1. Bob’s father was a 50-year-old white British naval captain named Norval Sinclair Marley. Bob’s mom, a black country village girl named Cedella, was 19 when, in the small Jamaican village of Nine Mile in Saint Ann Parish, Bob was born at 2:30 in the morning on Feb. 6, 1945. Imagine how happy Cedella’s father was to discover his daughter had been sleeping with an old white man named Norval. Imagine how thrilled Norval’s family of racist colonialists was to learn the same thing.
2. Norval instructed Cedella to name the baby boy that was hers (and, he made clear, hers alone) Nesta Robert. So she did. “Robert” was the name of Norval’s brother.
3. Nobody knows to whom or what “Nesta” referred. Whatever its significance, it was important enough for Norval to make sure that Cedella spelled it right before he moved away.
4. As a little kid, Bob had a knack for deeply spooking people by successfully predicting their futures by reading their palms. At seven, having just returned to his rural village after a year spent living in the ghettos of Kingston (Jamaica’s capital), he declared that from then on he would cease to read palms. His new destiny, he said, was to become a singer. For the rest of his life, whenever someone who knew him back when asked him to read their palms, he resolutely refused.
5. A Jamaican immigration official suggested to Bob’s mom that “Nesta” sounded too much like a girl’s name. So they switched his name to Robert Nesta Marley.
6. “Tuff Gong,” the name of Bob’s recording label, was a nickname Bob earned for himself in the Kingston ghetto of Trenchtown (so named because it was built over an old drainage trench) for being exactly the wrong guy to screw with. Ever.
7. Bob was a devout Rastafarian. Ras Tafari is the name of a man who was crowned King of Ethiopia in 1930. With that crown came the honorific name Haile Selassie. Rastafarians thought this “Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah” was the messiah, come to redeem the black man. (Although true believers hold that all people are welcomed into the arms of Jehovah—whom Rastas call “Jah.”) Though doctrinally a legitimate sect of Orthodox Christianity, Rastafari can be difficult for non-Jamaicans to grasp. The one thing everybody does get is that Rastafarians smoke dope and wear dreadlocks (which put dread in the heart of the oppressors, see). Old Testament devotees, the Rastas smoke because Psalm 104:14 says: “He causeth . . . herb [to be grown] for the service of man . . . .” Their hairstyle comes from Leviticus 21:5: “They shall not make baldness upon their head.”
8. Nobody really knows what the word “reggae” means, or how it originated.
9. When Bob was twenty-one, he lived in Delaware for seven months. During that time he worked the night shift at a Chrysler plant (about which he wrote in his song, “Night Shift”), drove a forklift in a factory, and worked as a lab assistant for DuPont Chemical (!). When he was a kid, one of Bob’s regular chores was to hike five miles through rugged country to fetch firewood. Work was never a problem for Marley. He was famous for making his band rehearse hours and hours after any normal person would have dropped exhausted to the floor.
10. Bob, who at twenty-one married a beautiful Trenchtown Sunday school teacher named Rita (and stayed married to her until his death did they part), fathered an untold number of kids by an untold number of women. The general estimate puts the number of Marley’s progeny at around twenty. The way he could tell his children, he said, was by the way each spoke out of the side of his or her mouth, the way he did.
11. Bob’s mother had a child by Bunny Wailer’s dad when they were all living together in Trenchtown. That’s how close Bob and Bunny were.
12. Bunny Livingston (a.k.a. Bunny Wailer)’s given name is Neville O’Riley Livingston. (One of the original members of Bob Marley and the Wailers, Bunny was Bob’s brilliant percussionist, and a splendid back-up and lead singer.)
13. Peter Tosh’s given name was Winston Hubert McIntosh. “The Toughest,” as Tosh was known, was murdered in his home on Friday, September 11, 1987, by a 32-year-old hoodlum acquaintance of his named Leppo. (Tosh was a guitarist in The Wailers, and a very important reggae singer/songwriter in his own right.)
14. The first record Bob cut was called “Judge Not.” On its label his name was misspelled as “Bob Morley.” Working at the time in a tin shack as a master welder, Bob, 17, spent most of his pay in a rum-joint jukebox up the street in which his song was a selection. He played his record so often that finally the owner of the place yanked the record out of the jukebox and demanded that Bob leave, and never come back.
15. When Bob discovered that the reason he was still poor after being so famous for so long was that his long-time manager and friend Don Taylor had been robbing him blind, Bob beat Don to within an inch of his life. Then he fired him.
16. In July 1973, Bob and the Wailers opened a week of gigs for Bruce Springsteen. Later that year, they joined a 17-city tour of Sly and the Family Stone’s. After four shows, Sylvester Stone fired them for being too good and hogging all the adoration.
17. For a long time Bob drove a BMW—which, as far as he was concerned, stood for Bob Marley and the Wailers.
18. Bob was a professional level soccer player. Played a wicked game of ping-pong, too.
19. Bob once said: “America is pure deviltry, dem t’ings dat go on there. Dem just work with force and brutality. Dem lock out the punk thing because they see something happening. So the oppressors bring another man to blind the youth to the truth, and dem call him-John Tra-vol-ta.”
20. Bob died of cancer (brain, liver, stomach, lungs) on May 11, 1981. He was thirty-six years old. In one day, 40,000 people filed past his coffin as his body lay in state in Jamaica’s National Arena. And that’s just the number of people who got inside.
21. One of Bob’s most popular songs, “No Woman, No Cry,” is today sung as a lullaby to babies all over the world.
I’m the author of UNFAIR: Christians and the LGBT Question: