The Gleaner: KINGSTON, Jamaica – The long-awaited Bob Marley biopic One Love highlights important moments in the musician’s life – his adolescence in Trench Town, his spiritual growth, the attempt on his life. Marley died in 1981 at the age of 36. He’d achieved a level of mainstream success unrivalled by other reggae acts, and he did so while challenging global capitalism and speaking to the oppressed. Now you can buy Bob Marley backpacks, Bob Marley jigsaw puzzles – even Bob Marley flip-flops.

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 US and has spent more than 800 non-consecutive 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 US$50 million to buy a share of Marley’s publishing catalogue 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 polarising electronic mashup Legend Remixed (2013); Easy Skanking in Boston ’78 (2015); and 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.

It achieved this by prioritising songs centred on themes of love and peace, rather than those about Marley’s revolutionary Afrocentric politics and Rastafarian world-view, 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 artiste. 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 US$16 million in earnings also comes from merchandising. 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.

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. One notes the irony of the private equity firm calling itself ‘Privateer’. Privateers were commissioned ships involved in plundering and murder across the Caribbean during enslavement and would be among the “old pirates” Marley sang about in his mournful Redemption Song.

The artiste’s popular songs and lyrics have also been adopted as marketing tools. 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 DriverConcrete Jungle and 400 Years connect the poverty of the present to the injustices of the past. There is also Marley-themed hot sauce.

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. The fact that people so eagerly buy products with Marley’s face and words reflects the profound connection he continues to have with his listeners.