Why is a Jamaican musician who died 35 years ago the world’s most popular artist?

Wavelengths By Jim Kempton
By Jim Kempton

By Jim Kempton

Who would we consider the giant of pop music in the later half of the 20th Century?

Would anyone have guessed a few decades ago that today’s biggest global music star would be an Afro-European of mixed lineage from a small backwater village on a Caribbean island who only lived to be 35?

Marley died 35 years ago this May, yet his music plays everywhere, from Jakarta to Johannesburg. People sing the lyrics to Redemption Song in Bangkok and Bogotá, slow dance to Stir it Up in Madrid and Mexico City, and light bongs in Sydney and San Francisco. Not just those who were alive when he was, either: three generations young and old alike hum his hooks.

Based on the size of his following and the global airplay he receives daily, Bob Marley can now be seen as the world’s most recognized musical artist. Music lovers are both moved by his messages and mesmerized by his melodies. Marley may be the only artist successful at making us bop and contemplate at the same time. And not just in Kingston or Soweto: More than any artist in history, Marley’s music has reached every corner of the globe.

 No Woman, No Cry still brings tears to tender hearts in Tokyo and Tel Aviv, South London to South Bronx.

Lively Up Yourself still evokes instant elation from Costa Mesa to Costa Rica. Exodus is still a rallying cry against injustice from Cape Town to Cape Verde, from Moscow to Mumbai. One Love still unites listeners on radio stations from New York to New Delhi, Sao Paulo to Singapore.

What is the catalyst of his popularity? Nearly half a century after his musical debut, Marley’s compositions have crafted the universal language of our global village. And Marley has become the poetic messenger of humanity’s struggle for freedom, redemption and love.

His influence transcends all colors, age groups and nationalities; he is a pop culture phenomenon from Anchorage to Alexandria. People wear Marley dreadlocks in Honolulu and Havana, sport his T-shirts in West Hollywood and the West Bank. See a “Get Up, Stand Up” bumper sticker on any vehicle on the planet and you know exactly what it means and where it comes from.

Three decades after his death, Marley is embedded in world culture more than ever. With simple yet unforgettable eloquence, this Rastafarian rebel reached straight to our hearts. Irresistible hooks and contagious beats enticed us to consider the memo behind the melody. Girded in grittiness and grace, he spoke timeless truth without a trace of artifice. Bob Marley touched humanity’s emotional core—like no other musical artist in our lifetime. Listen to his music and you know in your soul that “Every little thing’s gonna be alright.”

Jim Kempton first saw Bob Marley at Dingwalls, a South London reggae club, in 1971. He has never visited a country where people aren’t roused by Marley’s rhythms and enlightened by his lyrics regardless of their age, color or language.

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