Marley: The Potent Legacy of ‘One Love’

Gregory Stephens is author of "On Racial Frontiers: The New Culture of Frederick Douglass, Ralph Ellison and Bob Marley."

What are we to make of Bob Marley’s amazing musical afterlife? Hundreds of millions of copies of his albums circulate worldwide, driven by a demand that keeps growing. And beyond the music, Marley has become a global icon.

Born 55 years ago today, Marley was probably the most influential songwriter of the 20th century. “My music will live forever,” he predicted in 1975. Yet, even Marley could not have foreseen the extent of his musical afterlife. Time magazine just picked “Exodus” as its album of the century, while the BBC chose “One Love” as its song of the century.

Meanwhile, performers from all genres of music are carrying Marley’s songs to audiences he could not have dreamed of. In 1999, 18 years after his death, Marley made the top 10 of Music & Media’s top singles artists in Europe, on the strength of Funkstar Deluxe’s best-selling remix of “Sun Is Shining” and Lauryn Hill’s “duet” with Marley on “Turn Your Lights Down Low.” Remixes of the Marley tunes “Rainbow Country” and “Put It on” have put Marley on the European charts at the start of the new millennium.


Hill’s song, a hit on urban radio, comes from the album “Chant Down Babylon,” produced by Marley’s son Stephen. It features rappers doing Marley’s tunes over hip-hop beats, urging the urban crowd to “know the man behind the name.”

The artists on “Chant Down Babylon” and much of their audience see him as a prophet of “black freedom,” a peer of Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela. However, to put Marley in a “black box” is to ignore how he saw himself and how people around the world respond to his call.

Much of the message Marley carried globally was about “black liberation.” Yet, his personal identity and his sense of community were not “racial” in the final analysis. This comes across again and again in interviews he gave throughout his life.

“Unity is the world’s key, and racial harmony,” Marley once said. “Until the white man stops calling himself white and the black man stops calling himself black, we will not see it.”

A man who sang “Africa Unite” rejecting the language of race? That may seem a contradiction, especially in an era of racial boosterism. Yet, in truth, Marley did not call himself a black man. He called himself a Rasta.

Rastafarianism is a philosophy of both spiritual and political freedom. This mystical subculture from Jamaica seems an unlikely candidate for globalization. And Marley, an abandoned child from a Third World slum, seems an unlikely spokesman. Yet, he reached a global audience because he voiced the movement’s ideals in biblical metaphors and an anticolonial style.


Anyone can relate to the lyrics “Stand up for your rights.” In both political and spiritual senses, all peoples can find resonance in the notion of an “Exodus” away from an old, repressive world toward the promise of a new way of life.

Marley’s vision was rooted in the memory of slavery, but he applied it to other forms of bondage, particularly mental and economic slavery. He sang about “a world that forces lifelong insecurity.” He urged listeners to rebel against a system that built schools “graduating thieves and murderers.”

During his lifetime, Marley was marketed in numerous ways: as an herb-smoking rebel to adorn the walls of dorm rooms; as a Third World revolutionary, a sort of musical Che Guevara; and as a spiritual prophet. All were facets of Marley’s persona, and they help explain why he has become an icon.

We love rebels, especially dead ones. And as author Thomas Frank observed in “The Conquest of Cool,” using rebels to sell merchandise is a mainstream American tradition. Marley, like any other rebel, has been co-opted. For example, his music was licensed in 1997 to sell Budweiser.

Yet, for anyone willing to look beneath the surface, Marley is still a “real revolutionary,” in the ambiguous words of one of his songs. Perhaps his most revolutionary attitude, and the one least understood, is his critique of racialism.

Since Marley often sang about slavery and rebellion, and since most of his fans during his life were of European descent, he was often asked, “Are you prejudiced against white people?”

“I can’t be prejudiced against myself,” Marley would answer. “My father was a white and my mother black, you know. Them call me half-caste, or whatever. Well, me don’t dip on the black man’s side nor the white man’s side. Me dip on God’s side, the one who create me and cause me to come from black and white.”

Marley searched for a philosophy to help resolve his internal conflict. He arrived at a post-racial sense of identity through a father substitute, Haile Selassie, the late emperor of Ethiopia, whom Rastas viewed as a virtual Christ-figure. Malcolm X once said, “If someone gives you a God that doesn’t look like you, you hand that God right back to them.” The black people of Jamaica re-imagined God “through the spectacles of Ethiopia,” as Marcus Garvey said.

Yet, like Marley, Selassie rejected racial categories. In his 1963 U.N. speech, which Marley set to music in “War,” Selassie advocated a politics “without regard to race.” Marley described this speech as the most profound philosophy he had ever encountered. It became the cornerstone of his beliefs.

If Marley’s biraciality was key to his identity, it was also central to his success: People of all races could see something of themselves in him. Marley encouraged this by voicing a “both/and” perspective on community, in which commonality and difference could coexist.

“Don’t talk to me about black and white--we fly a flag which is red, green and gold,” Marley said. Those were the colors of Rasta--of African liberation, but also of “black, white, China,” in Marley’s shorthand. Thus, Rasta was both a short-term means to African unity and a long-term path to multiracial community. In Marley’s view, to base one’s identity and community solely on color was to perpetuate “mental slavery.”

The Exodus away from racialism meant not to forget the history of racial oppression, but to avoid repeating the pattern. In the BBC’s song of the century, “One Love,” Marley asks:

Is there a place for the hopeless sinner

Who has hurt all mankind just to save his own?

The answer was in the chorus: “One blood, one heart,” which references an old philosophy. In Marley’s “new psalms,” it has found a voice still relevant in the 21st century. *