Bob Marley's Jamaica, Both Then and Now

When Reggae Icon Bob Marley died in 1981, Replay Article

Back to the Top Interview: Reggae historian Roger Steffens Reggae historian Roger Steffens talks about his new book, "So Much Things to Say," and reflects on the recent resurgence of interest in Bob Marley. Credit Jamaica has always been an island of many rhythms, from the devout drumbeats of missionary churches to the infectious dance halls of Kingston. But few figures have ever embodied the soul of Jamaica like the musical icon Bob Marley.

Now, a new exhibition in Brooklyn, "Bob Marley: Song of Jamaica," explores the life and legacy of the musician, alongside the history of Jamaica itself. Curated by cultural historian and Jamaica native Roger Steffens, the show traces Marley's journey from rural Nine Mile to international stardom, using rare photographs, videos, and other memorabilia.

Steffens, whose parents ran a Miami Beach hotel that entertained many early reggae stars, spoke to ``The Sunday Review '' about the exhibit, which runs through Aug. 29 at the City Point retail hub in Downtown Brooklyn. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

The Sunday Review: Why a exhibition on Bob Marley now? Roger Steffens: This year, 2021, is the 40th anniversary of Marley's death. But it also marks 10 years since the last major exhibition in Jamaica. There has been a resurgence of interest recently, and a new generation is discovering his music for the first time on their own terms. They are not inheriting his music from their older siblings, as I did when I was in high school and college. This new generation is finding him on their own because his message is even more relevant today. The world is facing similar problems to when he was making music. We're still trying to get out of the shadow of colonialism, dealing with race and racism, and the economic struggles of inequality and poverty. People are wanting to listen to his music and learn about his life and the times he lived in because they see parallels to today.

TR: How does the exhibition explore his connection to Jamaica, beyond his musical legacy? RS: This show is different from any other because it puts Jamaica front and center. We show his beginnings in rural Nine Mile, where he grew up poor but surrounded by nature and a sense of community that influenced his ideas about the world. You won't find a more patriotic Jamaican than Bob Marley.

We also look at the cultural context he came up in, the music and sounds and dreams that led to the development of reggae. In a way, it's also a history of Jamaica, from the 1940s through the 1960s. You'll see recordings of sound systems, photos of dance halls, the emergence of ska, rock steady, and reggae. For a person to understand Bob Marley, you have to understand the Jamaica he came from.

TR: What are some objects in the exhibition that you think are particularly interesting? RS: We have some amazing things. One is a bicycle that Bob used when he lived in London. On the back is a poster from one of his performances there, and underneath is a vinyl album of "War," one of his best-known albums. You can see how he went from a young, struggling musician to a superstar. There are also several powerful photos of Marley with Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingston (Wailer), as they rose to fame together and then parted ways.

We also have some artifacts from his religious practices, his asthma inhalers, and the cane he used while recovering from an injury. There is also the passport he got right before he died, which someone had tried to burn. There are also some incredible photos of him performing in Africa, with incredible backgrounds and outfits. It shows him as this universal star, beyond just a Jamaican musician.

TR: What do you think is the biggest misconception about Marley? RS: That he was a saint. He wasn't. He was a fascinatingly flawed idealist, which makes him so human and relatable. I think a lot of people, especially those who are not familiar with his music, see him as this soft, cuddly, pot-smoking guy with a guitar. But he was a revolutionary, a radical voice in music who spoke up for the poor and the disenfranchised.

He struggled with relationships and money, like many artists. But he always strove for something more, something better, which is a powerful message that is often overlooked. We get that he wasn't perfect, but few legends are.

TR: What do you hope people take away from the exhibition? RS: A better understanding of Jamaica's culture and history, as well as a deeper appreciation for Marley's music and message. Both were products of their time and place, but their impact resonates today, and that should be explored and celebrated. I also hope it inspires people to become more involved in the world around them and to appreciate the beauty of Jamaica, its people, and its culture.