At 11 o’clock in the morning of February 10, 1966, just four days after his 21st birthday, Bob Marley walked into the office of the Justice of Peace in Trench Town. He was wearing a black suit and the fancy shoes that music producer, Coxsone, bought for him. His bride was wearing a borrowed mother-of-pearl tiara and a white wedding dress made by her aunt. Few hours after the marriage, Bob and the Wailing Wailers opened for the Jackson Five at the National Stadium in Kingston.
Two days later, he left Jamaica for Delaware.
His mother, Cedilla Malcolm Marley, immigrated to America three years earlier. She had filed papers for him to join her. When his papers came through, he said he would not leave unless Rita would eventually follow him. He married Rita because he was afraid that she would find another boyfriend when he was gone.
In Delaware, Bob worked at Chrysler factory. He also worked at Hotel DuPont in Wilmington. He did not like what he was doing. He did not like life in America.
Eight months after, he wrote Rita and said, “I’m coming home, I’m sick of this place. Today, while I was vacuuming, the vacuum bag burst and all that dust went up in my face. If I stay here, this is gonna kill me. It will give me all kinds of sickness! I’m a singer, I’m not this, I’m coming home.”
Bob returned to Trench Town and continued to work on his music. Things were tough. He had no money and was sharing a room at Rita’s Aunt’s place with two kids. During this period, Bob and Rita began to practice Rastafarianism. They refused to eat from the same pot as Aunty in whose house they lived.
That irritated Aunty.
Rita’s brother, Wesley, who was a police officer, was also furious about her belief in Rastafarianism. One day he came home and beat up Rita saying, “Do you think it is right after all the money Aunty and I spent on you, that you end up like this? What are you getting out of it? You think because you’re married you’re big? You’re still under our protection, and you have no right to be a Rasta! That’s being worthless.”
As a result of these developments, Bob and Rita decided to return to Nine Miles, a village in St. Ann, Bob’s birthplace. St. Ann had no electricity and no running water. Bob’s family house had no kitchen and no toilet. It was in a farm area on a hill.
On hearing that Bob was returning to St. Ann, his mother wrote from Delaware asking him to come back to America for St. Ann would be his end. She urged Bob to be a gentleman, wear neckties and work nine to five. “You are going back to careless life,” his mother wrote, “life that doesn’t show money making. You and Rita have no ambition.”
Bob and Rita lived in St Ann, working on the farm. During that period, Bob also wrote some of his most memorable songs.
In January 1967, Bob was introduced to Johnny Nash who signed the Wailers to JAD records. That was how Bob Marley and the Wailers took off.
In 2000, Time magazine voted him the greatest musician of the 20th century, greater than Elvis, Michael Jackson and the Beatles put together. His song, One Love, was voted the best song of the century and his album, Exodus, the best album of the century. At his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, U2’s Bono dubbed Bob “Dr. Martin Luther King in dreads.”
Though he died in 1981 from cancer, his album, Legend, has remained on the Billboard 100 chart ever since. Across the globe, anywhere oppression of the weak is taking place, courage and solace seem to emanate from his songs.
I was thirteen when I discovered him. It was at a high school send off party where the DJ played Bob Marley Buffalo Soldier. In the song he talked about being taken from Africa and being brought to America. It was the first time I was aware that some people were taken from Africa and brought to America. No schooling up to that point had thought me that.
At sixteen, now in College, I heard Redemption Song. I wanted to grow my hair like his.
At twenty six, I had immigrated like Bob to America.
At thirty six, I read No Woman No Cry by Rita Marley and came to the staggering conclusion that Bob became what he is today because he said no to America. Because Bob said no to America, he escaped what had become a wasted journey for so many.
Bob Marley would have been sixty-eight today. Maybe if he had not said no, he would have been one of those middle aged Americans whose jobs at Chrysler had gone to Mexico.
How has your journey been?
(A version of this piece was first published by Kwenu.com on Feb, 7, 2007)