Monday, May 26, 2014

The Mystery of Bob Marley: Why Didn’t Black Americans Really Get Him?

I've never been one to side with the masses. It's not that I agree wholeheartedly with what Oscar Wilde wrote -- popularity is not necessarily the crown laurel which the world puts on bad art, and whatever is popular is not always wrong, although that's frequently the case -- but just as I tend to root for the underdog, I gravitate toward the under-heralded. With music, this is self-evident in my taste in Bob Marley tunes.

One of the most curious realizations I've had in the last year, since I began revisiting Marley in Rome (thanks to Radio Capital TV's recurrent airing of the "Positive Vibration" video, which would become a key memory of my month in the Italian capital) is that the most iconic Marley songs are the ones that move me the least. They're also the ones that have launched billions of college parties and which I've always associated with beer bongs and frivolity despite their occasional lyrical gravitas. Until Rome, they were the extent of my knowledge of Marley's work, which explains why I was never much of a fan.

It wasn't until I started digging into his discography and discovered non-"hits" like "Talkin' Blues" (from 1974's Natty Dread), "Night Shift" (from 1976's Rastaman Vibration) and "Satisfy My Soul" (from 1978's Kaya) that I stopped taking his genius for granted and began to appreciate his music's hypnotic and addictive properties while succumbing to them, too. (The I Threes, which consisted of Marley's wife, Rita, Marcia Griffiths and Judy Mowatt, may have been the most important '70s back-up singers this distaff side of the Pips.) Now Marley would certainly qualify as one of my Top 20 favorite artists of all-time, a relatively new ranking that has absolutely nothing to do with "Get Up, Stand Up," "Could You Be Loved" or "Three Little Birds."

"Talkin' Blues"

"Night Shift"

"Satisfy My Soul"

Shockingly, none of Marley greatest hits were actually U.S. hits. In the country of my origin, Marley enjoyed strictly modest commercial success during his lifetime. Although Legend, the 1984 posthumous Marley compilation that was released three years after his death from cancer at age 36, went on to become one of the most successful albums of all time, only one of his studio albums, Rastaman Vibration, ever entered the Top 10 on Billboard's Top 200 album chart. Meanwhile, his highest charting U.S. single, "Roots, Rock, Reggae" (from Vibration), hardly one of his best-known songs, peaked at relatively lowly No. 51, which means that one of the most beloved artists in music history, never had a Top 40 hit in the U.S.

Interestingly, in the U.K., where Marley lived for several years in the '70s, he enjoyed considerably more mainstream success, possibly partly because his London base made him more accessible for promotion there. Overall, he's made nine appearances in the Top 10 of the U.K. singles chart, with several more songs reaching the U.K. Top 20. Each of his studio albums from 1976's Rastaman Vibration to 1983's Uprising placed in the U.K. Top 20, with Legend, one of his three Top 5 compilations, soaring all the way to No. 1.

This underscores the appeal of Marley, and of reggae music in general, among white audiences. In fact, I'd go as far as to say that in the United States, Marley's legend is largely due to his popularity among white audiences, especially after the release of Legend, which you'd probably be more likely to hear playing in a club in Buenos Aires (as I have) than at an all-black party in the States. Even during his '70s heyday, black American audiences embraced Marley far less than one might have expected them to embrace a world-renown black artist writing and performing with such an Afrocentric point of view. It was a commercial shortcoming that wasn't lost on Marley and one that troubled him tremendously.

His lack of African-American support has always been perhaps the biggest Marley mystery of all. In the '70s, there were a number of notable black artists -- Bobby Womack, Lou Rawls and Teddy Pendergrass, among them -- who, despite limited crossover success, were enormously popular with black audiences, which translated to considerably higher peaks on the R&B charts than on the pop charts. But from 1976 on, Marley wasn't significantly more successful on the American R&B charts than he was on the Americans pop charts, and in some cases, less so. Legend peaked at No. 18 on the Top 200 album chart but at a mere No. 34 on the R&B album chart, and Rastaman Vibration, his highest-charting effort on both the pop side and the R&B side, peaked on the R&B album chart at No. 11, three notches lower than it did on the Top 200.

