KINGSTON (AFP) ― Bob Marley’s musical legacy may be waning 30 years after his death as Jamaica’s youth prefers dancehall to reggae, but the singer remains a cult, if highly commercialized, figure.
Marley has become a merchandiser’s dream, with everything from shoes to snowboards bearing his image, but his friends say it would be tragic if his message of justice for the oppressed gets lost to corporate greed.
Jamaican reggae star Bob Marley, who died on May 11, 1981, at the age of 36 at Cedars Sinai hospital in Miami following a cancer. (AFP-Yonhap News)
“He was never about commercialism,” one friend, Herbie Miller, told AFP.
“Money was not his greatest motivation.”
For loyal fans of the Third World’s first pop superstar, who died from cancer at the age of 36 on May 11 1981, this year’s milestone anniversary is not about grieving but about celebrating.
“His music was so full of life, it doesn’t seem right to mourn him,” 24-year-old Bernadette Hellwanter of Vocklabruck, Austria told AFP as she toured the Bob Marley Museum in the Jamaican capital Kingston.
Nickia Palmer stopped briefly to peer at a photo of the dreadlocked legend playing his trademark Gibson guitar.
“The first performance I ever did was at Mount Vernon high school in Fairfax, Virginia and it was ‘No Woman No Cry’,” recalled the 33-year-old Jamaican singer, who has spent most of his life in the United States.
Fans flock to the museum, an English-style building where Marley lived and wrote many of his songs.
Tours are also conducted daily in the village of Nine Mile in rural Saint Ann parish where Marley was born in February 1945 and where a mausoleum now provides his final resting place.
But despite all the T-shirts, the mugs and the many iconic images of the pot-smoking, soccer-mad Rastafarian, there is a sense his star could be beginning to fade.
The Marley Foundation, which oversees the singer’s estate, says no events are planned to mark the 30th anniversary of his death.
Music from the rebel who introduced reggae to an international audience gets only token play nowadays on the local radio and his message appears lost on today’s Jamaican youth.
Feel-good songs like “Three Little Birds” and “One Love” are preferred to more militant tracks such as “Exodus” or “The Heathen.”
According to Miller, the ubiquitous “One Love” has reduced Marley’s revolutionary message to a catchphrase for Jamaica’s tourist industry.
“This is a man who took a bullet for his country. The powers that be in Jamaica are trying to make him soft,” he said.
In Trench Town, the ghetto neighboring Kingston that inspired some of Marley’s most memorable songs, there are few visitors to the tenement where he once lived during the 1960s.
Artifacts include the shell of a Volkswagen van that Marley used to sell his records and a bed he slept on.
“As someone who was born in Trench Town, ‘Gong’ (Marley’s nickname) had a big impact (on me),” 48-year-old roots-reggae singer I-Cient-Cy Mau told AFP.
“Him always had time for the youths and that’s something missing from reggae today.”
But the sounds Marley made during the 1970s appear almost foreign to today’s Jamaican youth, more caught up with flamboyant dancehall acts like Vybz Kartel and Movado.
Overseas, perhaps, there is more room for nostalgia.
Marley performed twice in his life in Belgium, but according to Brice DePasse, a Belgian journalist with the Nostalgie television station, he left an indelible mark.
“He’s been big in Belgium since 1977 when he first performed there. There’s not a day that his music is not played,” said DePasse.
To commemorate his death, Nostalgie will air the hour-long documentary “In The Footsteps of Bob Marley” on May 11.