The Mystery of Marley: Why Wasn’t Black America More Into Bob?
It’s hard to imagine that hip hop and rap would have flourished as such powerful social and political musical forces without their iconic antecedent.
Life after death is such a staple in the music realm that it’s become practically cliche. But nearly four decades after his passing, Bob Marley’s level of immortal continues to surpass that of every gone-to-soon icon ever to be posthumously inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, with the exceptions of, to borrow from a song by George Michael, another R.I.P. genius, John (Lennon), Elvis, and possibly maybe Marvin.
Here, though, is the unexpected twist: Despite Marley’s status as a black poet-prophet on par with Dear Mr. Gaye, there’s always been something curiously white about his enduring mass appeal.
I’d go so far as to say that outside of the Caribbean islands, Marley’s American legacy revolves more around his popularity among white audiences than black ones. You’re more likely to hear his 1984 compilation Legend playing in a Delta Chi frat house (as I have), or in a club in Buenos Aires (as I have), than at an all-black party in New York City (dream on).
To put it in post-millennial perspective, imagine Beyonce’s Beyhive without hyper-fanatical black women and gay men, or Adele with a negligible female fan base, or Barack Obama without the majority of the black vote. Unfathomable, right?
Even during his ’70s heyday — especially during his ’70s heyday — black American audiences never fell particularly hard for the Jamaican superstar. His stature as a world-renown black artist writing and performing from an unapologetically Afrocentric perspective failed to draw them in the way his contemporaries like Gaye and Stevie Wonder did. According to people close to Marley, the lack of widespread support and enthusiasm among African-Americans troubled him tremendously.
“He had issues with it, because he wanted African-Americans to hear his message,” his son Ziggy said in a 2012 documentary.
I myself arrived late to the party. I didn’t come to fully appreciate the depths of Marley’s talent until nearly five years ago while I was spending a month in Rome. That’s where I began exploring his discography past his greatest hits, thanks to Radio Capital TV’s recurrent airing of his 1976 “Positive Vibration” video in regular rotation. Watching the clip over and over remains a key memory of my extended stint in the Italian capital.
It sent me searching through Marley’s back catalog, a journey that led me to discover that some of his most iconic songs — “No Woman, No Cry,” “Get Up, Stand Up, “One Love”… — are the ones that move me least. They’re the ones that have launched billions of college parties and which I’ve always associated with beer bongs and frivolity despite their lyrical gravitas. Until Rome, the “hits” on Legend were the extent of my knowledge of Marley’s work, and they inspired respect more than rabid fandom.
Once I started digging into his discography and discovered non-”hits” like “Talkin’ Blues” (from 1974’s Natty Dread), “Night Shift” (from 1976’s Rastaman Vibration) and “Satisfy My Soul” (from 1978’s Kaya), I stopped taking his genius for granted and began to succumb to his music’s hypnotic and addictive properties. (The I Threes, which consisted of Marley’s wife, Rita, Marcia Griffiths, and Judy Mowatt, may have been the most important ’70s back-up ensemble this distaff side of the Pips.)
In 2018, Marley would certainly qualify as one of my Top 20 favorite artists of all-time, a relatively new ranking that has absolutely nothing to do with any Marley song I’ve ever heard while clutching a beer bong.
Shockingly, none of those Marley staples were actually U.S. hits, not even the should-have-been-a-surefire-multi-format-smash “Three Little Birds.” In the country of my origin, Marley enjoyed strictly modest commercial success during his lifetime. Although Legend, which was released three years after his 1981 death from skin cancer at age 36, went on to become one of the most successful albums of all time, only one of his studio albums, Rastaman Vibration, ever entered the Top 10 on Billboard’s Top 200 album chart.
Over on the Hot 100, “Roots, Rock, Reggae” (from Vibration), hardly one of his best-known songs, was his only chart single ever. It peaked at a lowly No. 51, which means that one of the most beloved artists in music history never had a Top 40 hit in the U.S.
In comparison, UB40, a multi-racial reggae band from England that probably never would have existed without Marley’s influence, has enjoyed five U.S. Top 40 singles on Billboard’s Hot 100. Two of them hit No. 1 (“Red Red Wine,” written by Neil Diamond,” and a cover of Elvis Presley’s “[I Can’t Help] Falling in Love with You”), and two further covers of songs made famous by black American artists — Al Green’s “Here I Am (Come and Take Me)” and The Temptations “The Way You Do the Things You Do” — made the Top 10, out-peaking the originals in the process.
Interestingly, in the U.K., where Marley lived for several years in the ’70s, he enjoyed considerably more mainstream success, possibly partly because his London base made him more accessible for promotion there. Overall, he’s made nine appearances in the Top 10 of the U.K. singles chart, with several more songs reaching the U.K. Top 20. Each of his studio albums from 1976’s Rastaman Vibration to 1983’s Uprising placed in the U.K. Top 20, with Legend, one of his three Top 5 compilations, soaring all the way to No. 1.
Why the U.S. slept on Marley while he was still with us is a mystery that’s up for conjecture (keep reading for mine). An even greater mystery is why black America never really joined the party en masse. (At least I eventually showed up.)
