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From rebel to retail − inside Bob Marley’s posthumous musical and merchandising empire

How did a musician whose songs were suffused with messages of anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism become so commercialized?

Bob Marley performs at a ‘Viva Zimbabwe’ independence celebration in April 1980. William F. Campbell/Getty Images

The long-awaited Bob Marley biopic “One Love” will highlight important moments in the musician’s life – his adolescence in Trench Town, his spiritual growth, the attempt on his life. But as a music industry scholar, I wonder if the film is yet another extension of the Marley marketing machine.

Marley died in 1981 at the age of 36. He’d achieved a level of mainstream success unrivaled by other reggae acts, and he did so while challenging global capitalism and speaking to the oppressed.

This image, however, is fundamentally at odds with what has happened to Marley’s name and likeness since his death.

Now you can buy Bob Marley backpacks, Bob Marley jigsaw puzzles – even Bob Marley flip-flops.

The trailer for ‘One Love.’

The accusation of “selling out” could once seriously threaten an artist’s credibility; the insult wields far less power in an era when an artist’s survival often depends on sponsorship and licensing deals. Meanwhile, a deceased artist’s ongoing earnings are left in the hands of others.

Nonetheless, when a musician as revered as Marley – and whose songs were suffused with messages of liberation, anti-imperalism and anti-capitalism – becomes so commercialized, it’s worth wondering how this happened and whether it threatens his artistic legacy.

On and off the record

In its 2023 list of highest-paid dead celebrities, Forbes placed Marley in the ninth slot, right behind former Beatles front man John Lennon. According to the publication, Marley earned US$16 million – or rather, his estate did.

Marley’s business affairs are now controlled by family members – the estate – who have made deals with various merchandising and marketing partners, with all parties sharing in the profits. The commercial power of Bob Marley’s name generates the royalties earned by the estate, though precise percentages are not publicly available.

One posthumous musical release, in particular, has been a gold mine: Marley’s “Legend” compilation album.

Released in 1984 and featuring mainstays like “Could You Be Loved” and “Three Little Birds,” it’s the most successful reggae album of all time. It has sold over 15 million copies in the U.S and has spent more than 800 nonconsecutive weeks on the Billboard 200. Collectively, its tracks have accounted for well over 4 billion Spotify streams, and its phenomenal success is a key reason that the private music publishing company Primary Wave, which is backed by investors such as BlackRock, spent over $50 million to buy a share of Marley’s publishing catalog in 2018.

A series of other albums have been released after Marley’s death. These include “Natural Mystic” (1995); the pop and hip-hop crossover “Chant Down Babylon” (1999); “Africa Unite” (2005); “Uprising Live!” (2014), which features his final concert appearance; the polarizing electronic mashup “Legend Remixed” (2013); “Easy Skanking in Boston ’78” (2015); and the curious “Bob Marley & the Chineke! Orchestra” (2022).

The “Legend” album has earned more than these later releases combined. But the material absent from that record speaks volumes.

In his 2022 autobiography, Chris Blackwell, the former head of Island Records, the label that brought Marley’s music to mainstream listeners, revealed that “Legend” had been carefully tailored for white mainstream audiences.

‘Legend’ is the most successful reggae album of all time.
Bob Berg/Getty Images

It achieved this by prioritizing songs centered on themes of love and peace, rather than those about Marley’s revolutionary Afrocentric politics and Rastafarian worldview, which appear on records such as 1979’s “Survival.”

On that album’s second track, “Zimbabwe,” Marley commends the country’s freedom fighters in their battle against the oppressive Rhodesian regime, declaring, “Every man got a right to decide his own destiny”; he rails against the forces of exploitation and division in “Top Rankin’” and “Babylon System”; in “Survival,” he hails the African world’s “hopes and dreams” and “ways and means”; and “Wake Up and Live” is a clarion call to spiritual and political awakening.

These tracks don’t appear on “Legend.” In fact, none of the tracks from “Survival” do.

And so four decades after his death, Bob Marley remains the world’s top reggae artist. But it’s his lighter, less controversial fare that’s established him as a global superstar.

Merchandising a mystic

In an era of minuscule music royalties, a large portion of that $16 million in earnings also comes from merchandising, which has further watered down Marley’s revolutionary politics and spiritualism.

Thanks to what two writers called “the Disneyfication of all matters Marley,” you can now buy Bob Marley-themed coffee, ice cream and body wash. There’s sustainably sourced, Bob Marley-branded audio equipment, in addition to a line of Bob Marley skateboard decks.

Marley-branded nicotine vape cartridges are displayed next to Snoop Dogg vape cartridges at the 2022 Vaper Expo in Birmingham, England.
John Keeble/Getty Images

The cannabis brand Marley Natural shows how the Marley name has become commercially intertwined with corporate America.

It’s funded by the American private equity company Privateer Holdings, which the Marley family had approached to gauge their interest in collaboration for the product’s release. The creators of the Starbucks logo were hired to design the logo for Marley Natural, further underlining the venture’s commercial ties.

Aside from the obvious fact that these associations pay no heed to Bob Marley’s anti-capitalist messages, I find it bitterly ironic that the private equity firm calls itself “Privateer.” Privateers were commissioned ships involved in plundering and murder across the Caribbean. They are among the “old pirates” Marley sang about in his mournful “Redemption Song.”

While the Marley family claims that Bob would have approved of the cannabis enterprise, critics see indiscriminate mass-marketing.

The artist’s popular songs and lyrics have also been adopted as marketing tools to sell products that bear little relation to Marley’s music and message.

In 2001, his daughter Cedella, who runs parts of the estate, released a fashion line called Catch a Fire. The name comes from the Wailers’ first international album, which the group released in 1973. On it, tracks like “Slave Driver,” “Concrete Jungle” and “400 Years” connect the poverty of the present to the injustices of the past.

Can T-shirts and other apparel help spread these messages? Perhaps.

But it’s hard to argue that Marley-themed hot sauce does.

The reel situation of ‘One Love’

Critiquing any aspect of Bob Marley’s legacy can elicit defensive responses. The estate has long portrayed the rampant commercialization of the Marley name and image as an important way to sustain and spread the artist’s ideals.

However, I think it’s important to ensure that the artistic and cultural values embedded in his music do not become clouded in a haze of rampant commercialization.

While many of the commercial enterprises tied to his name reportedly raise money for Jamaican youth, I’d hesitate to say that this serves as a complete counterbalance to the erosion of Marley’s messages.

The “One Love” movie backed by Paramount Pictures – with four Marleys listed as producers – will certainly extend the mythologies and harsh realities of Bob Marley’s all-too-brief life, which was cut short by melanoma. But it’s also a massive international marketing vehicle for the sale of even more officially branded merchandise.

On the one hand, the fact that people so eagerly buy products plastered with Marley’s face and words reflects the profound connection he continues to have with his listeners. But on the other hand, it’s difficult squaring Marley – a symbol of post-colonialism and anti-capitalism – with branding collaborations and private equity firms.

His music means so much more. And his anti-imperialist messages, as warmongers threaten basic human rights around the world, are perhaps needed now more than ever.

Mike Alleyne does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.



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