In his song “Bad Card”, Bob Marley boasted, “dem a go tired fi see mi face”. Of course, this mocking threat did not mean that Marley was going to be tired of his own popularity. The very opposite! Like many a Jamaican star boy, Bob was throwing words, tauntingly declaring the longevity of not only his image but, more importantly, his mission: “Can’t get mi out of the race”. Marley was predicting that his legacy would endure.
Bob’s ironic prophecy has certainly been fulfilled. Seventy years after his birth, the power of the mass media – both old and new – has magnified Marley’s image incalculably. Album covers, calendars, billboards, teeshirts, coins, stamps, luxurious coffee table books and documentaries all portray the many faces of Bob Marley: sensual, mystical, playful, contemplative, withdrawn, angry, spirit dancer, freedom fighter, duppy conqueror!
The Bob Marley Estate cannot possibly police the use of the reggae icon’s image across the globe without retaining a veritable army of intellectual property lawyers. In any case, the Estate is itself efficiently exploiting Marley’s image. Late last year, it was announced that the Tuff Gong was going to be the face of a new international ganja brand. The story was carried widely in the international media.
A November 14, 2014 article, posted on the BBC’s Latin America and Caribbean website, reported that: “The family of the late Jamaican reggae artist, Bob Marley has launched what they describe as the world’s first global cannabis brand. It will be called Marley Natural and be used to sell cannabis-infused lotions, creams and various accessories.
“The new brand is being developed with Privateer Holdings based in Washington state, stressing the life and legacy of Jamaica’s greatest cultural export”. I couldn’t help remembering that a privateer is “an armed ship owned and officered by private individuals holding a government commission and authorized for use in war, especially in the capture of enemy merchant shipping.”
In a flash of uncensored free association, the opening lines of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” came to me subversively: “Old pirates yes they rob I/ Sold I to the merchant ships”. But I don’t suppose the Marley Estate would appreciate this mischievous irony.
According to that BBC article, “Bob Marley’s daughter, Cedella Marley said her father would welcome the move. ‘My dad would be so happy to see people understanding the healing power of the herb’”. Not quite the same as exploiting Marley’s image, I don’t think.
JAMAICA IN MEXICO
Last month, a major exhibition of Bob Marley posters opened in Mexico City. The venue was not a conventional art gallery. It was the Jamaica metro station, one of the busiest in the system with over a million commuters every day. The posters were selected from the collection of Marley entries in the International Reggae Poster Contest (IRPC), co-organised by the Jamaican graphic artist Michael ‘Freestylee’ Thompson and the Greek graphic designer Maria Papaefstathiou.
Since its inception in 2012, the IRPC has become a powerful visual medium for the spread of Jamaican popular culture. It has inspired graphic artists from across the world to create vibrant images that leap across sensory boundaries: reggae music from sound to sight.
The vivid posters are both global and local. All the artists pay tribute to the Jamaican roots of reggae music. But they also acknowledge the far-reaching branches of ‘roots’ culture. They imagine the story of reggae in new ways that display their own cultural values and aesthetic practices.
Bob Marley has been a favourite subject in all three years of the contest. He is the single most popular image. Of course, there is Marley’s endlessly reinterpreted face. But other posters use the singer’s words and related images.
In the 2012 contest, there were 9 Bob Marley posters in the top 100 entries. In 2013 there were 14; and in 2014, there were 23. The figures for the other 900 or so posters each year were not easily retrievable. But the numbers don’t tell the whole story.
REGGAE IN PORTUGUESE PRISONS
Bob Marley’s global appeal is beautifully illustrated in this report on the Contest’s website: “In 2014, the IRPC received an email from the General Directorate of Rehabilitation and Prison Services of the Ministry of Justice of Portugal (http://www.dgsp.mj.pt), communicating their interest in participating in the 2014 International Reggae Poster Contest. . . .
“The IRPC was delighted to support the Directorate in this creative mission in the area of cultural and artistic activities, and to implement this as an instrument of prison rehabilitation. . . . All eight prisons were encouraged to participate in the contest: A total of 20 posters were designed and submitted by 26 inmates. . . .
“‘Many of the prisoners are reggae enthusiasts,’ says the director of one of the prisons. He also stated, ‘The music of Bob Marley is favored highly among the prisoners in the institutions. They see the message from Bob as a message of hope and inspiration to help them while they are incarcerated’”.
Bob Marley has given the world an everlasting legacy of rebellious creativity. Visual artists will never get tired of imprinting on his face their brilliant interpretations of his life and legacy. Dem naa go draw no bad card. Rogério-Araujo