In the ’70s, a number of notable black artists — Bobby Womack, Lou Rawls, and Teddy Pendergrass, among them — had limited crossover success but were enormously popular with black audiences, which translated to considerably higher peaks on the R&B charts than on the pop charts. Why wasn’t Marley among them?
From 1976 on, he wasn’t significantly more successful on the American R&B charts than he was on the Americans pop charts. In some cases, he was even less so. Legend peaked at No. 18 on the Top 200 album chart but at a mere No. 34 on the R&B album chart, and Rastaman Vibration, his highest-charting effort on both the pop side and the R&B side, peaked on the R&B album chart at No. 11, three notches lower than it did on the Top 200.
Racism and musical segregation during the ’70s might largely explain why Marley didn’t enjoy greater success in the white American market during his lifetime. His only association with a U.S. No. 1 single was via Eric Clapton’s cover of “I Shot the Sheriff” on Clapton’s 1974 461 Ocean Boulevard album.
Reggae as a genre has historically been a mainstream force in the U.S. mainly through British reggae-revivalist acts like The Police, Culture Club, and UB40, the watered-down reggae of Maxi Priest and Big Mountain, and “Master Blaster (Jammin’),” a 1980 Top 5 Marley homage by Stevie Wonder, one of the few black artists who was able to overcome the musical apartheid of the ’70s and early ’80s and enjoy sustained mainstream pop success.
As for Marley’s lackluster commercial standing in black America during the ’70s, I’m inclined to point to the foreignness of his music, his low-key performing style (he could be a stunning singer, but his focus wasn’t on coloratura and melisma, those vocal pyrotechniques on which black American music lovers have long placed a high premium), and perhaps, a certain degree of xenophobia over his Jamaican heritage.
Marley’s separate standing with black Americans and white Americans, the latter of whom belatedly embraced him collectively only after the release of Legend, makes more sense when I consider my own American experience as an outsider.
Growing up in Kissimmee, Florida, during the late ’70s and early ’80s, I experienced a specific brand of African-American xenophobia firsthand. Despite being black and born in the U.S.A. (in the U.S. Virgin Islands, to be exact), I was ostracized by the majority of blacks in my community because of my strange Caribbean accent, which many of them assumed was from Marley’s native island. Some pejoratively labelled my family “noisy Jamaicans,” which was tantamount to white Americans taunting blacks with the N-word, and roughed up my older siblings and me after school.
In South Africa, where I spent one year between 2013 and 2014, the locals were more warmly receptive to my Caribbean roots and, apparently, Marley’s. I heard the latter being celebrated everywhere by seemingly devout black Africans. The Marley soundtrack at Cafe Mojito, a restaurant on Long Street, one of Cape Town’s most popular strips among its black and “coloured” (biracial) population, was largely responsible for expanding my appreciation of his oeuvre. I’d regularly hear Marley tunes blaring while passing by black-run stores and eateries in Cape Town and Johannesburg.
I suspect he was and continues to be beloved by black Africans partly due to his acknowledgment of Africa-specific strife in songs like “War” and “Zimbabwe.” His Afrocentrism no doubt spoke to black Africans in the ’70s in much the same way that rap and hip hop would to black Americans in the ’80s.
Reggae vs. Rap
Emphasizing spirituality and political awareness, Marley was talkin’ ‘bout a revolution under the influence of ganja. His redemption songs are, for the most part, quiet and contemplative, with a gentle lilt that contradicts their calling to arms. Rap, with its emphasis on social awareness, makes louder, brasher, more in-your-face declarations.
Marley’s approach may have seemed too soft for black Americans in the funk- and disco-fueled ’70s. During the decade that followed, tougher, more militant sonics of rap acts like Grandmaster Flash, Run-D.M.C., and Public Enemy galvanized them as reggae continued to fall well below the radar.
Sadly, it would only reach the black American masses in the ’90s and beyond, through the apolitical and considerably less profound work of artists like Shabba Ranks, Shaggy, Mad Cobra, and Sean Paul, all of whom fused reggae forms like dancehall and ragga with hip hop and all of whom had bigger singles in the U.S. than Marley ever did. (Despite a brief moment of popularity in the late ’80s and a No. 39 single with “Tomorrow People,” Marley’s eldest son, Ziggy, never achieved even Julian Lennon-level commercial success.)
That’s a shame because it’s hard to imagine that hip hop and rap would have flourished as such powerful social and political musical forces without the antecedent of Marley (and Wonder and Marvin Gaye). The influence of reggae can be found all over contemporary pop and R&B, particularly in the work of Rihanna, who, tellingly, is probably a bigger star in white markets than in black ones.
“Roots, Rap, Reggae,” Run-D.M.C. announced on a song from the rap trio’s landmark 1985 King of Rock album. It would be nearly 30 years before I discovered that they lifted that title from Marley’s biggest U.S. hit, which means that despite the apparent under-appreciation of Marley’s music among black Americans, some were truly listening.
Now so am I, and I’m finding it impossible to stop, which is one aspect of Marley that’s no mystery at all.