Bob Marley was born on 6 February 1945 at the farm of his maternal grandfather in Nine Mile, Saint Ann Parish, Jamaica, to Norval Sinclair Marley and Cedella Malcolm. Norval Marley was a white Jamaican originally from Sussex, whose family claimed to have Syrian Jewish origins.
Bob Marley’s full name is Robert Nesta Marley, though some sources give his birth name as Nesta Robert Marley, with a story that when Marley was still a boy a Jamaican passport official reversed his first and middle names because Nesta sounded like a girl’s name. Bob was bullied and derogatorily nicknamed “White Boy” by his neighbors. However, he later said the experience helped him develop this philosophy: I’m not on the white man’s side, or the black man’s side. I’m on God’s side.”
At seven, after a year spent living in the ghettos of Kingston, he returned to his rural village and declared that his new destiny was to become a singer. He and his friends Bunny Livingston (given name, Neville O’Riley Livingston) and Peter Tosh (given name, Winston Hubert McIntosh) spent a lot of time listening to rhythm and blues on American radio stations. They named their band the Wailing Wailers (later shortened to the Wailers) because they were ghetto sufferers.
The Wailers recorded for small Jamaican labels throughout the 1960s, during which time ska became the hot sound. Marley’s lyrics took a more spiritual turn, and Jamaican music itself was changing from the bouncy ska beat to the more sensual rhythms of rock steady. When the group signed with Island Records in the early 1970s, they became popular with international audiences.
When Livingston and Tosh left for solo careers, Marley hired a new band and took center stage as singer, songwriter and rhythm guitarist. He produced a string of politically charged albums that reflected the keen social consciousness that came to define his lyrics. He wrote about the soaring unemployment, rationed food supplies and pervasive political violence he saw in Jamaica, which transformed him into an influential cultural icon. Though bullets grazed Bob and wife Rita Marley, they electrified a crowd of 80,000 people when both took to the stage with the Wailers.
Bob Marley married Rita Marley when she was 21. He adopted her daughter and they had four children together during their marriage. Marley also had at least eight more children with eight different women.
As celebrity endorsements go, it certainly seems like a perfect fit: Under the label Marley Natural, the reggae icon fronts a global marijuana brand. Products include the “heirloom Jamaican cannabis strains”—purportedly the very same one Marley himself purportedly enjoyed—along with smoking accessories, creams, lotions, and other items.
In late 2018, Forbes Magazine listed Marley as fifth on the list of the highest-earning dead celebrities. In addition to Marley Natural, his family has also licensed brands of coffee, audio equipment, apparel and lifestyle goods. Of course, Marley has also sold more than 75 million albums in the past two decades. Legend, a retrospective of his work, is the best-selling reggae album ever. More than 12 million copies have been sold internationally and several thousand new units sell every week.
Marley died of cancer on May 11, 1981, in Miami. His body was flown back to Jamaica to be buried and, in one day, 40,000 people filed past his coffin as his body lay in state in Jamaica’s National Arena.