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(Soundbite of Bob Marley song)

Mr. BOB MARLEY (Musician): (Singing) Could you be love? Must be love.

ED GORDON, host:

It's hard to imagine today, a musical world without Bob Marley. Other artists have idolized and endlessly imitated the reggae king since his death 25 years ago from cancer.

A new book called, Before the Legend: The Rise of Bob Marley, looks at the star in his formative years and puts Marley's life in a wider, historical context. Wall Street Journal editor Christopher John Farley is the author of the book. He spoke with NPR's Farai Chideya.

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

Christopher John Farley, thanks for joining us.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER JOHN FARLEY (Editor, Wall Street Journal; Author, “Before the Legend: The Rise of Bob Marley”): Thanks for having me. Appreciate it.

CHIDEYA: Now, how did the Bob Marley that you kept in your head as a fan and as a music writer change the more interviews that you did. Did you find anything surprising about him and his life?

Mr. FARLEY: Well you know, I grew up as reggae grew up. And so, Marley, and Peter Tosh, and Bunny Wailer, have always been characters in my head, even since I was a kid, since I was born in Kingston, Jamaica. So it was interesting to look into his life and find out who he really was.

And I found out some things that shocked me, because they were things that were in other books, that turned out not to be true. Like you always hear that Marley's father was a white, British ship's captain. As it turns out, he wasn't white; he was a person of color. He wasn't a captain; he was discharged as a private. And he wasn't British; he was born in Jamaica.

But the thing about him that I found, is that he had a very difficult relationship with Rita Marley. And one thing he used to do was, when he had affairs with people outside of his marriage, he sometimes would bring the kids home to Rita and ask her to raise them. Not exactly the basis for a great relationship, but it did make for the basis of a very strong family. And today, all those kids, for the most part, really work well together.

So Stephen, who's one of the kids of Bob and Rita, works together with Damian, who, of course, has become a superstar--and he is one of the--he is the son of Cyndi Breakspear, who was Bob's main mistress.

CHIDEYA: One thing that intrigued me in your book is that sound engineer Tony Platt, who worked with Marley, said that he had the aspect of loneliness that accompanies genius. Now he had band mates, he had a wife, he had girlfriends, and he had children by both his wife and girlfriends. Do you think he was a lonely man?

Mr. FARLEY: I do think in some sense he was lonely, because he was working in such a high level, it was hard for some people to connect with him. I thought it very interesting, that when I talked to Bob Dylan once, about Bob Marley, the two seemed to connect--even though they'd never met. And Bob Marley, in interviews, once said that he thought Bob Dylan's music was very clear. And it's very interesting, because he's one of the few people that thinks that. But somehow, there's that greatness that connects them.

(Soundbite of Bob Marley song)

Mr. MARLEY: (Singing) Everything in life has its purpose. Find its reason in every season. Forever, yes! We'll be forever…

CHIDEYA: Lead us through a little bit of musical history, of how reggae developed, and whether or not hip-hop and reggae are branches of the same tree.

Mr. FARLEY: Well, ska kind of kicked things off in the Caribbean. It was an indigenous musical form with a guitar really also functioning as a rhythm instrument.

(Soundbite of ska music)

Mr. FARLEY: Rocksteady grew out of that.

(Soundbite of rocksteady music)

Unknown Man: (Singing) When first I heard rocksteady, it thrilled me to the bone. When I started rocking steady, you need a baby for your own.

Mr. FARLEY: And reggae was sort of a slower, more melodic form of Ska, developed out of all of that. And that's the form of music that Bob Marley championed.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MARLEY: (Singing) (Unintelligible) get so high, the reason for this (unintelligible). And now that we are (unintelligible) singing. They're singing, what a stimulation. Say it. My (unintelligible). A hungry man is an angry man!

Mr. FARLEY: Reggae also, I think, has connections to hip-hop. A lot of today's hip-hop stars, a lot of the godfathers of hip-hop, actually have roots in the Caribbean. Grandmaster Flash has roots in the Caribbean. DJ Kool Herc, one of the inventors of hip-hop, he also hails from Jamaica.

And Bob Marley came up during the whole sound-system era in Jamaica, where traveling DJs would go down the streets and just toast--which is kind of a precursor to rap--against each other. And spin records, trying to spin records that were better than the other DJ was spinning.

(Soundbite of reggae music)

Mr. FARLEY: So I really think when you talk about the godfathers of hip-hop, you can add Bob Marley to that list. I think he was a spiritual godfather of the form. And today, a lot of rappers pay tribute to him.

CHIDEYA: Let's talk more about the spiritual aspect of Bob Marley. He is known, not only for his incredible musical skill, but also as someone who embodied an essence of spirituality, an essence of Ras Tafari. And what does that really mean? I guess I just have to frame it in the context of U.S. listeners.

Black Americans have never been as robust of a fan base for Bob Marley as white Americans, and there's the derogatory term, trustafarian--you know, a rich, white kid who listens to Bob Marley and smokes a lot of weed. What did Bob Marley think spiritually, or how did his spirit guide him?

Mr. FARLEY: Bob Marley was a Rasta. He believed in its tenets. And some of those tenets include the fact that Haile Selassie, the Emperor of Ethiopia, is divine; the use of marijuana as sacrament; and the belief that Africa is paradise. And that was a direct challenge to the whole colonial mindset.

Bob Marley came up in a time when Jamaica was still being controlled by the British. And to suddenly say, hey, the British way is wrong, the African way is right, was a radical concept that I think energized Jamaican music--and also, I think, helped unite people from the African Diaspora around the world, and influenced musicians around the world.

CHIDEYA: As of late, there've been big-budget films on the lives of music icons Ray Charles and Johnny Cash. Bob Marley's been dead for 25 years, why is there not a movie?

Mr. FARLEY: Well, there's not a movie about Bob Marley because Chris Blackwell, and some others in the Marley camp, don't want it to happen. There's belief on the part of Chris Blackwell, and he's told me this, that no one can really play Bob Marley. And if someone did, and they did it wrong, it would hurt the brand.

They'd rather have Bob Marley remain an underground superstar who everybody knows but that new generations keep rediscovering.

CHIDEYA: Final question for you. Marley died at the age of 36, a generation ago. Finish this sentence for me. If Bob Marley were alive today….

Mr. FARLEY: It's hard for me to finish that sentence, because I think, in a way, Bob Marley really is still alive today. You see all the success that Caribbean artists are having these days, from Sean Paul, at the top of the charts; to Rhianna, at the top of the charts; to Damian Marley, Bob's own son, at the top of the charts. I think Bob Marley is still alive and well in a very symbolic sense. And people that love to have music that means something can still feel his presence.

CHIDEYA: Thank you, Christopher.

Mr. FARLEY: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.

(Soundbite of Bob Marley music)

GORDON: That was NPR's Farai Chideya. You can hear Christopher John Farley read from Before the Legend: The Rise of Bob Marley, and listen to songs by the Marley family, on our website at NPR.org.

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