin, Neville “Bunny” Livingston, and guitarist Peter Tosh to form a band and write songs. The Caribbean’s poet laureate Derek Walcott coined the perfect term to describe that new beat: “thud-sobbing”. For all its dancehall joys and energy, Walcott wrote, reggae is a music that evokes “a sadness as real as the smell/ of rain on dry earth”. [. . .]
[. . .] Some details of that journey remain better known than others. Marley, known by his middle name Nesta, “wise messenger”, as a child, was as an outsider from birth. [. . .] Marley was first sent away to live with family before he and his mother settled in Trenchtown, then a squatter camp west of Kingston, where Marley grew up with the poverty and spiritual aspiration and politics of rebellion that drove his songwriting. He was bullied as a kid for his pale skin and mixed parentage and found an escape in music. He cut his first record, Judge Not, on the eve of Jamaican independence in 1962. Thereafter, his music became synonymous with freedom, as well as triumph over suffering. [. . .]
The musical will also dramatise his experiments in what Rastafarians understood as “social living”, his ever-complicated love life, in particular that triangle between his backing singer, Rita (his wife and mother of his four elder children) and Cindy Breakspeare, the 1976 Miss World, his lover and muse, as well as his near fatal involvement in Jamaican political struggle. (In 1976, days before Marley was scheduled to perform at a Smile Jamaica concert aimed at preventing civil war at the forthcoming election, gunmen entered his house at 56 Hope Road, shooting him, Rita and his manager, Don Taylor. Despite wounds to his chest and arm, Marley insisted on performing at the National Stadium two nights later as planned.) [. . .]
If the hopes that came with post-colonial liberation fuelled the songs, they have currently become inevitable anthems of the Black Lives Matter movement. After watching the rehearsal of Get Up, Stand Up! I asked director Clint Dyer, deputy artistic director of the National Theatre, whether it felt like a particularly important moment to be doing this show. [. . .]
Like most first-generation British Jamaicans, Dyer’s Sundays as a kid “were filled with reggae music”. (It is not for nothing that Steve McQueen’s series of films about the Windrush generation were titled Small Axe, a quote from Marley’s song about finding a voice in a hostile culture: “if you are the big tree/ We are the small axe/ Ready to cut you down”.) “For me growing up here as a Brit,” Dyer says, “Bob gave me a portal into the experiences of my parents, my grandparents, my family, you know, so it was important to have that, especially in a Britain that wasn’t really accepting us as British people. We had to feel some deeper meaning somewhere else. And obviously, that would be Jamaica.” [. . .]
[Above: Cedella Marley photographed in Miami, Florida by Jeffery Salter for the Observer.]