February 6 would have been Bob Marley's 65th birthday - a day marked by tribute concerts, exhibitions, and celebrations across the world. As a testament to his ongoing commercial appeal, the Marley family recently teamed up with Hilco Consumer Capital in order to capitalize on Bob Marley as a billion dollar global brand. By launching Marley inspired consumer electronics, skin-care products, herbal supplements, video games, and theme restaurants, he may soon become the world's richest dead celebrity.
But despite his tremendous commercial potential, Bob Marley's most enduring legacy is his prophetic one. For many Rastafarians, Marley's songs are parables and his discography is canonical. For millions of others, Marley is more than just a musical icon. He is revered for his social conscience, spiritual mysticism, and political courage, and his message continues to inspire disenfranchised communities by offering them a promise of worldly salvation and divine redemption.
Bob Marley never called himself a prophet, he but did envision himself as a mystic and a messenger. The music of the mystics is profound in its devotional reach and the emotional intensity of mystical music sometimes leaves its followers in hypnotic trances and intoxicated states. In his renowned work, The Mysticism of Sound and Music, the Indian Sufi master Hazrat Inayat Khan emphasizes the symbiotic relationship between music and mysticism and he affirms the prophetic power of music:
In fact, music excels religion, for music raises the soul of man even higher than the so-called external form of religion... That is why in ancient times, the greatest prophets were great musicians.
Like many prophetic voices before him, Bob Marley's message spread through his words and his music. Marley's lyrics articulates the hopes and fears of the Jamaican people, and as the first Third World superstar, he represented the struggles and aspirations of postcolonial populations around the world. His use of metaphorical language was derived from both the Biblical and Jamaican folk traditions he embraced throughout his life, and as his life progressed, his lyrics became even more deliberate in their distillation of Rastafarian theology and Pan-Africanism. Indeed, his final three studio albums - Survival, Uprising, and Confrontation - powerfully reflect his deep Rastafarian beliefs and his hopes for African political unity.
Historically, prophets are remembered for the challenging moments that come to define their lives. In the case of Bob Marley, his historic concerts illuminate his dramatic life story. In particular, three concerts stand out for their prophetic potency: the Smile Jamaica Concert (1976), where Marley performed two days after he had been shot in a failed assassination attempt; the One Love Peace Concert (1978), where Marley single-handedly brought together the leaders of the warring People's National Party (PNP) and Jamaica's Labour Party (JLP); and the Zimbabwe Independence Concert (1980), where Marley's performance inaugurated the newly liberated African nation-state of Zimbabwe.
Bob Marley is not the only musician to embrace recording technology and popular culture in order to disseminate a prophetic message. He is joined by some of the most revered and influential recording artists to date, musicians such as John Lennon, Jerry Garcia, John Coltrane, Fela Kuti, and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. These musicians are unique insomuch as many of their fans are more like religious devotees than casual music listeners; indeed, the most dedicated of their fans revere these musicians as prophets and hail their music as prophecy. However, no popular musician has yet to match the global impact of Bob Marley, and he remains one of the most important figures in twentieth century music. So let us celebrate his birthday this year by listening to his music and remembering his words - "my message is the message of humanity - love and peace."