Capitalism and the Legacy of Bob Marley: An Influential History

17 Jan

We have a special treat for you this Saturday morning on the Music Court. Guest writer, Beth Kelly, provides her take on the unfortunate commercialization of Bob Marley, whose final words were “money can’t buy life”.



Even though Bob Marley died from cancer at the young age of 36 in May 1981, his legacy has lived on – though likely not in the way he intended. Born in Jamaica in 1945, Marley’s musical career began when he was just a teenager.

Playing a large role in the formation of his band the Wailers, he helped cement their success throughout upcoming decades. Going on to produce a number of reggae hits, their unique sound also inspired numerous international artists to adopt reggae styles within their own music. That influence is sustained today, giving particular consideration to the proliferation of ska record labels in the 1990’s, and the incorporation of reggae elements in genres such as pop, punk and rap.

Though the Wailers broke up in 1974, Marley’s solo career thrived until his death. Over the final years of his life, he created highly politicized music, perhaps highlighted by 1979’s “Survival,” which attacked apartheid in South Africa. Though he dodged death once in a politically-motivated shooting in 1976, Marley tragically lost his life to melanoma just five years later.

Marley’s Evolution

During the time Marley and the Wailers were together, his religion shifted from Catholicism to the religious beliefs of the Rastafari.

Marley’s beliefs inspired him to provide financial support to those less fortunate in Jamaica, as well as his ever-growing family. His benevolent approach to dealing with the ills of society was something that was ingrained in his psyche after growing up in poverty. Also, brought to anger by the lack of political rights for people in all levels of economic strata, he helped echo the words of the repressed through his music.

However, his religious beliefs also resulted in what could be considered a “tactical mistake” on his part, as they held him back from creating a last Will and Testament before his death.

The Price of Fame

Unfortunately, the philosophies espoused by Marley while he was alive have been soiled in the three-plus decades since his death. Yes, he is still revered as a countercultural icon, but his name and image have essentially been branded, and used as tools by shrewd businessmen. And perhaps even more unfortunately, much of this branding strategy has come from within Marley’s own family as they seek to cash in on his name.

Their attempts to merchandise their family member’s legacy contradict any rational understanding of Marley’s true beliefs, which definitely didn’t include an official merchandising company. Now, his name and notoriety help sell a variety of products that stand in stark contrast to his political leanings.

Headphones, an organic food line and watches are some of the contributions that have Marley’s name attached. Even worse, a Marley-branded “natural” drink helped make a group of schoolchildren sick in 2012. And given Marley’s connection to marijuana (again related to his Rastafarian beliefs), additional marketing inevitably includes the sale of cannabis-laced lotions and accessories, as well as a special blend of the herb where has already been legalized.

Looking at Marley’s legacy from a neutral perspective, commercial affiliations aren’t a complete surprise. Given the number of similar, supposedly socially-conscious rebels from the 1960’s and 70’s who have since sold the rights to their work to the same people they used to rail against, it seems like the allure of money gets everyone in the end. However, in this case, Marley isn’t around to offer his opinion. One could compare his estate to that of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, in that family rifts have some of his children wanting to put a price on invaluable bits of history.

Remembering the Rastafarian Legend

In early February, the date that would have been Bob Marley’s 70th birthday, will pass. His absence continues to be felt not only in the musical world, but the ever-changing political landscape. His son, Ziggy Marley, offers some hope. Recently appearing on DirecTV’s Guitar Center Sessions, he has kept the spirit of his father alive through music – a much better tribute than cannabis creams and screen printed t-shirts. While Bob Marley will likely never disappear from the public eye completely; one hopes that his activist legacy will not be completely overshadowed by greed.

One Response to “Capitalism and the Legacy of Bob Marley: An Influential History”


  1. Has Bob Marley’s legacy been tainted? | Gideon Groove - March 29, 2015

    […] T-Shirts, headphones, lighters, bongs and rolling papers- just to name a few.  A blog post titled “Capitalism and The Legacy of Bob Marley” expressed that while he is still a counter-cultural icon, it is unfortunate that capitalism is […]

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