Bob Marley at Tuff Gong in Kingston, Jamaica, in March 1976.
Bob Marley at Tuff Gong in Kingston, Jamaica, in March 1976. David Burnett
Bob Marley in concert during the Exodus Tour in Paris, May 1977.
Bob Marley in concert during the Exodus Tour in Paris, May 1977. David Burnett
Photography excerpted from Soul Rebel: An Intimate Portrait of Bob Marley © 2009 by David Burnett. All rights reserved. Published by Insight Editions. Used with permission.
Portraits by David Burnett
Bob Marley, with his guitar in the yard at Tuff Gong (his home and headquarters) in Kingston, Jamaica, in March 1976.
More than 25 years after he died, Bob Marley is still the king of reggae — and a counterculture icon. Now, his family is looking toward its own legacy. Last month, family members announced an ambitious plan to capitalize on the Marley legend by introducing a line of Marley-branded products, including salad dressing and a video game.
On a sunny afternoon in Washington, D.C., people stroll through an art gallery in the Georgetown neighborhood. Portraits of Bob Marley hang on the walls. Photographer David Burnett took them more than 30 years ago, and many of the fans here never saw Marley alive.
Tarren Queen, 18, says she's been listening to him since she was 10 — and so have all her friends.
"You can walk into clothing stores that sell band T-shirts and stuff, and there'll be just as many Bob Marley shirts as there are bands that just came out," she says. "He's still popular, and people still love him."
Marketers have been trying to take advantage of Marley's multigenerational appeal for years. Many of those T-shirts and posters for sale are technically counterfeit. But, until now, the Marley family resisted contracting with other companies to sell the name. Marley has long been considered so potentially profitable that getting his account qualifies as the holy grail of advertising.
The company to finally win that holy grail is in Toronto — Hilco Consumer Capital. It's partnering with the Marley family, but there's one wrinkle in packaging Bob Marley for mainstream America.
Dan Gainor is vice president of the conservative Media Research Center. He says he was looking at the products Hilco will sell and "wondering if they're going to include bongs and rolling papers." Gainor says that even if Bob Marley is scrubbed for public consumption, there's no way around the fact that his image promotes drug use. But the people rolling out the campaign say they aren't concerned. They know that Bob Marley was a major stoner.
David Lipman is a marketing executive working on the Marley account. He's known for his work designing couture shopping bags and promoting designer jewelry.
"I'm not going to promote drug use to children," he says. "But the courage that he had is, 'This is who I am.' And I think to be able to do what he did is a beautiful thing."
Lipman says he doesn't plan to use marijuana as part of the campaign. But he does say he views it as just another part of the Marley aesthetic.
"Whether it's candles or bedspreads or towels, you know, Marley stands for a very relaxed lifestyle," says James Salter of Hilco. The company plans to unveil its line of products next year, when Marley would have been 65. The list of retail products it's hoping to introduce includes spices, snowboards and headphones.