THE COLOUR OF A MAN'S SKIN
By Andy Clayden
Bob Marley's phenomenal success has been the source of great debate ever since his passing in May 1981. Many questions arise regarding why this particular reggae musician attained, and managed to maintain, such an astounding level of glory and respect during his final 7 years. There have been many reasons given for this ascendancy, varying from selling out his music, canonisation by his most ardent follower's to the colour of his skin.
In the book REGGAE ROUTES, Leroy Sibbles is quoted as saying that Peter Tosh was just as talented as Marley, but failed to attain the same success and recognition because of his skin colour. Tosh was a great talent, but to put Marley's greater success down to his lighter complexion is a flawed argument.
When the Bob Marley broke internationally, I doubt very much if the world looked on him and saw the "half caste", safe, alternative reggae star suitable for the rock market's consumption. Marley was clearly a black Jamaican - albeit a light skinned one - wearing his locks with pride and preaching Rasta philosophy, both in his music and to the growing number of journalists and press who were developing a strong interest in the charismatic, newly crowned "King Of Reggae".
It's not that his new found, mainly white, overseas audience needed a softened or sanitised character that they could identify with to appreciate reggae music. Jamaican music had broken into the mainstream almost a full decade before Marley or the Wailers had even been heard of by the majority, even if it was regarded as a mere, exotic novelty. Underneath the more conservative "pop" audience, the young mods were picking up on artists such as Prince Buster and Derrick Morgan alongside their favourite US soul acts.
Desmond Dekker had enjoyed considerable success in 1967 with his 007 (SHANTY TOWN), and in 1969 belatedly followed this up with ISRAELITES, a biblically inspired tale of the hardships of life, and IT MEK a patois heavy number that probably bemused as much as it entertained. Dekker was clearly a black man, but this hadn't prevented him from selling to the white audience. The only thing that prevented the exceptionally talented Dekker maintaing his success was the lack of an understanding and supportive record company, which is exactly what Marley attained in 1973.
In Lloyd Bradley's Bass Culture book, the author states that Peter Tosh was probably a more talented song-smith than Marley. A quick look at the recorded legacy of these two great men reveals this to have no base in fact. Not only is the Marley legacy far greater in quantity, but the quality also outstrips Peter's often repetative catalogue.
It's often stated that Bob's music softened following his split from Bunny and Peter, but a look at his lyrics reveals a very different tale. The EXODUS album is usually stated as the turning point in Bob's career, some would say the music was "whitened" to appeal to a more international audience, and while there are undeniable concessions to this market, the rhythms and Bob's lyrics were as hard as ever.
Tracks on that 1977 album reveal Marley exploring his own creativeness, taking his own, somewhat unsettled, personal life as well as his devout religious convictions as inspirations for his craft. The opening side throbs with an arcane, almost spell binding quality, culminating in the epic title track, that lyrically could be a distant relative of Desmond Dekker's ISRAELITES (with Dekker's manic lop-sided grin replaced by Marley's dreadly serious screw), taking a biblical analogy for the black sufferers plight .
The second side is often criticised as Marley at his softest, bowing to record company demands for hit singles, but it's quite unfair to dismiss these lighter recordings. WAITING IN VAIN is as good a love song as you're likely to hear anywhere, but rather than being proud of one of it's son's producing such a classic, many in the reggae fraternity have scorned such works as trivial and meaningless. A look at some Jamaican classics, often lauded by many of the same people scorning Bob's lighter work, reveals a long history of the "trivial and meaningless" love song. It would appear that the song isn't really the problem, but the fact that it isn't being aimed directly at the grass roots audience with a less polished, more Jamiacan-ised mix.
The following year's KAYA album has been described as a continuation of the second side of EXODUS, and while it's true that it features some of Bob's least essential works, such as recuts of SUN IS SHINING and SATISFY MY SOUL, in a reversal of roles the album closes out in a more conscious manner. MISTY MORNING and TIME WILL TELL impart Bob's more serious side, and when put together with the exceptional IS THIS LOVE, the album stands up reasonably well.
It's really unfair to judge a man by his weakest moments and not take the full picture into consideration. KAYA was recorded at the same sessions as the previous year's EXODUS, and can be considered Bob cooling out, and he admits as much in an interview, but the following year he returned with his most militant collection of work yet.
It's also been said that Bob's success cast a shadow over many of his peers , denying them their own "slice of the cake", and that Bob himself was over-rated anyway. Undoubtedly the argument that says there were many of equal talent to Bob who never escaped the confines of the Jamaican market is true, but my belief is that Bob wasn't over-rated, but so many of his contemporaries were vastly under-rated. For such a small Island, Jamaica has produced a phenomenal amount of talent, but one dominant figure always rises in any genre, and with Reggae it was Bob.
It's hard to find any single figure in Jamaican music who can lay claim to such a rich treasury. Marley recorded classics through every period of his career; from the work at Studio One, through his own early productions, the Leslie Kong era, the Upsetter years into the Island contract, Bob never failed to produce the goods.
This isn't to say that there haven't been artists with long and productive careers that are unable stand proudly in Marley's company, but even the very best of them (such as Toots Hibbert, Burning Spear), have a less consistent body of work. Since he passed, Marley has become an almost saint like symbol to many, something that has been strengthened by an almost fanatical base of follower's, but probably the real reason for his amazing success is the sheer hard work he put into his art.
"Height's of great men reached and kept were not attained by sudden flight, but he while his companions slept was toiling upward through the night"