One Love, One Life, 25 Years Later

May 9, 2006 — -- Bob Marley is still stirring up the music world 25 years after his death.

Just ask top-selling Hasidic reggae star Matisyahu, who pays homage to Marley when he sings the music legend's "Rastaman Chant" at all his concerts.

"I heard 'Rastaman Chant' when I was a teenager at 17," he told "It was the first song that I would just sing to myself. … It became like an anthem to me, a song that I would just sing walking down the street. It's a song I love performing at every one of my shows."

Thursday will mark the 25th anniversary of Marley's death. Marley died of cancer on May 11, 1981, but his music continues to top the charts.

Compilations of his greatest hits -- "20 Best of Bob Marley" and "Golden Legends: Bob Marley" -- have peaked at No. 8 and No. 10 respectively on the Billboard magazine's top-selling reggae album charts this year. According to Billboard, albums by Bob Marley & The Wailers were third on the 2005 reggae charts, trailing only Sean Paul and Marley's youngest son, Damian "Jr. Gong" Marley. Albums under Bob Marley's name alone were No. 9 on Billboard's charts.

"Legend," the definitive collection of Marley's greatest hits, remains the best-selling reggae album of all time. In addition, he has been ranked among the Top 10 of Forbes' highest-earning deceased celebrities in four out of the five years it has compiled the list, making an average of $8.4 million a year.

The timeless message of his music, though, is part of his appeal.

"His music is melodic and the rhythm is appealing to any age, and many children pick up on his music at a very early age," said Chris Blackwell, founder of Island Records and Marley's former manager. "When they become teenagers, the relevance of the lyrics kick in, and his music lasts with you forever."

'Gorgeous' Pop Protest Songs

Marley barely knew his father, a white English soldier who oversaw a Jamaican plantation when he met Marley's mother, Cedella Booker. Shunned by his wealthy English relatives, Marley grew up in the Kingston slum of Trenchtown, becoming aware of the corruption in his country's government and law enforcement.

These experiences, along with his sympathy for the political struggle of Africans in Zimbabwe, would form the foundation of Marley's music. The Wailers represented the cries of the oppressed. When Marley sang, "I shot the sheriff, but I did not shoot the deputy," he wasn't just creating a catchy lyric and dance tune. When he sang, "Get up! Stand up! … Stand up for your right," he wasn't talking about a right to party. Marley's infectious melodies often overshadowed his lyrics' message.

"For my money -- and given the amount of sub par war protest songs out there lately -- Bob Marley was just a great songwriter, on the level of [John] Lennon, [Paul] McCartney and [Bob] Dylan in talent," said Nathan Brackett, senior editor of Rolling Stone magazine. "He was really gifted at getting really political messages in three-minute pop songs. Some of his songs were really gorgeous. They captured the pain and suffering in an oppressive system."

Called the first superstar to come out of the Third World, Marley was skilled at speaking not only for the people, but to the people. One of the most quoted lyrics from Marley's classic "Redemption Song" is, "Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery. None but ourselves can free our minds."

To Marley's fans and musical descendants, that is just one illustration of how he was able to cross boundaries and move people.

"A lot of what he sang about came from the heart and spoke to the heart," Matisyahu said. "He emitted a truth and honesty. That's why he was able to transcend generations and cultures. People were able to relate to his universal message of redemption, rising to the challenge, the message of breaking out of the system. His message had potence."

Separate but Unequal Legends

Like other legends such as Elvis Presley, Lennon, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix -- and more recent icons such as Kurt Cobain, Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls -- Marley will be forever young. He was 36 when he died, and his death came months after Lennon was shot to death outside his apartment building in New York City.

While almost universally beloved in death, Marley wasn't always admired in life. As a devout Rastafarian, he believed Haile Selassie I, the former emperor of Ethiopia, to be Jah, or God, incarnate. He wore long dreadlocks and believed marijuana was a sacred herb, and that scared people who associated all Rastafarians with the drug trade. During the Canadian leg of a world tour, a reporter asked Marley what he thought about the alleged link between the drug trade in the United States and Canada, and Rastafarians.

"I wouldn't say Rastafarians have a bad reputation," Marley said. "I would say people gave Rastafarians a bad reputation because all these things started happening before Rastafarians came to Canada."

Nonetheless, some argue that Marley is more of a world star than Lennon or Presley. To many, he was the first in the music world to voice the plight of Jamaica and the oppressed.

"If you mention Bob Marley's name anywhere around the world, people will know who he is," said James Henke, chief curator of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum and author of "Marley Legend: An Illustrated Life of Bob Marley."

"He was more than a reggae artist. He spoke on issues that affected black and white people. His songs about less-fortunate people -- people who are in need of help and the downtrodden -- still resonate today."

What Would Bob Do Today?

If Marley was alive today, music historians say, he would still be singing about the plight of Jamaica and Africa, and undoubtedly would have spoken out about the genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan. He may have had a teammate in fellow activist and U2 lead singer Bono, who helped induct Marley into the Rock Hall in 1994.

"I'm not sure that he would have been as active on the world stage on world issues like Bono, but he would have spoken out on a variety of issues," Henke said. "It would have been interesting to see where he would have gone in the hip-hop and R&B world and what kind of collaborations and influence he would have had there. Punk was very influenced by reggae."

No reggae artist has really come close to Marley's stature in years since his death. Sons Ziggy and Damian have carried on his legacy, but their father is still considered the face of reggae.

"There has been a void left by his death," Rolling Stone's Brackett said. "You had those [in reggae] who were trying to be like him and you had those who tried so hard not to be like him. And he was charismatic and no one has really been able to live up to that."

Continuing to Hear -- and Sing -- the Words of the Rastaman

Matisyahu, who was a month short of his second birthday when Marley died, knows he will never replace a legend. He just hopes he can stir some of his listeners' hearts the way Marley's music still does.

"I hope I can express ideas and emotion, make them accessible to many people in as powerful a way as he did," he said. "His music just soaked into me. I'm sure it has influenced the way I write. … To me, seeing Bob Marley get up on stage with his guitar and take the concept of giving glory to the King -- king worship -- just made it seem more real to me. If I can do that for someone, I'd be happy."

Through Marley, Matisyahu continues to hear the words of the Rastaman. It will be a long time before Marley steps down from his throne.