Racism and musical segregation during the '70s might have prevented Marley from enjoying greater success in the white American market during his lifetime. His only association with a U.S. No. 1 single was via Eric Clapton's cover of "I Shot the Sheriff" on Clapton's 1974 461 Ocean Boulevard album, and reggae as a genre has historically been a mainstream force in the U.S. mainly through white British reggae-revivalist acts like The Police, Culture Club and UB40, the watered-down reggae of Maxi Priest and Big Mountain, and "Master Blaster (Jammin')," a 1980 Top 5 Marley homage by Stevie Wonder, one of the few black artists who was able to overcome the musical apartheid of the '70s and early '80s and enjoy sustained mainstream pop success.

Meanwhile, I would credit Marley's lackluster commercial standing in black America to the foreignness of his music and performing style (he could be a stunning singer, but his focus wasn't on coloratura and melisma, those vocal pyrotechniques on which black American music lovers tend to place such a high premium), and perhaps, in part, to his Jamaican heritage. Growing up in Kissimmee, Florida, I experienced xenophobia from black Americans firsthand. Despite my having been born in the U.S.A. (in the U.S. Virgin Islands, to be exact), I was ostracized by the black people around whom I grew up because of my strange accent, which they all assumed was from Jamaica. They'd call my family "noisy Jamaicans," which was tantamount to being called the N word by white Americans, while literally throwing stones at our glass house.

When I look at Marley's separate standing with black Americans and white Americans, the latter of whom began to embrace him en masse only after the release of Legend, it makes more sense when I consider my own experience. In South Africa, however, 35 years after his death, Marley's music continues to resonate with black Africans. The Marley soundtrack at Cafe Mojito, a restaurant on Long Street, one of Cape Town's most popular strips among its black and "coloured" population, has been largely responsible for expanding my appreciation of Marley.

I suspect that he was and continues to be beloved by blacks on this continent partly due to his acknowledgment of Africa-specific strife in songs like "War" and "Zimbabwe," a literal Afrocentrism that no doubt spoke to black Africans in the '70s in much the same way that rap and hip hop would to black Americans in the '80s. Emphasizing spirituality and political awareness, Marley was talkin' 'bout a revolution under the influence of ganja (the revolution and/or Marley). His songs of freedom and redemption were, for the most part, quiet and contemplative, with a gentle lilt that contradicted their calling to arms, while rap, with its emphasis on social awareness, made louder, brasher, more in-your-face declarations.

Marley's approach may have seemed too soft for black Americans. Even as they were being galvanized by the likes of Grandmaster Flash, Run-D.M.C. and Public Enemy, reggae continued to fall well below the radar, and sadly, would only reach the black American masses in the '90s and beyond, through the apolitical and considerably less profound work of artists like Shabba Ranks, Shaggy, Mad Cobra and Sean Paul, all of whom fused reggae forms like dancehall and ragga with hip hop and all of whom had bigger singles in the U.S. than Marley ever did. (Despite a brief moment of popularity in the late '80s and a No. 39 single with "Tomorrow People," Marley's eldest son, Ziggy, never achieved even a Julian Lennon level of commercial success.)

That's a shame because it's hard to imagine that rap would have flourished as such a powerful social and political musical art form without the antecedent of Marley (and Wonder and Marvin Gaye), and the influence of reggae can be found all over contemporary pop and R&B, particularly in the work of Rihanna, who, tellingly, is probably a bigger star in white markets than in black ones. "Roots, Rap, Reggae," Run-D.M.C. announced on a song from the rap trio's landmark 1985 King of Rock album. It would be nearly 30 years before I discovered that they lifted that title from Marley's biggest U.S. hit, which means that despite the apparent under-appreciation of Marley's music among black Americans, some of us were truly listening.

Now so am I, and I'm finding it impossible to stop, which is one thing about Marley that's no mystery at all.
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