Fans Mark Marley’s Birthday In Jamaica

Hundreds of tourists joined dreadlocked Rastafarian priests, leading reggae musicians and some of Bob Marley’s relatives at the late reggae icon’s old house in Jamaica to mark the 68th anniversary of his birth Wednesday.

Photo: David McFadden/AP
A Rastafarian priest leads a chant during the celebration of reggae music icon Bob Marley's 68th birthday in Jamaica,

Since his death from cancer in 1981 at age 36, Marley has become more than Jamaica’s most famous musical export. The trailblazing reggae songwriter’s message of unity and respect for human rights remains a beacon of hope for some in this Caribbean nation chronically struggling with a sputtering economy and high rates of violence.

“It’s the same struggle now as when he was alive. So his music, when you hear it, it’s like he’s singing today even though he died some 30 odd years ago,” said Mutabaruka, a famed dub poet who attended the celebration along with reggae singers like Sizzla Kalonji.

In the early morning light, some of Marley’s relations and old friends danced and chanted to the pounding of Rastafarian drums in the yard of his Kingston home, which is now a family-run museum displaying his guitar, clothing and other memorabilia. Later in the day, Marley’s songs were blasted from big speakers as people danced and chatted amid clouds of marijuana smoke.

Donisha Prendergast, a documentary filmmaker and artist who is Marley’s eldest granddaughter, said her grandfather’s message of “one love” and social revolution remains alive and well. But she said more Jamaicans need to heed it.

“I don’t think most people here are really hearing it, you know? They know that his music is around and they are proud of it, but they don’t live it. Because if they did, then we would be a stronger people, we would be stronger characters,” Prendergast said.

The Caribbean country has struggled the last 40 years, due in large part to political mismanagement by the two main political parties. Good jobs are scarce, the local currency is sliding and the government is so swamped with debt that about half of the budget goes to loan payments.

There were 1,087 slayings last year, which was touted as the lowest number of killings in nine years on the island of about 2.8 million people. When Chicago, with roughly the same population, chalked up 506 homicides last year, the bloodshed put the city at the center of the U.S. debate over guns.

On Wednesday, Culture Minister Lisa Hanna encouraged Jamaicans to listen to Marley’s lyrics, saying they called for Jamaicans to create a “more wholesome, caring, peaceful and progressive society.”

Most young people in Jamaica listen to the brash reggae-rap hybrid of dancehall, but there is a new generation of music lovers who have turned to Marley’s albums.

“Bob Marley’s music is definitely inspirational to listen to,” said Marlene Haughton, an unemployed 20-year-old who enthusiastically sang along with Marley’s “Trenchtown Rock,” whose lyrics say: “One good thing about music, when it hits you feel no pain.”

Marley’s popularity remains strong around the globe, and his music continues to sell steadily. A long-in-the-works documentary about his life was released last year.

Some of Marley’s foreign fans journeyed to the Kingston museum to take part in Wednesday’s festivities.

Photo: David McFadden/AP
During the celebration of Marley's 68th birthday in the yard of his Kingston home, in Jamaica.

A dreadlocked Japanese man who goes by the name of Bongho Jatusy smoked a long wooden pipe stuffed with marijuana and nodded his head to the music.

“Bob Marley, he’s universal,” Jatusy said, watching his dreadlocked children playing nearby.