My history hero: Bob Marley (1945–81)

Bob Marley was a Jamaican singer-songwriter who became the first reggae superstar, notching up a string of hits with songs like 'Jamming' and 'One Love'. Diagnosed with skin cancer in 1977, the committed Rastafari died four years later, aged just 36. His posthumous greatest hits compilation, Legend (1984), is still the world's biggest-selling reggae album...

Bob Marley performs live on stage with the Wailers in Holland

This articles first published in the October 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine.

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When did you first hear about Bob Marley?

My friends introduced me to his music while I was growing up. Everything seemed to be happening in America at the time – black history wasn’t taught in British schools back then – and then suddenly Bob, a Rastafari reggae singer, burst onto the scene and inspired all us Jamaican kids to be proud, really for the first time, of black culture too.

What kind of person was he?

A wonderful singer and musician, and a man with the touch of the philosopher about him. His songs are very easily understood, and that helped make him stand out from other reggae artists. Even his love songs carried a bigger message that he weaved into the lyrics. He was an inspirational figure, in the way he encouraged people to find out who they were, and in attracting people to Rastafarianism – the belief in a single God. He was also a great footballer – he had a Maradona-style touch with the ball!

What made him a hero?

Firstly, the way he popularised Rastafarianism, which I embraced as a young man growing up in Britain. Secondly, the way he changed the perception of the black man in the western world and beyond. It’s easy to forget just how big a star he was in his heyday. He sold 75 million records and had hits everywhere from America to Australia. A lot of his music was very biblical as well. That said, I don’t think he ever really got the love he should have had in his Jamaican homeland.

What was his finest hour?

Going back to Jamaica after living in exile in England [having been wounded in an assault by an unknown gunman in Jamaica in 1976] and performing at the One Love Peace Concert in an effort to calm the island’s warring parties. During his performance, at Bob’s invitation, Jamaica’s prime minister Michael Manley and his political rival Edward Seaga joined each other on stage and shook hands. That was a powerful moment. Returning to Jamaica after that attack also took a lot of guts.

Is there anything you don’t particularly admire about him?

Nobody is perfect but I think Bob was a good man. He’d open his house every day and it would be full of people dropping in for lunch. That’s the kind of man he was. Yes, he fathered a few children – but I’d love to hear about Shakespeare’s private life. I bet that was pretty colourful too! And you know what? To this day the Marleys are a very united family. Music-wise, I can’t think of a Bob Marley song I haven’t ever liked.

Can you see any parallels between his life and your own?

Absolutely not – we’re all individuals.

What do you think Marley would have gone on to do had he lived?

Have I wondered about that! Would he have experimented with other musical genres? Possibly. Sadly, we’ll never know.

If you could meet him, what would you ask him?

I’d ask him what he’d like me to cook him for lunch! I think he would have probably wanted me to make an Ital [Rastafarian-style] vegan dish using locally sourced ingredients.

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Levi Roots is a celebrity chef, businessman and musician, best known for creating Reggae Reggae Sauce. Levi Roots Presents Reggae Reggae Hits was released in July on BMG.