Bob Marley Anniversary Spotlights Rasta Religion

Stefan Lovgren
National Geographic News
February 4, 2005
Jamaican reggae icon Bob Marley would have been 60 this Sunday. Legions
of fans have descended on Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa for a month-long celebration marking the anniversary of the singer-poet's birth.

The festivities are being held in the African country due to its association with the Rastafarian religion, which Marley followed.

The celebration kicked off Tuesday with the opening of art and photo exhibitions and a symposium on African history based on themes in Marley's songs, which include such classics as "No Woman No Cry" and "I Shot the Sheriff."

Organizers expect that up to 300,000 people will jam the city's Meskal square on Sunday for a gala concert to mark the music legend's birthday on February 6, 1945.

Marley, who died at the age of 36 of brain cancer in 1981, is considered by many to be one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century. Most critics agree that no other musician has single-handedly held such sway over a music genre the way Marley did with reggae.

"He was a master poet for the ages," said Roger Steffens, a reggae historian based in Los Angeles. "Marley is still responsible for 50 percent of all reggae music sold in the United States. That would be like Elvis selling 50 percent of rock and roll. It's just not going to happen."

Bob Marley also helped popularize Rastafarianism, which venerates the late Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie. Selassie, who was deposed in 1974 and died in 1975 (many people believe he was murdered), is hailed by Rastafarians as an incarnation of God.

Street Preachers

Bob Marley, who was born Robert Nesta Marley, grew up dirt poor on the streets of Kingston, Jamaica.

Much of his music aims to lift up the impoverished and powerless, and anthems like "Get Up Stand Up" and "I Shot the Sheriff" carry a strong antiauthoritarian streak.

At a young age Marley fell in with the Rastafarians—known as the blackheart men among the Kingston residents who feared them. The Rastas then were a group of street preachers who taught the Bible and smoked marijuana.

Although its roots go back to the early 1900s, Rastafarianism takes its name from Ras (Prince or Duke) Tafari Makonnen, Haile Selassie's name until he was crowned emperor of Ethiopia in 1930. The faith predicted that a new king with the power of God would rise out of Africa.

When Ras Tafari was crowned "His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie the First, King of Kings, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Elect of God, Emperor of Ethiopia," the Rastafarians considered their prophecy fulfilled.

Haile Selassie was uncomfortable with the Rastafarians' belief in his divinity and often denied that he was God. Yet when he was invited in 1966 by the Jamaican government to Jamaica to denounce that he was God, he is said to have told the movement's spiritual leaders there, "I am who you say I am."

I and I

Once his career took off, "Marley became the prime exponent of Rastafari throughout the world," Steffens said.

Followers of the faith believe that Ras Tafari remains a living messiah. He will lead the world's peoples of African descent into a promised land of full emancipation and divine justice, according to Rastafarian belief.

At the heart of the faith is the Rastafarians' belief that the smoking of cannabis (including marijuana and hashish) enjoys biblical sanction and aids meditation and spiritual awakening. The wearing of dreadlocks—hair that is matted into ropelike strands—is also closely associated with the movement.

One of its tenets, "I and I," is a complex term that refers to the oneness of Jah (God) and every human. According to the faith, God is in all of us, and we are in fact one people.

But the Rastafarian leaders have long been divided. While some say Haile Selassie is God incarnate, others believe he is the reincarnation of Jesus. Some say he is a metaphor for God, yet others see him strictly as a man worthy of respect.

Bob Marley himself wrestled with the faith.

"He would call the proclaimed leaders of Rastafari," Steffens said. "Marley would say, 'Everywhere I go in the world today, people ask me to explain the doctrine. If you guys can't come to any general conclusion among yourselves, how am I supposed to put this idea forth to the world?'"

Spiritual Resting Place

Many of Bob Marley's songs had an African connection. "Exodus" and "Redemption Song," for example, decried racism and the European colonization of Africa, and celebrated freedom from oppression.

Rita Marley, Bob's wife, calls Africa her husband's "spiritual resting place." She has said she wishes to exhume her husband's remains, now interred in Jamaica. She wants to rebury him in Shashemene, a Rastafarian community 150 miles (250 kilometers) south of the Ethiopian capital. The community is located on land that Haile Selassie gave the movement in 1948.

Hundreds of Rastafarians still live in Shashemene.

But many people have dismissed the reburial plan as a publicity stunt.

"Bob never, ever expressed a desire to be buried anywhere, because Rasta does not acknowledge the existence of death," Steffens said. "I do think he was looking at Africa in the future, but come on, his whole life was about Jamaica. Everything he did and everything he wrote was about Jamaica or directed to the Jamaican people."

Indeed this year is the first time the annual celebration of Bob Marley's birthday is taking place outside his native Jamaica.

Among the attendees at the opening ceremony on Tuesday were the grandson of Haile Selassie and actor Danny Glover. Arkebe Oqubay, the mayor of Addis Ababa, granted Rita Marley honorary citizenship of the city.

"I am greatly honored to receive this award and know that this is Brother Bob's dream come true," she said. "We are calling on all the children of Africa to unite and let it be one continent."

Sunday's concert will feature artists like reggae rapper Shaggy, Benin-born singer Angelique Kidjo, soul singer India.Arie, and members of Marley's backing group and family.

Ethiopia's government also plans to honor Marley with a city monument and to name a park after him.

Steffens said Bob Marley today is a symbol of freedom.

"Young people respond to rebellion, and Bob is the ultimate rebel, spliff-smoking in the face of power," Steffens said. "He was a man who tapped the deepest emotional roots in human beings."

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